MILAN – From Ukraine to Maine, a journey driven by the same entrepreneurial attitude: this is the story of Maksym Isakov, his family, and his U.S.-based roastery with a Ukrainian heart, Kavka.
Maksym Isakov, he was an owner of coffeeshops in Ukraine until the outbreak of the war
“I was on of the co owners of a chain of coffee shops. We had three our own locations and 7 francheses, for a total of 10 locations under the same brand. In 2019 I sold the company and then I reinvested the money into car dealership, when I started to sell them in Germany with the ultimate goal of initiating with the money an enterprise in soil and agricultural in 2022. But then the war breaks out and I was losing around 50thousand dollars.”
What led you to enter the industry at that time?
“I was in United States in 2015 and by that time in Ukraine we didn’t have many cozy coffee shops. I’m not a huge fan of those drinks that are routinely served in these stores, but people are. At that time, I was fascinated by Starbucks and those cocktails with sugar, milk, that were so far from simple coffee and so I took the money that I made during my working and travel program in Usa and, in 2015-2016 I tried to bring this kind of cozy coffee shops, and different type of drinks in Ukraine.
Right now those concepts have become really popular in Ukraine: I saw a statistic saying that the most popular business in Ukraine is the one of coffee shops. In my experience, they started to grow very from 2017, so quickly that competition was very huge. This process pushed toward the search for high quality coffee drinks and every coffee shops wanted to serve something better and unique.
That really forced businesses to develop: I sold my company because it was very profitable at the time, and I was only 25 years old. My dream was one day making money from growing grains and I had a really good education in this sector.
It seemed like it was destiny, because in USA coffee roasting business is under the agriculture department – Maksym Isakov laughs – I used to visit a lot coffee shops in Kiev, the capital, where there were many roasters that did many shows and european championships. We used to discuss a lot of coffee and our local roaster he was doing a good business: I was always near in roasting business in some wat.
I was always wondering what could make coffee better in roasting, but now that I do it, I can really understand it.”
Then he had to leave his country and, as a refugiato with his family through the United for Ukraine program, he moved to Maine: why this city?
“I couldn’t believe it, because I had a very good plans for 2022, and I have three months old son and a three years old son. I bought an apartment in our town, I was about to start my agricultural business and everything was great. Unfortunately Russia invaded Ukraine in my birthday: instead of eating birthday cake with my kids, I woke up from bombing sound and we moved to a basement. From then on, my birthday will always be associated to this nightmare date. Hopefully, one day my birthday won’t be so horrible, because now I’ve started one of the best ucranian roasting company in USA.
Why to Maine then? I used to be in Chicago in 2016 and I though it was a perfect town, that allows big opportunities, but then I went to Maine because it was there that in 2015 I was an exhange student. There I met a guy that run a small business, he was a friend of an owner for whom I was working for. He was lovely and soon we became really good friends. For exemple, even if we had’t seen each other for many years after my exchange experience, Lance was the one who went in the huge mall in New York and bought a diamond ring for me to make tha wedding purpose to my wife.
It was such a good memory and he was such a good business man ad a good succefull man, completely different from the rich ukrainian people, because he was rich but also a regular person, an exemple for me. He came to Ukraine once, he visited our town and he became a special person to us.
So, when the war started, I send my kids first in Poland and they were using their european connection to find a house, thanks to some support from our friends in Germany. That until USA lauched the program for ucranian people: at that point we chose to go to Maine and at least to have some support. The biggest fear for me was not to die, but how to gain the money to provide for my family. Car business in the first couple of months became a big loss. The biggest problem was the economical part in growing my kids: I was worried about them.
I went to Maine with the idea to go in Chicago, with ukranian churches, friends, stores. But after I’ve discovered the local area, I saw an opportunity among the local businesses. I saw a huge gap in coffee shops: competition is very small and coffee shops owner haven’t developped themselves. If you go and order a cappuccino or a Latte, you can’t see the difference, they look like the same drink.
And you can’t even hold it because it’s too hot. Defenetely I see opportunities and I was unbelievable surprised also from the support by people: when many years ago I went here in USA, people didn’t even know where Ukraine was. Nowadays the situation has changed and everybody wants to help my country, buying my coffee and donating money, also laptops, generators, candies for the kids to Ukraine. It was very surprising for me, because it’s very complicated here with the war going on, to send objects to Ukraine.
We’re doing free shipping to locals and I’m doing it by my self. I could try to give some competition to those people, that’s good especially for clients, because in this way owners would eventually start to think about quality for their customers. They don’t use even authomatics machines, they don’t grind coffee on demand. There’s so much space to do business here.
At the beginning, my main ideas was: if you open a coffee shop, every dollar from a cup of coffee will go to Ukraine. But after couple of calculations, to open a small coffee shop – which would cost seven thousand dollars in Ukraine – here would have cost 65 thousand dollars, so that’s a lot of money and you could be only local. I met a really nice guy here, his father used to be a roaster, so it was his granfather and now he is a green beans trader. He trades like 4hundred thousands of green beans every months from any country in this world.
