Anton Mianovskyi of Gemini Espresso on saving his business from the destruction of war, putting Ukrainian coffee on the map, and why he believes his business can take on the world’s coffee giants.
Throughout Global Coffee Report’s interview with Gemini Espresso CEO Anton Mianovskyi from his office in Kyiv, a total of 24 alarms ring out, indicating a potential threat of missile attack.
“Every time [the alarm] goes off, you’re nervous. You wait. Maybe a rocket will drop from the sky nearby. It’s normal,” says Mianovskyi, assuring that he’s in a safe place.
Mianovskyi says he’s never experienced such a roller coaster of emotions as he has in these past eight months.
He describes January 2022 as “the best” start to the year. He was on a work trip to Mexico for three weeks before celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife in Paris. On their return, they took their children skiing in Andorra. It was an enjoyable time. Family life was good. Business was good, but in the space of 24 hours, everything changed.
“We returned to Ukraine from Andorra on one of the last flights to Boryspil on 24 February at midnight. We arrived at our flat at 1pm, went to sleep and woke up four-and-a-half hours later because we heard a loud blow. Our apartment is on the 24th floor, and a rocket had passed by our window. The next two to three hours were really hard. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what I should do,” Mianovskyi tells Global Coffee Report.
“I explained to my children what was happening, then took my car and went to the petrol station. I saw the rockets but my mind was not comprehending what I was seeing. I couldn’t accept that this was 21 century Central Europe.”
Mianovskyi decided to move his family to a safer place. He took his wife, kids, sister, dogs, cats, and drove to his parent’s house in a small village 45 kilometres east from Kyiv. Over the next four days they watched Russian troops move into Kyiv’s city district.
Mianovskyi had a responsibility to keep his family safe, but he also had a responsibility to look after 180 employees who rang him asking, “do we go to work? What should we do?”
Mianovskyi found a government program online with relocation strategies to help large companies move their production facility. “We are one of the biggest coffee roasters in Ukraine. Our factory is huge at 2500-square-metres, and we were facing the challenge of moving it all,” Mianovskyi says.
The list of equipment included one 250-killogram IMF roaster, a Giesen roaster, and five different packaging lines, which can package more than 15 to 20 tonnes per day of ground, whole bean, and Japanese drip line filter coffee.
“When we started preparations for the move, the fighting between the Ukrainian and Russian armies was very close to our factory, no more than two or three kilometres away. The government-arranged service to help us move said: ‘sorry guys, we can’t provide trucks with drivers any more. It’s too dangerous’,” Mianovskyi says.
Instead, he paid a commercial delivery company “huge money”, almost five times the normal rate, to transport 23, 20-tonne trucks to Chernivtsi in the western corner Ukraine, bordering Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
Mianovskyi stresses that the move was not just about moving factory equipment but relocating the families of his employees and accommodating them in apartments, hotels and houses with their possessions and pets. “The company paid for everything,” Mianovskyi says. “The most important thing in our business, is our people. We are one big family.”
Mianovskyi had only viewed the new factory space online. On arrival, he realised the available space was on the second floor of the building. Desperate for a solution, he rang some restaurant partners who suggested a location in Lviv, which was known to hold festivals and events, such as Ukraine’s annual coffee festival. With festivals unlikely to be held in the immediate future, the space became Gemini Espresso’s new home. With room to spare, Mianovskyi invited other small coffee roasters to co-habit the space. At one stage, six different roasting companies operated from this one place.
Out of the experience, those six roasters create a coffee brand together titled “roasted in Ukraine”, which Gemini Espresso is looking to push into the international arena.
“In normal life we would compete, but every time when we have coffee festivals, coffee championships, or in hard times such as war, we are friends, and that’s what I love about the Ukrainian coffee community,” Mianovskyi says. “The collaborative brand represents Ukrainians still working together. We want to show the international community just how strong businesses are in Ukraine.”
Pre-war, Gemini Espresso roasted about 250 tonnes of coffee per month, making it “one of the top five largest coffee roasters in Ukraine”, according to Mianovskyi. Given the current situation, however, he says it’s hard to know who among the top five is on top. Now, Gemini Espresso roasts between 170 to 180 tonnes of coffee per month, but Mianovskyi hopes volume can soon return to the level it was once.
With the future of Ukraine so unpredictable, and an estimated five to six million Ukrainians relocated outside of the country, Mianovskyi has opened a second Gemini Espresso commercial office and sales division in Warsaw, Poland, and is planning on starting roasting production here in 2023.
“Poland isn’t the same market as Ukraine, but it’s people and their drinking habits are very similar so it’s easy to integrate our business, and Poland is a good location to start connections in the European Union,” he says.
Mianovskyi now splits his time between the two cities, spending one month in Poznań, Poland, where his family now resides, and another month in Kyiv, to give Gemini Espresso the best chance to recover, and thrive.
“We are living with the situation, but it’s a situation that doesn’t just disappear within one or two months, so we must adapt and try to return to business and life as normal,” Mianovskyi says, acknowledging that coffee is part of the daily ritual that can help retain that normalcy.
“One nice, delicious cup of coffee can help us forget about all our problems, just for that moment,” he says.
