ALYZA: Talk about the beginning of Alakef… we know why you started, but what was all involved?
NESSIM: Well, I think we were at the beginning of this whole coffee craze, but then again we came here and I wanted some good coffee, and mom bought me a small little roaster so I could roast my own coffee myself. When we eventually decided to start the business, we had to buy a machine, but we didn’t have any money, so we put it on our credit card. Our next step was to find a place to put the machine. We found the old Salter School building on London road and spoke to the owner. He let us utilize some space in the basement for a ‘just pennies’. We installed the machine ourselves and the exhaust went out the window, (laughing) and the coffee chaff (husk from the coffee bean) would be flying out the window and people in the neighborhood would find it all over the place. We had very little space. We didn’t even have an office there at the time, the office was at home.
DEBORAH: After my job, I would get you to bed, because you were in kindergarten, and then I would do all the Alakef accounting at home, by hand, we didn’t even have a computer then.
NESSIM: We bought the first cell phone – one of those old brick cell phones, (addressing Deborah) you remember those old cell phones? And mom would call me with the orders. I would be in the basement, she would go home check the orders on the machine, and then she would call me because there was no phone in that basement, we just had the cellphone and i would roast the amount of the coffee based on the orders, and then at home mom would type the invoices and I would deliver the coffee, and that was it. It was basically a one man show!
Obviously, we needed to buy coffee too. But, again, we didn’t have any money. So we went to the bank, and we asked them for a $20,000 loan, and they said, “What guarantee do you have to give us?” and I would say, “Well, I’ll give you my house and whatever else we own,” So they said, “Ok.” And we mortgaged our home and they gave us the loan. We used the $20,000 loan to buy coffee and other machines we needed like sealers and grinders. We also had to bring the coffee from the West Coast, because, at that time, there was nobody importing coffee in Minnesota. Essentially, we built this whole business based on just a few connections.
ALYZA: So, after all of that, What were the first few years like? Did it go on like that for a while?
DEBORAH: It went on like that for at least two years.
NESSIM: The first few years I had to go and find business. I started going around town to the grocery stores and talking to managers saying, “We’re this new company in town, try it!” And, people were really nice and receptive. The first grocery stores that helped us, would give me some space, a four foot section, and I would have to go around and take the orders myself. The goal the first few years was to really grow the business and get to a point where we could start to hire people.
DEBORAH: I finally quit my job.
NESSIM: We had one student who would help us at the beginning, he was packing the coffee while I was roasting it, and Deborah would be making the invoices, and slowly we started to get more people in town, more grocery stores, and we needed more space. So, we started taking more space in the basement of the Salter School building. What really started helping us to grow, was when we started getting business in Minneapolis.
DEBORAH: And Kathy, from Ginkgo’s, was our very first coffee house. In 1993.
NESSIM: Yes, Kathy was really the first coffee house to call us and say, “We heard about you in Duluth”. Java Moose in Grand Marais was right behind her, the original owners, Lisa and Marty reached out to use our coffee. More and more people started calling us, so we needed to hire a full-time sales representative. We brought on Andy about 4 – 5 years after we started. Andy introduced us to Espresso Midwest. This was a good combination of work because these guys would say, “We’re interested in selling machines. You sell coffee.” So, we were really able to help each other in those early days.
ALYZA: When you first started, what was the vision?
DEBORAH: To survive! Really! To make a living…
NESSIM: The vision was to succeed. It was the beginning of the specialty coffee boom. The first thing that really took off for us was when we attended Coffee Fest, in Minneapolis, with Espresso Midwest. People would flock to the booth looking to purchase coffee machines, and they needed coffee for their machines, so the representatives from Espresso Midwest would come over and say, “This is the best coffee for your machines.”
ALYZA: Tell me about the name, Alakef, where did that come from?
NESSIM: Well, we came up with a bunch of different stuff…
DEBORAH: But we came up with Alakef because it had a lot of meaning to us, because we lived in Israel and that’s where we met.
ALYZA: Do you remember some of the other names that you came up with?
DEBORAH: North Country Roasters, Lakewood Coffee… I can’t remember all of them, but it had a lot to do with the Northern theme, but then we thought it might be too limiting…but, now maybe it would have been a good idea!
NESSIM: I remember some of them were around the Lake.
DEBORAH: Maybe it would have been good to go that way and brand ourselves like that, but at the time, people in Minneapolis didn’t want coffee from Duluth.
NESSIM: You know it was interesting, because when I went to people in Duluth to buy coffee, people only wanted to order from the West Coast, because they thought that coffee was the best, and nothing in Duluth was going to be as good.
ALYZA: So, when Kathy, and these other people did start finally reaching out to you, what do you think it was that set you apart from your competitors early on?
NESSIM: To be in Duluth early on! Haha. They would say, “Wow, where are you? Duluth?” No one else was in Duluth, really, doing what we were doing, so there wasn’t any competition in Duluth, so it was a perfect place to start for us.
DEBORAH: I think the real difference was our quality, I really do, and Nessim’s method of roasting. People would taste our coffee, and they would love it.
NESSIM: (laughing) I’m not from the North Country, so I tried to bring something different. Even on the West Coast, they were roasting things very dark, and sometimes burning it, because sometimes the quality wouldn’t be as good, so they would have to basically burn it to create flavor, but I would say, “I don’t think it has to be roasted that dark.” We were bringing a different roast profile than our competitors.
