Timen is the founder at Lacàph, a fast-growing Vietnamese coffee brand, that is starting to export into new markets in Asia Pacific and around the world. Besides this he is a board member in companies in residential real estate development and software SaaS solutions. He has been in Vietnam since 2007, but is a proud Dutch person that happens to have lived in the USA and Vietnam longer than any period of time in Holland.
In this conversation, we cover the coffee scene in Vietnam, building a brand, and his story and journey of Lacàph.
I hope you enjoy my conversation with Timen Swijtink.
[00:00:31] – [First question] – Timen’s Background and Lacàph
[00:06:47] – Developing the story and branding for Lacàph
[00:10:20] – The process and thoughts behind a packaging redesign
[00:13:39] – How to get products listed in retail
[00:18:10] – As a nimble startup, how do you choose what ideas to focus on?
[00:22:12] – How to collaborate and learn from others as an entrepreneur
[00:24:24] – The coffee culture in Vietnam and how it’s changed
[00:27:26] – Robusta vs Arabica Beans and where Vietnam fits in
[00:32:53] – Lacàph’s relationship with farms and Vietnamese Coffee farmers
[00:39:03] – How to be a good storyteller without sounding corny
[00:44:43] – High quality coffee in Vietnam
[00:46:58] – How much coffee does Timen drink?
[00:50:19] – The decaf coffee process
[00:52:05] – Timen’s big influences
[00:57:57] – Wrapping up
Connect with Timen:
- Timen’s blog
- Follow Timen on Instagram
- Connect with Timen on LinkedIn
- Email Timen: timen [ @ ] lacaph.com
Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favourite podcast platform.
[00:00:00] Kalani Scarrott: Hello and welcome to Compounding Curiosity. I’m your host Kalani Scarrett and this podcast is all about compounding your curiosity alongside my own through thoughtful interviews with interesting guests. For transcripts and detailed show notes, check out the links in the description. Hopefully you’re as keen as me to learn something new, so let’s get stuck in. My guest today is Timen Swijtink. Timen is the founder of Lacàph, a fast growing Vietnamese coffee brand that is starting to export into new markets into Asia Pacific and around the world. Besides that, he is a board member in companies in residential real estate development and software SaaS solutions. Timen has been in Vietnam since 2007, but is a proud Dutch person that happens to have lived in the USA and Vietnam longer than any period of time in Holland. But in today’s conversation, we cover the coffee scene in Vietnam, the trials and tribulations of building a brand, and his story and journey behind Lacàph. So I learned a ton and it’s going to be a conversation I’ll refer back to constantly, so please enjoy my conversation with Timen Swijtink.
Timen, thank you so much for coming on today, really appreciate your time. First thing in the morning early on, can you give a bit of background because I came across you on LinkedIn and it’s like you’ve done a little bit of everything, it got me curious about your story, how you went up to where you are now?
[00:01:30] Timen Swijtink: Thanks, Kalani. When you reached out, we were discussing this, it immediately sparked my curiosity too because our slogan at Lacàph is, “coffees for the curious.” So it matches really well. I’ve been in Vietnam since I was about 21 and now I’m 37, so quite a while. I came here because I had an internship and I traveled to Vietnam; I enjoyed the country. It feels like a country that’s ready to develop fast and there’s a lot to do and a lot of things that you can invest yourself in. I came here for an internship initially. I wasn’t really planning on staying this long and it’s probably a story that you hear more often. I got a job offer after the internship was over and I kept on going from there. My last real corporate job was head of marketing at Rémy Cointreau, which is a French wine and spirits’ company. I was taking care of the product portfolio for Vietnam and some other markets in the region. Then it became easier for foreigners to actually invest in the country because initially it was very difficult. It was only possible to own up to 49% and also in a relatively limited category range. So as part of the WTO Ascension, Vietnam promises to open up new areas for investment every year. I started basically the only category that was more or less available, which was IT and consulting back then. And I think I was probably one of the first 100 or so people that had a 100% foreign direct invested company in the country. I’ve been doing that ever since. I’ve now been involved in various projects in residential real estate development in software and media. But the company that we’re here to talk about today and the one that I’m super proud of is a company called Lacàph. It’s a Vietnamese coffee company and it came out of the realization that although I’m living in Vietnam because I love Vietnam, I don’t live here only because of the economic opportunities here. I was doing things that I was proud of, but they had nothing to do with Vietnam. They were bringing foreign brands to Vietnam and they’re great companies, but I wanted to do something that was sharing what I love about Vietnam or an aspect of what I love about Vietnam with people around the world. So I looked at various categories because I don’t come from a coffee background. I looked at tea, I looked at fish sauce, I looked at wine and spirits. I thought maybe we could create a company that works with the ethnic groups of Vietnam. There are 54 other ethnic groups in Vietnam and they all have unique spirits and things like that. So I thought maybe we can work with them and make really nice versions, very modernized with very clean processes and for a global audience so we can share their cultures with people around the world. But ultimately, Vietnam is the second largest coffee growing country in the world and it has a unique distinct coffee culture, which is wonderful. So these two things made me realize, coffee is where it is, where it’s at. And there’s a huge amount of coffee growing here and what I want to do is bring more of the value capture of that industry here in Vietnam because at the moment, Vietnam exports a lot of the green beans and relatively low value per ton average. So what we’re trying to do is make a brand that’s proudly Vietnamese. Besides myself, everybody else in the company is Vietnamese and we’re trying to create a product that can be enjoyed by people around the world and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last four years. It’s really creating a high quality Vietnamese coffee brand that ultimately we hope to bring to all parts of the world. We’re actually working, I know that you’re in Perth, we’re working on bringing it to Australia next year and many more markets in the future.
