Career change: ‘French coffee choice was limited so I made my own’

Diana Rafla explains how she was inspired to start her own coffee business

Diana Rafla changed role from charity director to coffee roasting
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Over the years, I have had a variety of jobs, but my most recent was as the International Operations Director for a small microfinance charity in the UK. This meant managing micro-loans for entrepreneurs in developing countries.

In 2016, my husband Marcus, who is 39 and works for Airbus, got transferred to France, and our family moved from Bristol to a new home in Toulouse. I left my job three months before we moved since the role couldn't be easily worked remotely, and I was pregnant with our second child, Emma (now six).

After the move, I focused on looking after the children for the first couple of years. However, I always knew I wanted to use my skills to generate an income and do something meaningful.

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Embarking on a coffee roasting journey

In 2019, I started chatting with a friend in Cuba. He, too, had moved for his spouse's job, so he understood the position I was in. He had done a lot of work with coffee farmers in Latin America and suggested I try coffee roasting.

It was a throwaway remark, but I felt my ears prick up. I wasn't a coffee connoisseur, but even I had noticed the lack of variety in France. There is a huge market of coffee-drinkers, but generally, the offerings are limited – heavily roasted, very dark, very bitter.

Indeed, the speciality coffee roasting sector in this country accounts for just 6% of the market share – far lower than the US, UK, and Germany. I realised there was huge potential.

Starting small and making investments

I began doing some research, bought a tiny home roaster, sourced small amounts of coffee beans from suppliers, and set about trying my hand at roasting. Once I had a handle on the basics, I enrolled at the London School of Coffee. I completed two back-to-back courses in just under three weeks at the end of 2019. I learned a lot, and needless to say, a great deal of coffee was consumed!

When I returned to France, I scaled up – investing in a 5kg coffee roaster instead of my 250g starter machine. I registered as a micro-entrepreneur under the trade name Contrebande Bean and began producing a variety of coffees, selling them to friends. Their response was amazing, so I built a website and started looking for new markets.

Although it is still early days, I now supply two cafes and several local boulangeries, but a lot of my sales come directly through the website. During 2020, we invested in a horsebox, which we renovated into a mobile coffee trailer. I take this around to speciality markets and events.

Embracing variety with a dynamic working week

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The more I have explored different flavours of coffee, the more my own tastes have developed. I often choose a darker roast for earlier in the day and a fruitier, lighter one for later. The reaction from the French market has been great. Several people have told me I have ruined other coffees for them!

As for my working week – no two days are the same. On Tuesday mornings, I have a regular space in front of the train station, and I often attend events on weekends. Coffee is my main product, but I also offer artisanal lemonade, cookies, and cakes.

Currently, I source my coffee from a great supplier in Antwerp – they work directly with farmers and source responsibly. One day, if my business grows sufficiently, I would love to work directly with farmers.

While I do not regret the change we have made as a family, and I love what I do now, it has been quite an adjustment coming from a high-ranking, responsible job to running my own small business. Overall, however, I am pleased with how things have turned out – the flexibility is great, and I am aware this is only the start.

One other result of the job is that I now have much more respect for people in the coffee industry. It takes more skill than you would think to be a professional barista, and I always tip generously!

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