Good Coffee + Good Business in Bangladesh = Lasting Social Change

| August 12, 2013

We’re excited to hear more from Board member Gabe on his ventures in Bangladesh. Gabe looks at the intersection of food, workers’ rights, and politics from a coffee drinker’s perspective. For more on his ventures with his wife, please check out their blog.

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North End coffee. Drink it in.

When I think back on how I adjusted to life in Bangladesh, perhaps the turning point was North End Coffee. My wife and I, as part of our six-month sabbatical, came to Bangladesh for two months to volunteer. She has a deep connection to the country, having volunteered for over two years here with Peace Corps. I was a fish out of water, struggling with the chaos, cleanliness, and the food and drink in which a cup of coffee is Nescafe and powdered milk. A week into our stay, I stepped into North End Coffee in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. There I drank something so familiar and comforting that I felt that if I had access to it for two months, I was going to be ok. Now, having spent more time at North End, it is apparent that in addition to providing great coffee, North End uses coffee to do so much good in a country with seemingly unending need.

Rick roasting the beans.

Rick roasting the beans.

North End Coffee Roasters was founded in 2011 by the husband and wife team Rick and Chris Hubbard. The North End name reflects the Hubbards’ ties to Boston’s North End as well as its location in the northern part of Dhaka. I was intrigued by the place so I recently stepped behind the counter and kept Rick company while he roasted beans and told me the North End story.

Starting a business in Bangladesh? What could possibly go wrong? For starters, most moderate to high-end shops, like North End, are located above ground level. Safety is too precarious at street level. This is especially true of late as street violence has broken out in response to the ongoing trials of alleged war criminals from the 1971 liberation war (where Bangladesh achieved independence from Pakistan) and the intense political rivalries surfacing in the run-up to this year’s election. The political parties have responded by calling numerous nation-wide strikes, or hartals, that bring transport and commerce to a virtual standstill.

Bangladesh is unmistakably the developing world. Starting a business is not for the feint of heart.

Bangladesh is unmistakably the developing world. Starting a business is not for the feint of heart.

Bangladesh is also a notoriously corrupt country. Each year from 2001 to 2005, Bangladesh topped¬†Transparency International’s rankings of the most corrupt countries in the world. Things haven’t g

otten much better. The corruption is facilitated by byzantine laws that can frustrate anyone’s best-laid plans, especially an outsider’s. Then there is the standard of living costs. The country’s average per capita income is $923. A cup of North End coffee, according to Rick, is priced out of the reach of 85 to 90 percent of Bangladeshis.

You do not want to turn down tea from these guys (Me with my wife's host family).

You do not want to turn down tea from these guys (Me with my wife’s host family).

Within this hostile business environment, the Hubbards planned to introduce a product seemingly at odds with the national culture. Bangladesh is a tea country. For example, tea is so steeped in the lives of Bangladeshis that it is unthinkable to set foot in another’s home and not to be offered tea immediately. It is even more unthinkable to decline said offer.

Yet from the moment it opened in March 2011, North End Coffee has been a success. It has even

North End Coffee was busy from the day it opened. Coffee culture has arrived in Bangladesh.

North End Coffee was busy from the day it opened. Coffee culture has arrived in Bangladesh.

succeeded in ways not intended. Rick’s original vision was of a place that would primarily roast and supply coffee to area businesses and, almost as an afterthought, offer a few seats where those in the know could sit and enjoy good coffee. North End quickly established itself as Dhaka’s premier coffee purveyor, offering quality, single-origin coffee to numerous other businesses. But in addition, North End soon became a lively, bustling cafe where friends gather over coffee and pastries. Coffee culture had arrived in Bangladesh.

There is nothing else in this country that looks and feels like North End. It is smartly designed: a cozy and inviting Western-style coffee house. The wifi signal is strong and the seating is comfortable, providing an escape from the unruliness of Dhaka. North End also sells crafts from local artisans. Most importantly, the coffee and pastries, made by Pastry Chef Chris Hubbard, are superb. They are all made on-site. Behind the counter, the coffee is roasted and brewed, and the pastries are assembled and baked. They are comparable, in my opinion, to anything I could find back home in Manhattan’s West Village.

What's on the menu at North End.

What’s on the menu at North End.

How did this happen in tea country? Rick explained that coffee has the momentum. It is also a status symbol. Where Bangladeshis drink tea in private with their families, they drink coffee in public. Coffee is not so much a daily ritual at North End as it is a a treat, like a nice bowl of ice cream. Bangladeshis will travel for North End, slogging through some of the world’s worst traffic to get their coffee. The customers at North End are an even mix of Dhaka’s upper middle class and Westerners.