[00:05:42] Kalani Scarrott: So much to work with and a strong coffee scene here in Australia too. So you’ve got to go out and cut out for it.
[00:05:46] Timen Swijtink: Yeah, hopefully we’ll be able to bring in something pretty unique. I think that the coffee scene is very sophisticated in Australia. Our message is a balance between the commodity product, the coffee and the storytelling behind the product. I often say, our product that we sell is only about 50% coffee, the other 50% is what’s all around the coffee, the culture, the history, the coffee culture itself, where people sit on streets and they spend time with their friends and colleagues and discuss the going On’s of the day and that’s something really unique. It’s the opposite of Italian coffee culture in some sense because Italian coffee culture generally speaks about speed, Vietnamese coffee culture is about taking your time. And that’s something that I think that we can all use a little bit more of taking our time and spending time with each other, socializing over coffee rather than only using it for its periphery benefits.
[00:06:47] Kalani Scarrott: How did you develop the storytelling and your brand? Was that something you learned at Rémy Cointreau?
[00:06:56] Timen Swijtink: I’m a big fan of Steve Jobs. I always think about what he would say and he said that if he had not dropped out of college and taken some course in calligraphy, the Macintosh would never have fonts and probably PCs would be very different today. Maybe there would be fonts but one thing leads to another. In wine and spirits, storytelling is so important and the history of Rémy Martin as a Cognac brand is a huge part of why people want to buy Rémy Martin. So it’s the same what we’re trying to do but it started there. I had an excellent experience with working with an artist here in Vietnam and it was there that I realized the added financial value that storytelling can bring to a product because without that context, it’s just another coffee product. If you build that context for consumers and if they appreciate it, not all consumers will appreciate it, but a lot of consumers do, they wanna know about where the products come from and who grew it and things like that. So if you’re able to tell that story alongside your product, you’re gonna add some value and people are willing to pay for that. They care about those things. So it was through working with this artist that I came to that realization because he was selling photographs, and a photograph without a story is just a pretty picture. You can go to a stock photography website, download a high-res picture, a beautiful Sapa, or Hạ Long Bay, Hội An and you can print it, and you’re probably going to be out for a couple hundred dollars to get it nicely printed and it’s not that expensive, but he was able to bring context to his photography by telling a story about the people that are in the pictures and that was what people were looking for and made people excited and willing to pay for photographs. So it’s with that learning that I approached this project too. It’s like, we’re selling coffee, but it’s coffee with the story for people that care about where their products come from. It’s not coffee that they buy, but even where it came from. You can go on a great holiday, spend time on the beach and things like that and drink cocktails but the people that come to Vietnam usually are after a little more, they want to know more about the culture, the food and history. They want to see the new Vietnam and so we’re after that consumer. We’re after people who are curious about the world around them and they care a little bit more about where the products come from and who made it and was it made with care and things like that. So, storytelling is so important to our products and it comes from that whole evolution of working at Rémy Martin and working with this artist and many little things in between that made me realize that this added value is so important to what Lacàph is today.
[00:10:20] Kalani Scarrott: That’s beautiful. You recently underwent a packaging redesign, I read through a feature about it. Could you talk about what it was like before, what you’re hoping to achieve with that specifics?
[00:10:35] Timen Swijtink: We have distinctive packaging, but for a while, it was extremely simple and I was quite concerned for a long time that if we were gonna start pushing this into wider distribution, we’re going to have issues standing out. As many know, in retail, if you get delisted, it’s gonna be very difficult to get re-listed. So I wanted to make sure that we had something that was very distinctive. So we came up with this and also, we’re not a massive coffee brand yet, so we’re not able to meet these large MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity) standards that a lot of our suppliers are asking for and that’s a little bit less of an issue these days, to be honest, but still, it pushed us to think a little bit beyond what coffee bags may be always look like. So we have this flap design that comes with a rivet at the top and it’s a bit unique. It stands out on the shelf. It doesn’t travel too well, unfortunately, because when it’s been shipped to Hong Kong, for instance, it doesn’t always look so good, we’re dealing with that now. But generally speaking, it is very unique, and it provides extra information on the back flap, so to speak. We won a runner up award in the UK for that design, which is great. And we’re always innovating, we’re already working and thinking about how we can make the next generation of our packaging. We’re trying to make that the next edition, next generation of our packaging to be, not the final, but it’ll be the one that we’re trying to stick with because changing your packaging is not always a good idea if you’re doing a larger distribution, but we’re learning along the way and we’re learning also about export because we do wanna make a product that is enjoyed by people around the world. So the next challenge is making sure that your packaging is ready for export, that it’s gonna look as good in Perth in a premium grocery store as it does here in Vietnam at Annam Gourmet.
