Coffee Island CEO Konstantinos Konstantinopoulos on his journey of discovery to put people over profit

Coffee Island

Coffee Island CEO Konstantinos Konstantinopoulos on leading by example, democratising greatness, and why he feels a deep sense of responsibility to make a difference across the coffee value chain.

When Konstantinos Konstantinopoulos first offered to work with Greece-based Coffee Island as an external consultant, he had two aims. The first, was to improve the company’s supply chain processes and procedures. The second, was to get involved in the roastery.

“Everything I did and everything I changed, was an absolute failure,” Konstantinopoulos tells Global Coffee Report. “I couldn’t understand the difference between producing materials and producing food. I couldn’t comprehend how and why each batch of coffee was different in terms of taste. You can have different roast profiles and roast times, but the only way to understand what truly happens to the coffee, and the quality of what you produce, is to cup and taste the coffee. For an engineer who is very focused and dedicated to systems, this was difficult to accept when I’d rather use a machine test and assess the quality. Instead, in coffee, everything has to do with sense and feeling.”

Konstantinopoulos faced the obstacle head-on and decided to change his attitude and approach. He identified a lack of industry knowledge and says he was grateful the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) appeared in his life, as did this publication, of the few industry literatures in 2011.

“I did everything I could to learn and improve. I completely transformed my mind and understanding. It was a long journey of discovering,” Konstantinopoulos says, even working part-time in a dairy factory to discover how milk is produced and handled, then best combined with coffee.

“I discovered that there are many parameters that can change the end product, but the only way to minimise risk, was to build a totally vertical integrated business,” Konstantinopoulos says.

This is the message he told Coffee Island then-owner Evangelos Liolios.

“We needed to look at every single aspect of our business, from the farmer to the final cup. We never had in our mind concepts of direct trade, Fairtrade, third or fourth wave coffee,” he says. “We were receiving coffees from traders but there was limited information available. Instead, we grabbed a backpack and went to meet the producers, talk with them, and discuss the difficulties they faced. We didn’t do it to build marketing material. We did it because we realised the huge effect all these things had on our business.”

The intention to “promote the truth” and “minimise risk”, paid off. Business improved, it created strong foundations and infrastructure, and Coffee Island built connections and partnerships the world over. But what was most impressive, Konstantinopoulos says, was the company’s motivation.

“We became inspired to keep working and trying to improve. Coffee Island was established in 1999, but the best part is that we’re just at the beginning of our journey,” he says.

No straight road

A mechanical and aeronautic engineer by trade with a masters degree in manufacturing, Konstantinopoulos worked in the industry until 2008 when the European debt crisis began. A friend advised Konstantinopoulos that if he wanted to continue working as a freelancer consultant in manufacturing, and remain in Europe or Greece, he would need to work in the food industry, for which there would always be demand.

“I followed his advice and started work in Coffee Island in 2009. The founder was a very good friend who owned a small roastery. I told him I’d only stay a couple of months to help him, but at the same time I wanted the opportunity to understand how everything worked,” he says.

Fourteen years later, Konstantinopoulos is still working at the Patras-based roastery, but is now company CEO of what has become the seventh largest coffee chain network in Europe, and has led the company through Greece’s recession, economic downturn, and global pandemic.

“What’s normal anyway?” he says. “There was no normality to begin with, just an industry with volatile circumstances in which we always had to adapt to.

“We developed our business during the recession in Greece. We could have kept crying and asking for financial injections from the government, or we could try to grow our business. We decided we needed to be adaptable and flexible and create a system that was relevant to the financial environment and market needs. In order to be successful and differentiate our module, we needed to democratise greatness. Greatness is not about having our product in the hands of a specific number of consumers in terms of pricing and geographical location. We wanted to create a long and diverse network of stores with a good diversity of products, but always totally focused on quality.”

As such, Coffee Island created a franchise system that was profitable and offered strong differentiation of products. And in Konstantinopoulos’s analysis, “it worked”.
He used the recession as an opportunity to change consumer’s perception about coffee quality. At the time, he says coffee in Greece was likely the lowest possible quality one could find. His job was to have customers be proud of the coffee they consumed.

Coffee Island supports 25 producers on a regular basis, some of whom have been long-standing partners since 2012.

“Walking around with a Coffee Island coffee became a status of quality,” he says. “At the time, we were the only one who managed to create a large volume of stores, proving that specialty coffee can scale. It’s a huge investment from our side, and it’s hard to maintain the quality output of the nearly 4000 people that make coffee in our store, but we did it.”