Nothing in Bangladesh has the professional gloss of North End Coffee.

Nothing in Bangladesh has the professional gloss of North End Coffee.

As for the Westerners in Bangladesh, nearly all of us are working for our governments or a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). The NGO sector in Bangladesh is one of the most well established in the world. It is a powerful stakeholder in this country–employing thousands, taking in millions, and working to address a litany of problems.

Rick and Chris did NGO-type work when they first came to Bangladesh over ten years ago, teaching children. Before returning to the US, the Hubbards hatched a plan to come back to sell something virtually unheard of at the time, high-end coffee in Bangladesh. Rick and Chris wanted to continue working to help Bangladeshis, but this time, they would do so by starting a for-profit business. Entering the marketplace allows the Hubbards to create something even more impactful and lasting: ideas for the betterment of Bangladesh that are tied to a motivation for profit and that can spread well outside of a coffee shop. Market-based solutions are especially important in Bangladesh. Even though it now encourages private investment, Bangladesh’s growth was limited by its government’s ill-fated decision to pursue a socialist economic model following independence in 1971.

Although I expected North End to be just another developing world coffee house catering to foreigners, it is truly a powerful force for positive change. In Bangladesh, the employer-employee dynamic can be limiting. Rick told me that employees expect their employers to take care of them–to micromanage and to guide them every step of the way. My NGO work analyzing one of the country’s largest industries, the readymade garment sector, has taught me that employee “training” is a dirty word here. Employers are hesitant to train their workers for fear that they will demand higher wages and come after their bosses’ jobs.

North End Coffee, however, strives to create an environment of parity between employers and employees that values worker development. Training is encouraged. This dynamic tears down the rigid hierarchy that dominates the typical Bangladeshi workplace. North End’s competitors, seeing its success and its employees’ know-how, try to poach its staff by offering minimal raises. But to North End’s loyal workforce, a small salary increase is not worth it. Rick cites the familial atmosphere among staff as one of North End’s greatest assets. He is invested in employee success and told me he would like nothing better than to see them someday start their own businesses.

Rick roasting an entire batch of 100% Bangladeshi coffee.

Rick roasting an entire batch of 100% Bangladeshi coffee.

The Hubbards also give back by pioneering growing coffee in Bangladesh. Despite its fertile landscape teeming with fruits and vegetables, in Bangladesh, the coffee crop was almost non-existent. Rick sought to change this by bringing coffee beans from across the border in India and by purchasing agricultural equipment from China. He then provided farmers with small loans to buy the crop and guaranteed them that if they plant it, he’ll buy it. Now, Rick estimates that approximately one hundred farmers are growing coffee in Bangladesh.

Although he started from scratch a short time ago, Rick says the quality of Bangladeshi coffee is improving. One potential bright spot is that Rick believes Bangladesh may be able to produce two growing seasons per year, a rarity for a coffee crop. Currently, North End offers a Hill Track blend that features a modest percentage of coffee grown from Bangladesh’s hill tracks mixed with other beans. Going forward, Rick plans to increase the proportion of hill track beans to create a distinct Bangladeshi brew. This is an exciting development in Bangladeshi cuisine as well as the creation of an entire new industry in Bangladesh, a boon to farmers and to so many others.

Outside of North End Coffee in the North End of Dhaka.

Outside of North End Coffee in the North End of Dhaka.

The future looks bright for North End and the Hubbards. In addition to their original store, they have opened two North End kiosks, also in the northern part of Dhaka. North End Coffee now employs approximately forty persons. In addition, it is enhancing the quality of coffee throughout Bangladesh by supplying its beans to over thirty restaurants, clubs, and other establishments. The Hubbards will also soon sell coffee under the Hanover Street label to supermarkets for individuals to brew at home. And, as previously mentioned, North End is growing a new industry in Bangladesh’s hill tracks. All this growth comes at a time of growth for Bangladesh as well. Although it remains a poor country whose politicians do it no favors, Bangladeshis are optimistic about the future. Consumer income is rising, and the economy has expanded an average of six to seven percent over the past few years.

Rick says his family is committed to staying in Bangladesh long-term to build up the coffee business and to give back to the country. This is good news. When people committed to positive change combine a solid business model with the right market conditions, the results can be profound.

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  1. Back to Bangladesh: The Power of Coffee | Where Should We Be Today | August 21, 2013
  1. Beth says:

    Your last sentence said it all. What a success story!

  2. GG3 says:

    A most interesting story and perspectives. Great stuff. I enjoyed every word.
    GG3

  3. Mary Ann says:

    I’m catching up on my adventure reading..great story, Gabe