[00:12:40] Kalani Scarrott: It’s true, because first impressions do count, isn’t it?
[00:12:44] Timen Swijtink: Absolutely, we want to make sure that people recognize us and especially in the coffee category. If you go to the grocery store, take a picture of the different selections of coffee, I venture to say 80% of the products look similar; brown, gold, copper, etc. and we wanted our logos purple, for example. So we wanted to do something a little different and it’s differentiated and recognizable. We’re constantly evolving and trying to make it better. I’m never worried about people copying us because I’m always focused on what’s next. But differentiation is super important, but also not getting delisted. You need to make sure that you have the right uptake of your product when it hits the retail shelves so that you don’t have an issue in the future.
[00:13:39] Kalani Scarrott: I’m curious because I don’t know with retail getting delisted, what’s involved, could you explain that little bit for me?
[00:13:49] Timen Swijtink: You definitely need a first success, I don’t know how it works in the US or other developed markets, but it did definitely require a creative approach, so to speak because buyers for grocery stores, they have people asking them all the time, take my brand and how do you get their attention? Well, in this case, I knew one of the co-owners of a large grocery store brand here and that’s the benefit of being here so long as I end up knowing more and more people. You had to be honest by leveraging that relationship and name dropping like, so and so told me to contact you, because you’re apparently the one to speak to and then it was like, oh, this guy knows this guy, now you’re going to have to take a little bit more seriously than you usually do and even then it wasn’t particularly easy. So eventually I forced myself, not physically, but I pushed for a meeting. I invited myself for a meeting that otherwise wouldn’t have existed and once you’re in, then things become significantly easier because then you have that relationship, they can start tracking your sales, they can see how professional you are as a supplier and then you continue leveraging. You say, hey, it’s a super well grocery store, you should have it too and try to have that knock-on effect. Then sometimes go for a premium brand in retail, but not with a huge network and then work your way up. And you can continuously learn along the way what works and what doesn’t work and what they’re asking for. But it’s a process and I don’t think that there’s any guidebook necessarily. Even within Vietnam, I know that the market is different from north to south. In the south, the requirements are going to be different than in the north and I’m sure in the US and in other countries, every market will be different. But definitely, not being shy is very important. You’re going to have to put yourself out there and be ready for a lot of “No’s” and constructive feedback.
Generally speaking, people want to help but they have their lives too, they have their job and they’re busy. So you’re going to have to figure out how to get their attention. I think one of the key learnings is that you shouldn’t be necessarily too difficult, but definitely, don’t be shy. You’re going to have to put yourself out there. You’re going to have to push for it and if you don’t do that, other people will. If you’re the one that does it best and obviously creates value for them, try to create a pull-law situation where they can show for instance, oh, you’re taking on direct trade products now. That’s something that they can then communicate with their consumers as a positive benefit for shopping at their grocery stores, that it’s supporting local brands and other things like that.
[00:16:53] Kalani Scarrott: That echoes so many of my same feelings with this podcast, find a way in, drill down, but then give them some value, make it worth their time. I think it’s a perfect way to operate in any way.
[00:17:03] Timen Swijtink: Yeah, especially if they’re large, they have their things, they don’t owe you anything, there’s no free lunch, you need to show why you’re there, you need to prove why you’re there and you need to add value. For example, we’re working with a distributor, they’re big, they’re powerful, they don’t even need a coffee brand but what can we do for them, they have products that are very complimentary, for example, syrups and stuff, and they sell dough for pastries and things like that. So if they have a coffee brand, and if we can add value by creating new recipes, for instance, with their products and our products, then suddenly, when we sell their coffee, we’re going to also sell all these other things that we already have. As a small company, you can be very creative. You can move much faster than larger companies and that’s what we’re doing now, one new recipe a week, we can send them one new recipe a week and they send it to their customers and it uses their products in the recipes we create and it also uses ours.
[00:18:10] Kalani Scarrott: You mentioned that you can move very fast and nimble, you can change up, how do you choose what to focus on though because I’m early stages of doing my own stuff and it’s like, I need to find out, I need to focus more because there’s too many things I want to work on, too many good ideas. How do you choose what to focus on and where to stay in your lane?