Destined to lead
Mianovskyi started working at Gemini Espresso 16 years ago, at 21 years of age. After working as a barman in nightclubs, he joined Gemini Espresso as Regional Manager for four years. Mianovskyi climbed his way up the ranks, taking on the role of Area Manager, then Chief of Sales and Commercial Director, before being appointed CEO in 2020.
“I may have only known one company all my life, but I treat it like my company,” Mianovskyi says.
The company started with just 15 employees and the understanding that importing Italian coffee products was the best solution to deliver customers with a quality product.
“In our country, Lavazza coffee is very famous in Soviet history. It’s considered the number one brand because it’s the first commercial Italian coffee to be available in the Soviet Union market. The older generation of 50 years and older only know Lavazza coffee,” he says.
After the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014 under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych, Mianovskyi says “something changed in Ukrainian people”. They started buying Ukrainian products, such as Ukrainian alcohol, and accepting that buying premium, Ukrainian-made products supported the local economy.
“They started realising that compared to the quality of European products, the quality of local products was no less, if not the same. And in the case of Ukrainian-roasted coffee, it’s even better because it is fresh,” he says. “People saw a difference in taste, and they preferred it.”
As such, since 2014, Mianovskyi says Ukrainian coffee businesses have been fast growing. Participation in Specialty Coffee Association education has increased, as has the number of young professionals competing in the national coffee championships, of which Gemini supplies equipment to support the next generation of talent.
“There’s a greater understanding between specialty and commercial grade coffee in the Ukrainian people. If you presented a bad cup of coffee to someone on the street, they wouldn’t drink it,” he says.
This movement has excelled over the past five years, with many more young specialty coffee roasters emerging. To cater to the country’s varying levels of coffee preferences, Gemini Espresso produces 70 different products across three different market segments: commercial-grade, mid-level, and specialty.
Gemini is company’s largest and most popular brand, which Mianovskyi describes as “a powerful, strong commercial brand”. Gemini Espresso’s acquisition of Italian brand Ducale Caffe offers another line of commercial-grade coffee, and its newest specialty coffee brand YoCo – short for ‘Your Coffee’ – launched just four months before the war began. Gemini Espresso sources its beans directly from origin such as Africa and Central America, and from Swiss trading company ECOM.
“The key to buying specialty coffee, is to buy something special, something expensive, and something that tastes different. We have explored new lots and coffees with fermentation techniques that we’re bringing back to Ukraine, coffee that no-one else in the country has,” Mianovskyi says.
He says this specialty arm of the business will never be about large volumes, but rather is a side of the business that’s “good for the soul”, with the hope to one day buy a washing station and visit more origin countries.
“If we grow at the level I hope we can, I might even buy a small farm, and build a small house to live in with my wife, kids, and stare at the mountains,” he says with excitement in his voice. “That would be really nice.”
Over the past 15 years, Gemini Espresso has also grown its network of coffee equipment, now considered the largest distributor of coffee machines in Ukraine, according to Mianovskyi. It sells equipment from 12 international brands and despite a high volume of businesses closing in Ukraine, Gemini Espresso is still selling equipment to new coffee shop customers in Kyiv.
Mianovskyi says coffee shops were the first things to return post-COVID lockdown, and drive-thru and coffee-to-go outlets remain the most popular method of consumption, largely because they stayed open during the pandemic and current conflict.
Thankfully for Gemini Espresso, it’s largest clientele has always been the country’s biggest petrol stations and coffee chains, accounting for the majority of Gemini’s 18,795 clients and partners in Ukraine and abroad. Mianovskyi says one petrol station brand in particular operates around 460 venues, and another has about 260 petrol stations, each with coffee options available.
“These are our number one clientele. It’s a really good market for us. In Ukraine, petrol stations chains are the safest segments because they’re always open. One popular petrol station brews about 100 kilograms of coffee per month. It’s a huge volume,” Mianovskyi says.
For its retail offering, Gemini Espresso distributes its product through B2B wholesaler Metro Cash & Carry, and national supermarket chains.
The rising costs of green beans, and dropping Ukrainian currency means price rises have to be reflected in Gemini Espresso’s product, however for now, it’s experiencing “good commercial results, just not huge profit”.
Mianovskyi has a clear vision of where wants to take the company. His goal is to hold the number one position in the Ukrainian market. Then, it must grow its presence in Europe, and abroad, to which it already has export contracts in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kazakhstan.
“I don’t think a lot of European companies take the quality of Ukrainian coffee companies seriously, but I want to show that quality Ukrainian businesses can be one of the strongest players in the coffee market, and we can compete with the likes of large European brands and coffee companies, such as Lavazza, Segafredo or JDE Peets,” he says.
“We want to show the international coffee community that Ukrainian coffee businesses are still operating and are heading in a good direction.”
Mianovskyi is confident that distribution will increase when the war ends, and that his business will have a prosperous future. He acknowledges that his life, and the direction of the business has forever changed, but is determined to move forward.
“I just hope that one day the world returns to a normal situation, so we can just make coffee, not war,” he says.
This article was first published in the November/December 2022 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.