It was a Wednesday early morning when I drove to Dubai Design District (d3) to meet Ibrahim Al Mallouhi after several attempts to set a meeting in Abu Dhabi, as both our schedules were preoccupied to fit one in. I did not hesitate to drive the 120km to arrive earlier than expected. I walked around d3 exploring this popular art and design hub , settling finally at The Espresso Lab to have my dose of ‘espresso with milk’ and watching the passersby as the day rolled. Ibrahim showed up minutes after, with his signature -The Espresso Lab branded- t-shirt and genuine smile. He sat across and started to share his journey of turning his dream into reality. His eyes sparkled with passion as the words came out of his mouth, proud of his achievement in being one of UAE’s specialty coffee connoisseurs.
“It was challenging to know what my own business would look like. At times where people recommended to go mainstream rather that encouraging me to be an entrepreneur. To graduate with a degree and work in a job that will provide stability and security. The key point was: where and how to start?” says Ibrahim. Dating back to 1988, as a child Ibrahim was fond of watching his grandmotherroasting green coffee beans over open flames. The aroma filled the space as the beans were roasted, cooled down, ground and brewed for several hours with a mix of spices. What is called Arabic coffee is traditionally served to guests and family members as a welcome drink, usually accompanied by sweet dates that complements the flavorful brewed beverage. The aroma of the Arabic coffee hovered in Ibrahim’s memory leaving a passion that landed years later in 2006 when Ibrahim discovered speciality coffee in New York City. The taste and the distinguished character of the coffee were Ibrahim’s starting point for an excessive research and learning process about speciality coffee. Throughout his university years and his job as VP Security Information at one of UAE’s telecommunication giants, Ibrahim only put his passion aside to pursue it at the right time, at the right place.
(إن الله يحب إن عمل أحدكم عملاً أن يتقنه)
(Allah loves someone who when works, he performs it in perfect manner)
Holding the prophet’s hadeeth in his heart, and setting a goal to be one of the first pioneers in specialty coffee in UAE, Ibrahim started his journey to polish his skills and sharpen his knowledge about the world of coffee and business. “I started taking baby steps towards achieving my goal. Aligned with the Executive Masters MBA in Leadership and Entrepreneurship at CASS Business School in London, I continued enriching my
coffee knowledge and research through various channels,” adds Ibrahim. This dedication to achieving his dream was projected through his Twitter and Instagram profiles. “Back in 2008, when the experience at FIKA Coffee House NYC was one of a kind, I could envision what my dream would be like years later,” he continues. Until the first ‘The Espresso Lab’ opened its doors in Jumeirah 1 in May 2015, Ibrahim was focused on growing his learning curve about specialty coffee. “Aiming towards perfection, it was important to acquire the adequate coffee knowledge. I learnt essential techniques from touring the world and visiting coffee farms, meeting farmers and master roasters and brewers to grasp as much as possible from the pioneers in their field,” says Ibrahim. Two road trips to visit coffee houses in the US, a trip to Spain to study coffee culture, a SCA certification from the United Kingdom and trips to coffee bean farms in Vietnam and Ethiopia were the start to Ibrahim’s continuous coffee education.
Despite the challenges that faced Ibrahim in running his first coffee place in Jumeirah, he was determined to build his brand and a database of loyal customers. “In order to grow the seed for my brand, I was flexible to adapt my business requirements to maintain the win-win mutual agreement with my business partner,” Ibrahim comments.
The light at the end of the tunnel was finally at its brightest when the management of d3 approached Ibrahim in 2016 to establish The Espresso Lab flagship store. Though unexpected, the invitation was just at the right time. “Planning the store was intense. Everything was studied carefully and redesigned to fit the new location; the interiors, the menu, the service, and customer experience.” October 2017, d3’s The Espresso Lab opened its doors to serve Ibrahim’s passion and to set milestone for the future of speciality coffee in UAE.