[00:18:32] Timen Swijtink: I think you’re asking the wrong person because I’m really bad at that and I’m getting better at it as I mature as a leader and I’m recognizing the importance of it to cut down and focus. Same time, I would say Vietnam is interesting because there is so much that you can do and you can try ideas with relatively low risk. You don’t have to spend, if you want to launch a new concept, it’s not going to cost you tons and tons of money because regulation is a little easier here still and development costs are lower than I presume they’d be in Australia. But generally speaking, it’s important to see what works, try things and definitely it’s an 80 -20 rule. You need to recognize the things that are not working and I would say simplify that way, cut down. When I started the company, even some things like how many products you create, one of the things I recognize, especially the specialty coffee industry, is that they have lots of different options and that’s what specialty coffee focuses on is interesting blends or single origin products and that’s cool but I think many consumers are intimidated by that offerings just like wine in the 90s, before New World became a thing. It’s New World Wines, Australian wines, Chilean wines, and others that benefited from simplifying that very complicated offering and trying to explain things in a better way and that’s what we’re trying to do. We only create three coffee blends. We don’t have tons of different products in that sense. We create three core coffee blends, a filter blend, an espresso blend, and then what’s called a Fin blend, which is a Vietnamese style coffee blend. And what we try to innovate is how we get it to consumers. We’re trying to get it in drip bags and in different sizes and cold brew versions and things like that, so definitely, whether it’s your products or the projects you’re looking at, you should have a strategy, you should have a plan for how you’re gonna do it. I can’t necessarily say or it’s good to have very few things to do. I think it depends on your company and your business and what you can afford and what you’re used to and I say afford because can you hire lots of staff to help you execute? But in any case, we do a lot of things, we’re trying to prioritize as a company but it’s certainly not our forte. We like doing projects, for instance, we launched with a well-known YouTuber today, a new product for the US called Best Ever Coffee. It’s a tongue-in -cheek name because his show is called Best Ever Food Review Show. He’s a big YouTuber. He’s actually editing his work in Vietnam. He has a team here, so we met and it’s another project, but I see it as a wonderful opportunity to learn about how to sell to the US market. I want to do it. It’s not necessarily focused, but it helps our mission because our mission is to share Vietnamese coffee and culture with curious people everywhere and as I said, this is aligned with our mission, we should do it. And we can learn along the way what American consumers want and how we can deliver it, also the logistics of getting everything to the US.
[00:22:12] Kalani Scarrott: That’s so cool to hear because I’ve watched a few of his episodes and he’s curious and learning to understand about the culture and the food behind it and people’s stories and that’s awesome. You mentioned it a little bit before, there’s no guidebook for you and how you start operating, but how are you learning? Are you bouncing ideas? Is there a small scene there in Vietnam, either with coffee or entrepreneurship and you’re bouncing ideas off people? How are you going about learning and improving?
[00:22:39] Timen Swijtink: In Vietnam, I would say almost everybody’s an entrepreneur of some sort. Everybody has a side hustle or some business but there are brands that certainly inspired me a lot here. Besides my own experiences learning about the power of storytelling, I also know very wonderful people like Vincent and Sam from Maru Chocolate. It’s a local chocolate brand here. They’re a huge inspiration because they showed what’s possible creating a high quality, proudly Vietnamese chocolate brand for global audiences. So to some extent, I am really inspired by them and I message Vincent now and then asking for advice like “Hey, when you set up an ERP system, what’s your experience?” I’m very blessed by the fact that a lot of my connections have done it before and gone through the mistakes and hopefully can guide me more or less. We still make mistakes, but guide me in the right direction. I think trial and error is huge and experience is huge. At the beginning, when I first started investing in developing businesses, I did not appreciate how important experience is, although young talent can be super creative, having experience, how to run through a project, how to manage relationships, whether they’re internal or external, is so important. So trial and error, learn every day, stay hungry, it’s very important to keep on learning and educating and make mistakes.
[00:24:24] Kalani Scarrott: I’m surprised we’ve gone this long without talking about it. What is the general coffee culture in Vietnam? Got any stats for me, especially given you’ve been there for 16 years, what changes have you seen? What’s the whole scene for someone, like in the US or Australia, who doesn’t know what it’s like there?
[00:24:39] Timen Swijtink: When I left for Vietnam, there were no Vietnamese restaurants in Amsterdam where I’m from and now when I go back, I think there are at least 20 Vietnamese restaurants. So Vietnam is enjoying a massive increase in interest in its food and culture in general globally and you see it in the US as well. There are a couple of Vietnamese American coffee brands that have started becoming more and more popular there as well. The coffee scene here has matured significantly. The quality of Vietnamese coffee has improved tremendously over the last 10 years and consumers here are becoming more discerning in that sense. They definitely wanna know what’s in their coffee more and more. They wanna make sure that it’s pure, clean and well-roasted in a professional environment. So that has been improved a lot because of the specialty coffee scene, but also because of the consumer cafe scene. Starbucks just hit 100 stores here, it’s not probably what they were expecting, they were probably expecting higher growth, but some of the local brands like Fook Long and Highlands Coffee have been doing super well and growing into at least on paper about billion-dollar businesses here. So there’s a lot of energy but professionalization is what’s happening right now. It’s making sure that the standards are high and I always say to my colleagues that there’s no reason why we should have any compromise on our standards versus any other country because it’s not like the rules are different here, we can have very high quality standards in terms of hygiene, coffee quality, packaging and all that stuff, we can do it just as well as anybody. So we keep on going that way. Consumers are willing to pay more, they care more about quality and there’s definitely still a Coffee scene on the street here, but it’s not like it. It’s also a little bit more in the cafe now, a little bit more modern in that sense.
[00:26:59] Kalani Scarrott: I remember being there this time last year and honestly it felt like there was a Highlands, Cafe Amazon, and Phúc Long Coffee on every corner and they’re packed to the brim.
[00:27:08] Timen Swijtink: Some cafes even run 24/7 and if you go at 11 PM at night, they’ll still be busy and there’s no right time for coffee in Vietnam, rather there’s no such thing as a wrong time.