ALYZA: So, do you think it made a difference that you were sourcing really high quality coffee?
DEBORAH: We were sourcing really high quality coffee, and when people did taste tests between our competitors and us, they went with us. It wasn’t that we were in Duluth, they liked our quality.
NESSIM: We had to introduce ourselves and educate a lot of people about specialty coffee. We really took the time with every customer to really nail down what it all meant. And I think it made the difference, because people who were still selling commercial coffee at the time, it didn’t matter, it was just a commodity product, they didn’t think it needed to be different. I would go to these people who owned restaurants, and they would say, “Oh, well this guy sells me coffee, and it’s fine,” and I would say to them, “Well, why would you go and spend all this time to get all of these ingredients for your food? Coffee has to also be considered one of your ingredients.”
ALYZA: What is one of your favorite memories from the early years?
NESSIM: It was exciting to grow a business from scratch. It was exciting to see how we were moving along, and how we were accepted, and people were helping us because we were new. It was like an adventure, starting something brand new. But being one of the first to start something new in this area, that was exciting for us.
DEBORAH: I think it was also the friendships we started with our customers […] they were like family, some of them.
NESSIM: Well we were meeting all of these new people, and everyone was so receptive of what we were doing. That was exciting. Because starting the business wasn’t easy. People would say, “You know, are you sure you want to do this, you’re already in your 40’s?!” But, we thought we had something special when we started this business and needed to prove that to ourselves. It was hard, it was a lot of work, but the feedback was very positive, so that was encouraging. It really validated all of the hard work we had put in.
ALYZA: What, if anything, do you miss most about running Alakef?
NESSIM: The roasting, our customers, the people we were buying our coffee from… the support we had from all our vendors. Roasting for me was really exciting…having direct contact with the product itself. It’s something unique, there’s nothing that’s really comparable to this experience, and I miss that.
ALYZA: What did you learn while working in the business?
DEBORAH: I mean, what didn’t we learn?! You know? I had to learn accounting, I had to learn about coffee…
NESSIM: We started from scratch. I didn’t know anything about roasting, about buying coffee. All that stuff, I learned as I went. One day at a time. We were brand new to this business. It’s not like my family was doing this for generations, so we had to learn everything.
ALYZA: Do you still keep an eye on the industry? If so, what changes are you seeing?
NESSIM: On and off. I know that the coffee business is still a growing and booming business, and I think it’s exciting to see what’s happening with the people who are in this business. Coffee is something that’s not going anywhere, it’s something that will be here for a long time, I’m sure. Even when we travel, we meet people in the coffee business. For example, when we went back to Nice, we met some people who were coffee roasters, just because we were also coffee roasters. In Ecuador, we walked into a store where the people were roasting coffee, and started chatting with them because of our shared passion. In Thailand, we visited a coffee farm. This is a business that will open its doors for you anywhere in the world. It’s such an amazing community.
DEBORAH: We met people in Corsica, everywhere we go, we meet someone because of this business.
ALYZA: What was it like watching me take ownership?
NESSIM: Well, we had doubts, to be honest, we didn’t know how it would be for you taking over the business.
DEBORAH: It was scary!
NESSIM: You were not necessarily in the business as long as we were, but you did well. You worked at it, you put all your efforts into trying to understand the business, and that’s a positive.
ALYZA: How do you feel about City Girl and the direction I’ve taken Alakef in?
NESSIM: It’s exciting. At some point, we didn’t know if we needed to create a second line, or if Alakef was going to be enough for itself. But, it was a good idea. At first, we didn’t know if it would. In the long haul you’re creating a line that people really identify with. It’s nice for a company to keep growing in a whole new area. Alakef needed some new blood, and City Girl was the new blood that this company needed.
ALYZA: How has it been becoming Grandparents?
DEBORAH: That’s the best
NESSIM: There’s nothing like it. We’re lucky we’re in such good health, and we’re so lucky to be here with him.
ALYZA: Do you hope one day Landon will take over this business?
DEBORAH: That would be cool
NESSIM: That would be exciting… I was telling our neighbors yesterday, “Well, I’m sure he’ll be roasting coffee in no time!” Who knows, if you take him up there, and he sees it, and he likes it, then who knows? It would be exciting though!
ALYZA: What do you wish for the business for the next 30 years?
NESSIM: Well, to still be growing, to still be there. To keep good employees. To stay in the forefront of this industry. Competition can be really fierce, so to keep coming up with new and good ideas.
DEBORAH: Staying in the forefront. Being a leader in the industry.
NESSIM: Staying afloat in this world is tough. There are so many competitors. So it’s important to stay on top of where this industry is going to go. My fear is to see problems with growing countries. You know, the coffee business will be good, people will continue to consume coffee, but will there be good coffees to have 30 years from now? I hope. Because if people stop growing coffee for environmental reasons or because there are problems with the way the crop is coming, then the business might be going somewhere else. That’s where you really have to be focused. You have to think about how the growers and the farmers can continue to be out there growing good coffee. There’s so much going on in the coffee industry, and we need to be out there making sure the coffee farmers are making good profits also, because that’s where it starts.
DEBORAH: I think that you’re starting by doing the right thing and paying more to the farmers with City Girl, so you can stay in business for another 30 years.
NESSIM: I also think choosing the right partners, importers and growers will be key. Because growing the business isn’t going to be a problem, people will continue to drink coffee, but always making sure you have good coffee to source, so you can continue to always roast a quality product, that’s the biggest wish for the business.