Jo Khalifa and MoJo Roast
Jo Khalifa is a personal coffee roaster. She buys raw coffee and roasts it to order for her customers, factoring in everything from last year’s rainfall in Colombia, to local growing practices, to her customer’s personal preferences (each of which she keeps on a recipe card in the roastery). Jo also thinks about the many opportunities that MoJo Roast, a for-profit company, has to affect the lives of the people with whom she does business.
Out of all the things you could have pursued, what made you decide you wanted to be a personal coffee roaster?
Well, I wanted to start a coffee shop initially, and I had a really difficult time finding what I thought was really good, fresh, quality coffee. My husband suggested that I start roasting my own, and I thought that was a little far-fetched, to say the least. After a couple of months of thinking about it and doing some research, I found some raw coffee and started roasting in my cast iron frying pan and put together the science and the technology and all of the different aspects that go into making that coffee come out perfect and absolutely found my passion in life. It was a complete and utter mistake.
What’s been the biggest challenge for the business?
We’re in rural North Dakota. I’m 12 miles south of the Manitoba border, and being in a very small community, the biggest challenge is financing. Say our appraisal values in this county for a building are $45,000. I’m going to put up a new building. That building is going to cost $250,000 to put up. So I put out the $250,000, and when I open the door, the building is only worth $45,000. That’s the conundrum. But we knew what we were dealing with, and where the funding needs to go for growth.
So you addressed the issue of financing by working without it.
Correct. We’ve financed everything that we’ve had thus far – the building, the equipment – because of market values.
You have a strong focus on giving back and social good. How did you integrate that into your business?
This world of coffee roasting, for me, is a tremendous gift that I just stumbled across. Unfortunately, the people that grow the coffee – the majority of them – are very poor. When we started this business, we looked at a foundation called the Cafe Femenino Foundation. It started in Peru, where there was a domestic abuse rate of over 76%. We decided that the Cafe Feminino Foundation would be ideal for us to initially start with, and we donate money back to that foundation and to our local domestic abuse center as well. In Guatemala, we support the education of women. In Mexico, we support domestic abuse organizations, and we also support cancer foundations. That’s something that’s just in us. We realized that we were given something big, and with that, we can ease some of the pain in people’s lives around the world. It’s really amazing to know that this little product can touch people globally, and right here in my own little community.
How has your focus on social good benefited your business?
My customer base knows how much we care about the environment we live in and the people and social issues around the globe. It’s more of a personal attribute. That means more to our customers than the accreditations I have.
They identify with your values?
And to know that, when they do purchase our goods, they are helping. Directly or indirectly, when they buy something, they’re tapping into that giving back network that we’ve created, which they really like.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who want to change the world?
Don’t give up on your dreams. There’s going to be a lot of adversity. When I have my down times, those are times for me to regroup and collect and figure out, “Hmm, how can I stop this from happening again?” And those are my most productive, inspirational times. And I’ve had a few of them, where, you know, you just kind of run into a brick wall. Don’t give up.
Can you give me an example of one of those brick walls?
I was at a coffee conference in 2005, and we were in a room – about fifteen or twenty roasters – talking to the president of a very huge, institutional coffee company. One of the fellows asked her, “How do we compete with a company like you?” She said, “You don’t. You have to find your own niche.” I looked around that room, and I saw shoulders drop and heads fall, and I thought, “Hmm, how do you find your own niche?”
All of us want to be in the restaurants and in the hotels and we want to be able to compete with the big boys, but in order to do that, you have to supply them the equipment, and none of us have the financial means; we’re talking millions of dollars of equipment just to get into, say, a Holiday Inn chain. I think about those people every once in a while and how many walked out and gave up. They may have had a great talent that they just gave up, because they didn’t have the mindset to compete. I took it in and thought, “Hmm, this is going to be a tough challenge. How in the world am I go into a restaurant or hotel that has this institutional line in it?” And I did – I walked into one – and that was the first question out of their mouth, “Do you supply the equipment?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” And the lady said, “Well, the company we currently buy from supplies all our equipment, and that’s a huge expense for us, so we’re going to continue buying from them.” I said, “Would you mind if I called you in two months, just to touch base?” and she said, “No, not at all.”
So I gave myself a two month window to come up with an idea. And I was sitting in my roastery one day, close to the two-month time frame, pouring myself a French press cup of coffee. I looked at that French press, and I thought, “This is it. I’ve got it.” So I called her back, and I said, “This is Jo with MoJo roast coffee, it’s been two months, and I thought I’d touch base with you.” First question out of her mouth, “Do you provide the brewers?” I said, “No, I don’t. But I provide a very lucrative, elegant addition to your already existing coffee line that won’t compromise your contract with the company you’re working with.” She said, “What’s that?” I said, “I need to come in and show you.” I got that account. I also got a 350 seat account out in Washington, D.C.. I got many accounts throughout the United States doing this. Just with the French press. So, it’s just being very creative. Don’t give up – there’s a way around it.
It seems like you do a lot of listening.
We were given two ears and one mouth. You need to listen twice as much as you talk.
What is your definition of leadership?
Having a good team around you and listening. That, to me, is tremendously important. Listening to your team and your customers, making them know that they are truly valued individuals. They are not just a number; they are valued and appreciated for their input and what they do. When you have that, you have a network that would go to the ends of the earth for you to make sure that you’re successful.