[00:27:26] Kalani Scarrott: I’m not super coffee-conscious but could you explain a bit about the breakdown between Robusta and Arabica Beans and where Vietnam fits in?
[00:27:36] Timen Swijtink: Arabica was the first bean to arrive in Vietnam in 1857, French missionaries brought it over because they wanted to have coffee but Arabica didn’t grow as they had hoped because we’re a bit warmer and generally not as high altitude country as some other countries in in South America. At some point they introduced robusta and robusta like the name suggests, grows a lot stronger and produces way more quantity and also higher caffeine content, so pretty quickly the Arabica was totally overtaken by robusta. Today 95% of Vietnamese coffee is robusta. So robusta, I would say half 50% true and 50% unfortunate got no bad reputation because it was grown primarily for quantity, so what happened was, the people bringing the coffee beans and they said to farmers, hey, if you grow this, we’ll pay you per kilo and the equation works then that if you bring more kilos, you’re going to make more money. So quality was not a concern, and that happened many generations in a row. And today still a lot of farmers have the mindset that quantity is the only variable that is important and that is changing. We’re working with farmers and many other brands to change that idea that quality is a very important thing and that in fact, you can get paid more per kilo if you’re going to produce a higher quality product. Then this whole debate between Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is incorrectly marketed as a superior bean product. It’s a more delicate bean for sure but I think that if you were to do a blind tasting with 100 regular coffee drinkers, I would say the majority would prefer the Robusta flavor over the Arabica because in fact, many of the larger coffee brands and even cafes, they’ll be serving coffee that has at least a large percentage of Robusta and that dark, chocolatey, nutty notes that’s often coming from Robusta, that’s what people like in coffee. I think that the idea that Arabica somehow superior came out of the specialty coffee industry and has been totally misused, like the words artisan or craft, they’re abused in fact. So coffee being 100% Arabica has absolutely no information about quality. In fact, in Holland, there’s a grocery store I was there and for 5-6 Euros, you could buy a half a kilo of 100% Arabica beans. It’s really cheap. And I tried it and it was awful. Although I do agree that a lot of Robustas are not grown for quality. There are a lot of Robustas and you can have exceptional Robusta that has a very different flavor profile and very different experience than 100% Arabica. So it depends on what you like. When you talk about Vietnamese coffee, especially traditional Vietnamese coffee, it’s a heavy Robusta or even 100% Robusta coffee. It’s very strong in terms of caffeine and it has nutty chocolatey flavors. It’s delicious. I think more and more people, especially as climate change affects the Arabica cultivation will be trying Robusta more and more and high quality Robusta is what a lot of farmers are working on right now here in Vietnam. They’re working on transitioning from quantity to quality focus. You’re going to see Vietnam becoming the dominant premium Robusta country in the world and it’s 95% Robusta. It’s the number one Robusta growing country in the world and it’s going to become incredibly important and we hope to be part of that story.
[00:32:02] Kalani Scarrott: That’s awesome and interesting how everything comes back to storytelling, like Arabica got it in early, so try to reverse that change now.
[00:32:09] Timen Swijtink: To be honest, I have nothing against Arabica, but I think that the time has come for Robusta, people have another look at it and I think that consumers will find that Robusta is extremely good. It depends on how it was grown, how it was processed and how it was roasted. Just like with Arabica, you have terrible, high and low quality Arabica and if you find a good quality one, it’s gonna be a great experience.
[00:32:53] Kalani Scarrott: You mentioned before the call that yesterday you visited a farm; can you talk about your relationship with farms, what are you trying to achieve? What was the point of the visit yesterday and how’s the whole relationship?
[00:33:07] Timen Swijtink: We’re a direct trade company. We source for a lack of all our beans directly from farmers with no middlemen. We do that because we want to be able to verify quality and also have a discussion with farmers about what to do to improve and have feedback loop. We often call that cup-to-farm because you’re always about farm-to-cup but bringing the feedback back to farmers because they love to hear it, they work hard to create the product and very often they don’t hear anything. It leaves the farm and being able to come back to farms and talking about areas for improvement and what we can do to create a more interesting product as well with different fermentation processes, for instance, is an important part about what we can do as a direct trade brand. So we work directly with farmers, we source directly from them and then roast it, package it and distribute it. When I go visit, I am a lot more technical than I was four years ago about coffee but still not as technical as some of the talented people that we have at the company. I’m not always talking about super technical things when I go, it’s a lot about relationships, it’s all about sitting down with the family, having lunch and discussing about their business and what they’re working on and what they want for their kids. Yesterday’s farm visit was because we’re discussing with a farmer about a five hour drive from here, a project to start a research and development farm near his property. The idea is that because Robusta will have a huge increase in interest, it’s not an “if” but “when” kind of thing, we need to start experimenting more and researching more, not only about the varietals, a lot of people working on that, but about fermentation techniques and processing techniques, how to reduce reliance on fertilizers or pesticides, if any. There are natural pesticides that we’re using instead of chemical pesticides, there’s some special mixtures that are not necessarily coming out of chemical factories that we can use. So, providing this R&D farm that we can improve quality and do teaching directly to farmers, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re reaching out to NGOs to help fund a project where we can bring farmers to this farm and they can learn with hands-on activities and two week courses essentially for free, how to improve their own farms. The idea is to develop that farm in a province called Đắk Nông, which is about five hours north. That’s the stuff that we wanna commit to because we rely on having more and more of this great product and we need to have more farmers on board and we need to convert more farmers from the quantity mindset to the quality mindset and that’s a scary transition because that requires about a 30% cut in quantity to be able to do quality as a focus. So a lot of farmers are like, that’s a very scary idea to cut quantity like that. And that only makes sense if you can show them with real life examples that in fact, the quality increase will more than cover that decreasing quantity and it’ll make their product more sustainable from an impact on the environment, they will be able to generate more revenues, not only from coffee, things like intercropping, which means that you put different crop varieties, for example, nut trees or fruit trees and pepper that also between the coffee trees, that’s another area that we’re trying to push, it’s important because these different crops compete for resources at different levels in the soil. So coffee will have more resources at their level in that sense and also reduces the farmers’ reliance on the fluctuation of the coffee markets. If sometimes coffee’s down, they have other crops to fall back on. All these mixtures of important things are what’s gonna result in a better future for these people. And also, it’s a very good business because we need to grow the supply of that top 5% that we’re buying, the top 5% of the quality that we’re buying because otherwise, if we don’t work to help them grow that, we won’t have enough product to buy.
