I had the chance to connect with Peter Lee, founder of COBA, The Coffee Bar. He has created what can be considered part of the “4th wave of coffee” and has spent years perfecting the bar.
Can you give us a highlight of how your journey started?
It really started with the question of, “What do I think the future of coffee is going to be?”, as I’ve been a coffee guy for a long time. In fact, I actually dropped out of high school with the idea to start a café and thought that was going to be my future. After that, I ended up going to community college, which is when the third-wave coffee movement became big.
Some of the coffee shops we are familiar with today, such as Blue Bottle Coffee were up and coming. I was really into the space, but realized the economics of opening a café didn’t make sense, so I went ahead and built a coffee roaster company. Long story short, I went through the process of starting a that as well as sourcing coffee and realize the future of coffee has to be something different.
I felt the 4th wave had to be something that was portable, convenient, and high quality. When you first grind coffee and make chocolate out of it, coffee gets stale very quickly. The first iteration of COBA was not high quality and did not taste great. It took having a long-term vision that this could be something better and part of the new wave of coffee. I tested the product for 3 years with over 200 iterations to come to the product we call COBA today.
It’s interesting that your path has had so many twists and turns. Can you tell us about this?
The story makes sense now, but when I was in the process it really did not. Honestly, it was just one curiosity after the other. I was thinking about what should I do next…and next? To provide some background, when I dropped out of high school, I was honestly a great student with a near perfect SAT score and high GPA. It was the circumstances around me that pushed me into the direction of not wanting to continue with school.
As mentioned before, I went to community college a little while after, then transferred to UC Santa Barbara. Throughout the time from high school to UC Santa Barbara, I applied to UC Berkeley four times. I had been rejected three times, and when I when I finally got accepted, reputation did not mean much to me. I was just applying more so to see what would happen. Going through that process, as well as having a coffee roaster company that did not go as far as I had originally anticipated has given me the grit to keep going. Honestly, you do not hear so much about people’s failures anymore.
How would you exactly describe what it’s like to eat COBA, since it is coffee in the form of chocolate?
If you like coffee and if you like chocolate, you are going to like COBA. It is coffee made into a chocolate form. It took a long time to understand the tempering and molding of the product. We had to figure out how to ensure the coffee would not oxidize after you grind it for a long period of time.
Essentially you are eating coffee, which looks like chocolate. However, it is not chocolate because there is no coco in the product. We have a trade secret coffee and mix it with coco butter and sugar to create what is known as COBA.
I am championing this as “eating coffee” but to simplify it to someone in the mass market it is coffee made into a chocolate form. Our mantra is “eat coffee”, which is something new to think about.
Where is COBA now, and where do you hope to go in the future?
We are online as well as in 10 retail stores and cafes, primarily in the Bay Area. We have a couple of cafes in LA that also carry the product, but our website is the easiest way to purchase COBA. From a retail perspective, it an aggregate of the smaller stores that validates us getting into bigger chains such as Trader Joes or Safeway in the future.
In the circumstances we are in with COVID-19, I did not want to put our team members at risk by going to stores. It requires a lot of boots on the ground type of work by asking the owners “Hey do you want to carry our product?”, so we are holding back on that and reinvesting our resources into expanding online.
How many choices are there of COBA?
There are two choices. We have COBA Milk, which is the original bar which has taken us this far. We also have COBA Black, which a vegan bar which tastes like dark chocolate. We put in activated charcoal which enhances the bar and holds it together. We have looked into expanding our product offerings, but at this point we really want to hit home with the two options we have now.
What are some of the challenges the team has faced and what challenges are you currently working through?
Our team came in with this love for coffee. I have brought in two co-founders and three additional team members, and each of us has our own strengths. However, there is so much learning along the way from understanding the process of raising money, how to get licensing and health permits, to incorporating the product. We had to learn as we went. Our passion for the product is driving us to continue forward.
The most significant challenges right now, is to make sure we are spreading the word about COBA. We also are continuously working on having a seamless reorder experience for the customer, but we need go get people to try the product first. With that said, we are currently having a “try three free” promo, where the individual just a few dollars to help cover a portion of the shipping cost. This promo has given people to ability to try COBA at a low cost.
Lastly, what advice would you give to others?
From my experience, in the beginning you have to say yes often. I’ve said yes to almost every opportunity and some have come back to bite me. I’ve tried to say yes, especially when it comes to helping other people. When my team asks, “Should we try this or that?”, the answer is, “Yes, try everything.”
New entrepreneurs can always say yes more. You will usually net more than you lose if you can make thoughtful choices. You also have less to lose upfront. My path of being optimistic and working smart has worked so far, and I keep that as my personal mantra.
Link to website: COBA, The Coffee Bar