The next step was to “perfectly engineer a cup of coffee”. Coffee Island created all the necessary systems to uphold consistency through the coffee value chain, along with holistic training and education through its own Coffee Campus. Coffee Island now has around 500 stores, approximately 320 from franchise partners, and is a four-time recipient of the Best Coffee Chain – Southern Europe Allegra Coffee Award.

“We are very satisfied and happy about what we have done, and we have exceeded our initial targets and the dreams we had,” Konstantinopoulos says. “But what we realise, is that if we grow our business, create more Coffee Islands and more profitable businesses, we can increase the impact we have to society by buying more coffee, and helping more people and more farmers improve their lives. The impact we can have in people’s lives is enormous and significant, and it’s what inspires me.”

Konstantinopoulos says travelling to origin is a reminder of this impact, and the severity of what the end market can control.

“It’s my responsibility to explain to producers and pickers how important their work is to the [consuming market] and to keep motivating them to continue,” he says.

Coffee Island works with 25 producers on a regular basis, some of whom have been long- standing partners since 2012. It also works with micro-farmers who produce less than 80 bags, in order to give them market access.

“We try to build long-term contracts and partnerships to ensure our partners feel safe if they have a bad year of production, and that we feel safe in case we have a bad year of consumption. But if you are aligned, you are better together. I use the phrase ‘our suppliers are an extension of our enterprise’, and it’s exactly what we believe. Our farmers are an external partner but an extension of our business,” Konstantinopoulos says.

Onwards and upwards

Coffee Island has experienced significant growth in Greece and Cyprus, and since 2017 when it started international expansion. It opened its first store in London, followed by Toronto a year later, then Dubai, Germany, Geneva, Bucharest, and Egypt. Konstantinopoulos says Coffee Island’s future growth in the Middle East, North America, North Africa, Europe, and Canada will be determined by attracting the right partners, not by specific markets.

“We try to understand the relevance of our products to the local market and modify accordingly, but if you are focused on quality, you only need to adjust. At the same time, we want to test our products and service because we still want to build an international brand, and we need to convince our audience and potential customers that we deserve [their business],” he says.

“[Coffee is] a very competitive market. It’s a dynamic market. It’s also a challenging market in terms of price and currency exchange, and there’s volatility. There are many distractions that can steer you away from a focus on specialty and quality, and the ethics and values you have. [There are] many excuses to quit,” Konstantinopoulos says.

But he hasn’t. Instead, he’s dived headfirst the entire way, even taking on a role on the SCA Board of Directors.

“When I became a Board Director at Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) in 2015, I realised it was a very good way to really have access and the power to change things,” Konstantinopoulos says. “After the merge and unification [between SCAE and SCAA] in 2017, what we created was one international association that’s become very special. You have close access to prestigious people from different backgrounds, and it’s a role and responsibility I take pride in.”

Konstantinopoulos truly believes the SCA has the power to improve the coffee industry for the better, citing the most recent example of its new coffee value assessment system.

“It is something that will revolutionise the future. After 20 years, we’ve tried to widen and further the definition of quality. After many years of very long discussions, we learned that the best way to serve and contribute to sustainability is to define in a better and more holistic way, the definition of quality, because quality is always equivalent to pricing. This is a very big change [for the industry], from a one-dimension to a multi-dimension system that will benefit producers as well as roasters,” he says.

“In my company, we have nine Q graders. That doesn’t mean anything because at the end of the day. You need to understand how the consumer perceives quality. It’s not only about a score, or the extrinsic beauty of coffee. It’s about what the market needs, and all this together gives you a system to help improve it. We know it will be tough. It will dramatically change everything, but change is not meant to be easy.”

In the meantime, Konstantinopoulos is committed to travelling, roasting at the factory, connecting with Coffee Island stores, identifying new opportunities for growth, and finding ways to constantly improve.

“I enjoy everything in my coffee life. I still have plenty of energy and a huge motivation to do great things,” he says.

“I’ll be a tourist guide for a few weeks after World of Coffee in Athens (22 to 24 June), then I plan to visit origin including Ethiopia and maybe Peru. I love Ethiopia. We partner with Water to Thrive, a fantastic project creating wells for small villages. It amazes me that despite the lack of vital infrastructure, people there are friendly, peaceful, polite, and express their inner kindness with a big smile. This is what inspires me – I get to see the importance of coffee in people’s lives, and it reminds me how blessed I am to work in an industry that gives me an opportunity to help people.”

This article was first published in the May/June 2023 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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