[00:38:14] Kalani Scarrott: It’s always good to know who you’re working with.
[00:38:20] Timen Swijtink: Absolutely, we’re pretty transparent about it, we put the stories of the farmers and we work with on the walls in our Lacàph space in Saigon here and on a lot of the coffee bags, when you flip the flap over, you can read about them themselves. It’s not a secret who we buy from and we’ve had people go and buy from those farmers directly and then say, oh, we’re selling what Lacàph sells. We’re doing a little bit more, it’s about the blend and know-how in terms of the roasting but if people copy us, that’s okay, we’re always working on the next thing..
[00:39:03] Kalani Scarrott: Back to storytelling, you mentioned before it was funny artisan and fluffy words that are a bit overused, how do you still focus on storytelling but without resorting to those usual puff pieces?
[00:39:21] Timen Swijtink: It’s interesting because I, as a foreigner immigrant to Vietnam, have an ability to see things that people who are Vietnamese don’t see as quickly because they’re used to it. For instance, a fin brewer, which is the traditional way of brewing coffee here in Vietnam. It’s a brew tool essentially. It’s that no other country uses fin brewers like Vietnam does but for Vietnamese people, it’s super boring because they grew up around them. Every house has three or four fin brewers at home because they’re not expensive but foreigners will find this interesting to hear about how this fin brewer came about? Why is Vietnam the only one that uses fin brewers? So, I think that people around the world are going to be curious about this, so let’s tell the story about the fin brewer and milk or something but that’s what can introduce people. If you tell the story about the fin brewer as we know it, people want to listen to that and it’s the same for things like egg coffee in Hanoi, which is a special way of making coffee, so the story there is simple but it’s fascinating and by telling the story you can learn a lot about Vietnam in general. The story goes that there’s a Barista working at the Metropole, which is a very famous hotel in Hanoi, it’s a historic hotel now managed by Sofitel and they had fresh milk, and because they had refrigeration in the hotel but outside of the hotel, refrigeration was relatively uncommon, so milk was uncommon and he was able to make cappuccinos for the guests of the hotel, but when he went back home, milk was not available. So he couldn’t bring that same experience to his community. And what he figured out is by whipping the egg yolk and adding a sugar condensed milk and adding some other ingredients, you can create a sweet foam and then you top your coffee off with that and that was a replacement cappuccino in a way. That became incredibly popular. He opened a cafe and now egg coffee is everywhere in Hanoi and we teach people at Lacàph about egg coffee and history. By that story, you can learn so much about the fact that milk was not common, the economics, wealth disparity, creativity and resiliency of the people. So those little stories are so revealing and you don’t have to embellish them, you just tell the story and it’s interesting for people.
[00:42:37] Kalani Scarrott: I’m glad you told that story because I went to the original store and honestly one of my favourite coffees I’ve ever had in my life but half of the story itself.
[00:42:45] Timen Swijtink: When people come to Lacàph space here in Saigon, which is in the south, we produce beautiful videos of things that tell the story and people can come there and learn how to make egg coffee and watch the video and tell people, I believe the father of the current owner who was the actual original inventor and lots of people still involved and very proud of that and they should be and it’s a unique product and it’s one of our number one coffee experience that we have at Lacàph space here in Saigon is the egg coffee experience because it’s fun, it’s light and it’s delicious.
[00:43:30] Kalani Scarrott: Very unique, even the original stuff, I remember the original cafe had wooden stalls and wooden seats, everyone’s sitting around chatting away cool little things.
[00:43:40] Timen Swijtink: That reflects the social nature of Vietnamese coffee culture. People spend time with each other and we have the fin brewer and it’s not fast. Sometimes it takes you four or five minutes to brew your coffee with a fin brewer but one of the benefits is that you spend some time with each other. You’re not in a rush and I think when I look at some cafes in Europe, it could work because people are appreciating more and more those moments with each other. There’s a little bit of a backlash against everybody, obviously digitally it’s super popular. I’m not saying that that’s not the case but people are realizing, real life is pretty good. Real life is not so bad. We don’t necessarily need the metaverse necessarily. Why don’t I invite my neighbor for some coffee and let it drip and have five minutes before we can even drink our coffee so we can have a little chit chat.