The approach in the newly opened flagship store took a totally different turn from the one that was implemented in the previous outlet, a hidden gem as Ibrahim referred. “It was a unique small place that served quality coffee. The customers base was -and still- unique. Building customer relations is our main focus. We had to change the way we interacted with the guests while not compromising this relationship,” comments Ibrahim. “We used to explain the coffee notes for our customers individually and
recommend the best match according to their preference. At d3, a more active environment, we managed our recourses to better serve the customers in areas of product knowledge, flow of service and adequate waiting and serving times. The coffee origins and the notes are now part of our menu for the customer to study and choose from. The Espresso Lab baristas are always ready to help and direct you to choose the perfect coffee to match your taste.” It took a lot of effort from Ibrahim and his team to shift the customers’ behavior towards the new approach. Focused on his coffee and expanding his brand, Ibrahim was faced yet with another challenge. “Business in the UAE -and the Middle East- is very personal, customers are not only loyal because of the product you offer, but because of the personal relationships they develop with the owner and the individuals behind the counter. It was a concern that my absence would affect the business. During the early stages of the opening, I made sure I was present where possible in order to retain The Espresso Lab customers. All other times I would be working on the development of the brand, exploring new coffee origins and enriching my knowledge to better provide my customers with a unique coffee experience,” explains Ibrahim.
Growing beyond d3!
It was a delight when Ibrahim was approached to establish a flagship store in Abu Dhabi. “The location was still under construction. The developers approached me to choose an outlet of the blueprints at that time. For their surprise, my choice was a location that every other vendor rejected. It was puzzling for them, though in my opinion, that was the perfect location to suit the Abu Dhabi store,” says Ibrahim. Nestled in the busy hub of Abu Dhabi center is a serene area that represents the past, present and the future of Abu Dhabi. There is the old fort of Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi’s very own Cultural Foundation and House of Artisans. A new geometric structure was build adjacent to the Cultural Foundation with an artificial Lake and several outlets overlooking the city center. Here, Ibrahim found an opportunity to deliver his brand to Abu Dhabi, in a unique location that holds meaning to the nationals, residents and tourists alike. “It was the perfect location to introduce The Espresso Lab coffee to Abu Dhabi. The place is unique, with a history of dedication and ambition. Both its values and vision are represented in every single espresso cup we brew at The Lab,” adds Ibrahim with a tone of pride his voice.
The Espresso Lab would not have been a success if not for the hard work and effort that Ibrahim invests in every detail of his business. “From the beginning of the journey, we have been importing green coffee beans and roasting them in-house. As important as the source of the bean is, roasting is essential as it affects the intensity, flavor and aromas of the coffee. This has been done through various channels, though I am glad to say that The Espresso Lab Roastery is a project that I have worked on. It will see the light in the very near future marking yet another milestone!” says Ibrahim excitedly. At TEL Roastery, the roast masters will prepare coffee batches for the two The Espresso Lab outlets in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “The Roastery will be venturing in producing specific roasts to be served in various location around the UAE where The Espresso Lab is not present; Sharjah, Ajman, Al Ain among other locations.” The selected coffee shops to serve the delicate coffee will be chosen carefully by Ibrahim and his team ensuring a perfect match against a preset criteria. Our coffee beans are sourced from various specialty farms from around the world. We have single coffee origins from Microlot farms in Rawanda, Malawi, Honduras, Burundi, Colombia and Brazil. With every visit, I enrich my knowledge about coffee by meeting farmers and masters roasters/brewers. This has enabled me to be part of speciality coffee community around the world while having access to highly sought after beans available only ‘by invitation’,” explains Ibrahim. “As we continue to grow, the environmental concerns and sustainability are determined factors in choosing the right coffee bean farm. From the coffee we serve to the biodegradable to-go coffee cups we use, it is our duty to maintain a green and ethical impact towards the environment the communities we sources our coffee beans from.”
I finish my cup of the Colombian brewed coffee Ibrahim invited me to share with him, thank him for his time and looking forward to return back for more of his coffee, in d3 and ultimately in Abu Dhabi!
Pictures courtesy of Ibrahim Al Mallouhi & The Espresso Lab