ST. PETERSBURG — Raw coffee beans are to Raphael Perrier what grapes are to a winemaker.
The coffee bean roasting process is a lot like wine making, according to the co-founder of local chain Kahwa Coffee. The aging process is much shorter — mere days, not years — but just as thoughtfully orchestrated to create the right flavors, he said.
With a massive coffee roaster rattling behind him, Perrier pried the lid off a large plastic bin, revealing thousands of dark beans. They were “resting,” he said.
“A lot of people think the best a coffee will taste is with beans that are just out of the roaster,” said Perrier.
“But you want to give it between 24 and 72 hours," he said, scooping up a handful of espresso beans that gleamed from hints of oil.
Raphael Perrier and his wife, Sarah Perrier, founded Kahwa when Starbucks was firming itself up as the world’s dominate coffee chain. By 2005, the Seattle chain had more than 10,000 locations.
That same year, the Perriers began their own scrappy operation. Fifteen years later, the couple is still riding on caffeine, tweaking their blends and growing as a leading roaster in Florida.
They even have four new stores in the works, cementing Kahwa as the area’s largest independent chain of coffee shops.
In the center of Kahwa’s warehouse at 3070 44th Ave N last week, dozens of plastic tubs full of coffee beans sat ready to be distributed around town and beyond. Some of the beans would be ground up and packaged in serving sizes for the 850 hotels — as far away as Utah and the Turks and Caicos Islands — that offer Kahwa to their guests. Most would remain as whole beans, either to be packaged in bags sold on shelves or ground fresh at one of 15 local coffee shops.
Raphael and Sarah opened the first Kahwa Coffee shop in St. Petersburg in 2008. The two started earlier as coffee wholesalers, but Raphael had a history as a barista. They chose the name Kahwa because it’s similar to coffee’s Arabic name, qawah, and because coffee was first discovered in the Kaffa area of Ethiopia more than 1,000 years ago.
They’ve kept up with shoppers’ tastes by stepping into the canned coffee market with nitro and cold brew. The market exploded and is expected to continue growing.
But Kahwa’s bread and butter is its signature roasts.
“We focus more on blends, not single-origin coffee,” Raphael said during a tour of the warehouse and headquarters.
It’s a science to get the combination of sweetness, acidity and bitterness just right. Kahwa’s blends combine beans from around the world to create their custom flavors.
The Perriers have grown their business alongside American’s ever-growing thirst for coffee. In 2017, about $2.6 billion in liquid coffee was sold — $1 billion more than was solid in 2013, according to market data compiled by Statista. In that same period, dry coffee bean sales also grew by about $1 billion, to roughly $9.4 billion in 2017.
Since its start as a two-person operation, Kahwa has more than tripled its warehouse space. The Perriers opened their current nearly 20,000-square-foot space about a year ago. They now have more than 200 employees. They’ve added a second roaster that prepares about 132 pounds of coffee per load. In total, their team roasts about about 7,000 pounds of coffee beans per week.
“I remember early, driving around doing deliveries thinking, ‘if I could be in Publix, sell on HSN and be at the Rays’ stadium,'" Raphael Perrier said, trailing off. “Now I can say done, done and done.”
Publix cafes use Kahwa coffee and the new GreenWise Market locations have Kahwa cold brew on tap. Florida Whole Foods stores sell Kahwa Coffee in the bulk section. Kahwa is also the official coffee of the Valspar Championship, the golf tournament that takes place this March at Innisbrook Resort.
Although Starbucks and Dunkin’ still dominate the market, the demand for coffee has left room for some independents to thrive. But the local scene continues to get more competitive. Other local chains such as Buddy Brew and Blind Tiger have been steadily growing their own footprints, although neither has crossed the bay into Pinellas County yet. And there are the neighborhood spots like Black Crow and King State that have loyal fans.
In early 2018, Kahwa experimented with opening a Miami location by taking over a coffee shop from another operator. It soon pulled the plug on South Florida.
“We didn’t have the brand recognition we needed,” Sarah Perrier said. She called it a valuable learning experience.
Now their expansion plans are focused on Tampa Bay and Sarasota. The couple said rather than jump across the state, they’ll expand from their core locations outward.
Up next are new shops in St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Casey Key and Dunedin. The Perriers declined to disclose the exact locations as they work through finalizing leases and building permits.
But like any modern retailer, Kahwa’s focus isn’t just on brick-and-mortar sales. They recently grew their online ordering options with a subscription service that ships coffee to customers’ homes every 30, 45 or 60 days.
From the beans to the bags, Kahwa does everything in-house from its headquarters. The bean roasting never really stops. At most, they have a week’s worth of stock on hand.
“We do that to make sure it’s always fresh,” Sarah said.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.