He could get any bean that you need, he’s like a live book of green coffee. If you’re doing business properly, competition doesn’t scary you. Then I’ll get my own roaster machine, after gaining some money: I would like to buy Diedrich IR 12, because it’s an american brand and if something goes wrong it’s not hard to get the necessary parts. Now I’m only roasting blends because I’m a big fan of them. Single origins can add something to each other, especially in dark roast: here in USA culture roasting, they drink usually very bitter coffees, dark roasted. So I came up with blend idea, I want to do something unique that you can recognize.
My main caracteristique? The people behind the brand, and some european flavour that is between bitter and sour. Comparing the two aspects in the USA makes the huge difference, together with the freshness of the blend itself. “
Isakov, do plan to open your own place in Maine: what’s the goal?
“My purpouse now is really trying to help as many Ukrainians as we can. We don’t donate to big companies, we work with local umanitarian corporations. We buy clothes and practical objects for real people. The goal is to become popular and to rapresent ukranian story. Years ago we had a lot of brands all over the world, and now people are getting tired about the war, but it still going on and it’s even worst. Many people are losing houses, sons, husbands, it’s a catastrophy. I’m trying to speak up about it. I’m trying to remind my self every time I speak with my family and friends in Ukraine, when they say: you remind this guy you used to know? Now he’s dead.
So right now the main goal is to help to raise money instead of opening coffee shops. We could have better margins on our coffee buying a roasting machine. Hopefully when the war will end, there will be a push to economies: ukraines will become stronger and people will appreciate the life we used to have before the conflict.
We will understand that we didn’t appreciate what we had in life. I hope that we could be back to our home, and it will become a big ukranian brand in USA. So we can open up coffee shops and roasteries in Ukraine. I will be back to be with my family and friends there. My mom was an enterpreneur and now she has no money: to find a job is impossible. Right now the level of poorness is 25% in Ukraine and in the next years are going to be worst. “
What is the support system you have activated vis-à-vis Ukraine?
“Formally we donate a dollar from a bag roasted, and it goes to Ukraine. Some people could say that is not a lot, but I’m trying also to start a business here. Some says: we donate five dollars to Ukraine, but the coffee bag cost 22 dollars: I don’t want to do that. I would rather sell milion bags of a really good coffee with a right price, without using ukranian brand by overrasing my prices.
I could easily charge 20 dollars, because people are going to buy it. But I don’t want only to sell because there’s a war. We don’t want to grab money from people because we’re associate to Ukraine.”
How have you develop your network of client?
“I get a lot interest from local shops, restaurants, but that’s not something I’m looking for. Especially because, first of all, some shops try to over order my coffee, because they don’t want to pay too much for the shipping and so they buy hundred bags and they keep them for months. I don’t want to do that, because then the coffee will taste bad and people will attribute it to my work as a roaster.
Another thing talking about restaurant is that many people don’t know how to brew coffee properly. Sometimes I taste my coffee there and I don’t recognize it. I ask: show me how you make it and I see people that prepare it by eyes, withouth any parameters to follow.
People need to have passion for thier work and when they do, they will pay attention to thew details. Without passion they don’t worry about coffee, taste, or customers. Baristas and servers are new every month and so it’s hard to teach them well. I really want to find gold customers that can serve well our coffees and keep them fresh, that is the key.
Usually, when I have an order, I try to roast the same day my order is coming and by time the ship, it usually takes 48 hours. The result is unbelievable different.
There are so many coffees in grocery stores and markets, but the roasting days it could go til 2/3 months ago. I’m really fighting right now to get the shipping rate as low as possible and when we will buy our roaster, we will offer free shipping orders over 35 dollars. My focus is just to sell directly to consumers, not to stores. Or, to some retails that I’ll make sure that don’t make coffee that are going to sit there for months.
In Ukraine we don’t have so many resources as they have here in USA, so all people do businesses and the competition is huge: you have to pay attention on small things and you’re in a position to care about clients. There’s a said of which I’m a big fan:“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
Because Usa has a such amazing times, economically people just relax. Competition is huge accross my coffee shops in Ukraine and you couldn’t give up and always put yourself by the part of customers. In some restaurants you can see sticky floors, hole on the floors. In my coffee shops in Ukraine, if I see something like that, I would have fixed it. Quality shouldn’t be granted.
Ukranian people are hardworkers, you can call my people at any times even in weekends and you can be sure that the job would be done. Here in Usa they can afford not to do it.
We need to create always new recepeis to be competitive. In our coffee shops we used to sell an espresso with some piece of lemon and orange for exemple: because people needs to stays in the market, they create all the time for something popular. In Maine there’s a big gap and I will try to use it, withouth stealing someone’s business.
I’m not thinking about specialty coffees, because it’s not enough profitable for my business. I’m trying to be a good coffee roaster and also be a good enterpreneur. Maybe I will use them for session of tasting to involve more people and make them curious with some entarteinment, but I won’t sell them.”
What are its upcoming future plans?
“Space for roaster together with coffee shop. And wholesale/retail outside of Maine, in some big cities. We are going to be a biggest Ukrainian brand in the USA. Also I would like to place our product in Ukrainian communities.”