[00:44:43] Kalani Scarrott: I appreciate your time today, but before I get in my closing round, is there anything we haven’t talked about that’s consequential about the future of Coffee in Vietnam or Lacàph?
[00:44:54] Timen Swijtink: Yeah, I think what’s interesting is that I have a friend who’s the founder of Buster Street Brewing Company, which is a craft beer brand here in Vietnam, and he’s since sold his shares, but he asked me a revealing question, do you have any videos of your roastery? And I said, yeah, sure, it’s on our Instagram and other platforms. And I asked, but why do you ask? And he said, because people outside of Vietnam, they might not have a very positive perception about the quality of the facilities and things that we have here in Vietnam, not only Lacàph, but just in general. The perception is not necessarily one of super quality and our roastery is really high quality. We have optical color sorters from Japan and the Giesen roaster from Holland. So we need to work on that perception issue, when people go and see that video, people are like, wow, that’s a really beautiful roastery you have. It’s like clean white walls and very professional equipment. People don’t think that this is the standard that we have here. So we need to work on that together and change the perception that Vietnamese coffee is not all low quality, super heavy, no fillers, no preservatives, at least in Lacàph case, additives. We have a very international style. We have FDA and HACCP certifications, which are hygiene certifications. So we’re able to make the same premium and high quality coffees as any roaster in the world. That shows that people need to see and we welcome them to Vietnam to see it or visit our YouTube page and Instagram to see the videos because Vietnam is a great place to source coffee from and we are also able to produce some of the best products as well.
[00:46:58] Kalani Scarrott: Final round, rapid fire maybe; how many coffees are you having a day at the moment?
[00:47:01] Timen Swijtink: Not a lot, I just usually have about two or three.
[00:47:06] Kalani Scarrott: That’s a good number because I was gonna ask, any thoughts around caffeine’s benefits, you might judge me, I’m a decaf dodo, I’ve been on decaf unless I need it.
[00:47:17] Timen Swijtink: When I started the business, I certainly had more of what you hear about shakes but now I don’t have that as much anymore. But I definitely stopped drinking around after lunch, usually trying not to drink any coffee after two o’ clock. In terms of benefits, there’s a lot of debate I would say about whether coffee is good for you or not. I think it depends a lot on the quality and what’s added to it or not added to it. So try to find things that are, if possible, direct trade so that the roaster is also able to take responsibility for the quality of the beans in a large sense. It’s about the reputation of the roaster in general as well, but I’m not a doctor. I’m not going to claim that caffeine is necessarily good for you. When I go on the mountain runs because I sometimes join these Mountain marathons, I take gels and they always have caffeine in them. So clearly somebody also thinks that caffeine can help performance but I think that caffeine is not a negative thing. I don’t drink alcohol anymore this year and I’ve started drinking 0.0. No alcohol beer and also if you ask me a year ago, I think that’s a silly category. If you’re gonna drink beer, you should have beer with alcohol in it and now I don’t think so. So at all because it’s great being able to have a beer and not immediately because that’s what happens with alcohol and also feeling 100% fresh the next day, it’s super useful. The same for caffeine, one of the issues though with decaffeinated coffee is that the process is sometimes not always pure. I don’t want to say it’s necessarily proven bad for you because obviously they’re selling it, it’s regulated, but certainly not as natural as coffee beans that have caffeine. At this point, there’s no naturally 100% fresh caffeine-free coffee that I know of, at least, or coffee varietal that I know of, the caffeine that’s in the beans is a defense mechanism against insects. But if they come up with GMO caffeine-free coffee, that probably would be better than the methods that they use to decaffeinate coffee today. I know that there are good companies out there that have modern technology and much more clean technology to decaffeinate coffee. The issue in Vietnam, though, is that the decaf coffee coming out of Vietnam is not always high quality. So it’s difficult because it requires huge investment in the equipment to decaffeinate coffee.
[00:50:19] Kalani Scarrott: What’s the decaf process?
[00:50:21] Timen Swijtink: I’m not an expert but there’s one way that uses more water, from my understanding, and that’s the most modern way. So there’s a company called Swiss Water, and they have a green bean supplier. So essentially they buy green beans from all over the world, and then they decaffeinate it, and then they become a supplier of specifically decaffeinated coffee. From my understanding, this is a less bad way of decaffeinating the coffee. Then there’s a chemical way also, which is a more common way and done a lot for mass brands decaffeinated. What’s interesting about Vietnam is that, in fact, there’s a lot of what I call industrial grade coffee that’s grown here, and that’s often only grown for the caffeine content. It’s where the companies, they’ll buy the coffee, they’ll take out the caffeine, and the value is not the remaining bean as much as the caffeine that was extracted and they’ll sell the caffeine through to pharmaceutical companies and to energy drinks. So there’s a process to do it and in fact, a lot of businesses, they’ll focus on caffeine rather than the coffee. It’s an area that we’ve been testing it, we’ve been working with decaffeinated beans a bit, and the results are promising, but it’s a little early to tell whether we want to launch a decaf product because we only use Vietnamese beans, that’s our brand promise, so we only produce high quality products, we want to make sure that when we do release it, we’re proud of it as well.
[00:52:05] Kalani Scarrott: You mentioned Steve Jobs, any other people or books that have been influential in shaping your worldview and how you operate?
[00:52:16] Timen Swijtink: Interesting you asked, I just finished an online program called Stanford Graduate School of Business Lead Professional Certificate Program and that was really interesting. It took me about a year and a half to do it and the last course I took, and I’m lucky to have taken it, is called Power by Professor Pfeffer from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He wrote a book called Power and it’s a book about how to become powerful and manage it, and what you’re gonna have to deal with. I took the course because it made me uncomfortable. This idea of wanting power, because in pop culture, the people who want the power are usually the evil ones, because they want to become powerful for the sake of being powerful. The ones who don’t want it but reluctantly accept it because otherwise nobody can save the world are the good guys. So somehow this idea of accumulating power in my mind was a negative thing, but this course has helped me convert that and rewire my brain into understanding that power. If you want to have a positive impact, you need to become powerful in a sense. So that was eye-opening and it took me a little while and I’m still working on it, to be honest. You can go on Amazon or anywhere and type in Power by Pfeffer. It’s a great book. I highly recommend it for anybody because it’s not an easy book to process because there’s a lot of things that are true but not very comfortable in that book. But it will help you if you want to become a successful strong leader. If you have a positive mission in mind, if you want to make a positive impact on people’s lives, on the environment, on your colleagues, on the company that you work in or even as an entrepreneur, I definitely recommend this book and I don’t think that there’s a book that helped me more than that because it helped me rewire my brain and understand that, how to manage it and also recognize things I’m not good at, for instance, I’m not good at conflict. I avoid conflict. I avoid confrontation and I always knew this about myself, but I never had it clearly put in front, read it and realized it and once I realized it, it became a lot easier for me to deal with that and overcome this fear of conflict, approach these issues head on rather than avoiding it. So that has helped a lot because if you want to accumulate power for good, you’re gonna have to still deal with a lot of conflict and things that don’t work out and people whether their perspective is different or they don’t want you to succeed, whatever it is, you’re gonna have to deal with it and that’s unfortunate, but that’s the truth. So this book helped outline it. It’s very practical. Although the content is not necessarily easy to digest, it’s not difficult to read, so I highly recommend it.
[00:56:13] Kalani Scarrott: I’m definitely going to try that one because I can probably echo with growing up in Australia, tall Poppy syndrome, it’s a bit hard, people say you want to become powerful or successful, it’s hard to do that.
[00:56:22] Timen Swijtink: There are a couple things that are negative. It’s also in the coffee industry, to be honest, this idea that you’re do it for the art of the coffee, you don’t do it for profit but the problem is that if you’re trying to make a successful company, if you’re trying to have a positive impact on all the stakeholders, whether they’re your customers, your employees, the farmers that you work with, you need to become profitable because that profit can be used for good. So profit, success, power, all these things are not dirty words in the right context. It’s like this starving artist syndrome that you sometimes see, musicians get this all the time when they’re touring and they make almost no money from a tour. They’re like U2 or Taylor Swift, they’re ending their tour almost as broke as they started it because there’s no money in it and people expect artists to do it for the love of the art and things like that. It’s wrong and getting comfortable with that and definitely having this mindset that you need to be successful because if you’re not around in 10 years from now with your business, there’s no way that you can have a positive impact on people’s lives.
[00:57:57] Kalani Scarrott: Perfect way to wrap up. Where can people find you or anything you’d like to add?
[00:58:05] Timen Swijtink: If people want to reach out to me, my email address is timen [ @ ] lacaph.com and I’m also on Instagram and LinkedIn. I want to invite everybody who’s listening to come visit Vietnam and come visit Lacàph. We have a lot of things to do, not just coffee, but coffee is an interesting part about Vietnamese culture. So please come and visit. It’s very easy to get a visa if you need one. There’s e-visas that take a day to process and the country is super beautiful. There’s so much to see,100 million people that live here and it’s no better time than now. So come visit otherwise if you can’t, try to find something Vietnamese from your grocery store. If you can try something, whether it’s coffee or tea or some dried fruit chips or anything else, have something Vietnamese. It’ll transport you almost like you’re in Vietnam.
[00:59:15] Kalani Scarrott: I love it. And just to anecdote about Vietnamese, I was chatting with my trading mate the other day and he’s pure ochre Australian on his like smoke break and he just went and bought a bun made the other day and raves about it, so it’s catching up.
[00:59:26] Timen Swijtink: Absolutely, Sunny from Best ever Food Review Show, we’re super proud that he decided out of all the things he could have shared with his audiences that he chose Vietnamese coffee because he loves it too. So I think that there’s definitely interest and we hope to share these products with people all over the world soon.
[00:59:52] Kalani Scarrott: Thank you so much, Timen. I really appreciate it.
[00:59:54] Timen Swijtink: Cheers. Thanks a lot, Kalani.
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