As a child, Debbie Wei Mullin was surrounded by the influences of her Vietnamese heritage. As she began her entrepreneurial journey later in life, she turned to that heritage to launch Copper Cow Coffee, a direct-to-consumer Vietnamese Coffee that is launching nationwide in Whole Foods. I sat down with Debbie, the CEO and Founder of Copper Cow Coffee, to learn more about the company, educating the US about Vietnamese Coffee, and how she stumbled across their innovative pour-over design on a supplier’s desk.
Dave Knox: Let’s start with the origin story of Copper Cow. What is the backstory of launching the business?
Debbie Wei Mullin: There were a couple of things in my life that pushed me in this direction. The first thing was growing up in the US as the child of a Vietnamese mother and realizing that everybody was eating really different food than I was eating growing up. I thought I was sitting on a goldmine and that if everybody could just try Vietnamese cuisine and realize how amazing it was, we could be rich. But I had a lot of aunts and uncles who came here as refugees, started restaurants, and I saw how it was such a hard life. For the longest time, that scared me away from getting into the food industry.
But then I went back to Vietnam to visit where my mom was from and that really impacted my career because I knew I wanted to do something around supporting the country to have more equitable economic opportunities. While I had a career at World Bank, I realized it was not a great path for me, and my entrepreneurial spirit started to bubble up. I started to look at the Vietnamese coffee market, realizing it’s the second largest coffee producer in the world. I had grown up with the traditional Vietnamese coffee experience but it was beginning to evolve in the country as well. Being able to do a modern California version of the Vietnamese coffee that resonated with this third wave coffee movement that I was living in just seemed like a great opportunity. And that’s how Copper Cow Coffee was born.
Knox: What makes Vietnamese coffee so unique?
Wei Mullin: There are a number of ways that you can define Vietnamese coffee. First, we define it as coffee that was grown in Vietnam. Second, what’s unique about Vietnamese coffee is the varietals that are grown there. But everything matters with coffee such as the way that it’s predominantly volcanic soil that it’s grown in. What this yields with Vietnamese coffee is this really unique, kind of nutty, mocha undertone coffee. Finally, it is typically dark roast because of the French influence and served with sweetened condensed milk, which is also how we sell it.
Knox: When you decided to launch Copper Cow, what was the original idea and go-to-market strategy?
Wei Mullin: My original go-to-market strategy was actually to do a ready-to-drink cold brew Vietnamese coffee. It was about seven years ago and I was simultaneously looking at sourcing this Vietnamese coffee, but then also trying to figure out how I could manufacture it. Cold brew was just beginning to get really popular. And so the idea of being able to have a version of that with Vietnamese coffee was so exciting to me, but I learned that it was so hard to manufacture something in a ready-to-drink format, let alone, actually distribute it. I didn’t really understand how we were going to make money, especially given the fact that this was my first company and the fundraising was such a challenge.
That changed when I found this pour over format that the company revolves around today. We had gotten a booth at the Fancy Food Show, one of the largest food trade shows to meet buyers for stores. The last version of our prototype for the ready-to-drink failed right before the show, due to combining the condensed milk and coffee without adding artificial preservatives, and I wasn’t going to be able to present it at the show. .
Luckily a few months before, I had seen this pour over format sitting on our supplier’s desk, which they told me wasa technology common in Japan. My father had made pour over coffee every day my whole life growing up so when I saw that format, it just clicked. It meant that I could keep the coffee and the condensed milk separate and just create a creamer packet to go alongside the pour over coffee (which I had to rush to make in just two weeks before the show). So we took our 19 prototypes to the show and ended up being chosen as one of the top 5 innovations of the show..
Knox: With so much of your supply chain in Vietnam, how did you build out your network of partners?
Wei Mullin: Through my old career, I had a pretty good network in Vietnam of people working in the World Bank NGO space. I just started to reach out to literally anybody I knew in Vietnam and asked who they knew in the coffee space. One of my first trips to Vietnam was actually for a family reunion and for three weeks I just traveled around to meet anyone I could in the coffee industry. It was really interesting to see how the landscape was changing. During that first trip, I tried 40 different coffee suppliers. I visited farms, roasting factories and all types of meetings with people in the coffee industry until I found people that I felt like were on the same page about what we were trying to bring to market.
These discussions also helped me realize that there was a lot of skepticism because of false promises others had made. People told me that everybody’s saying that they’re going to bring specialty Vietnamese coffee to the US because the US is the largest specialty coffee market in the world. But people never followed through on that promise. That taught me the importance of perseverance as a first-time entrepreneur. You have to get people to take you seriously and to stand out. That perseverance showed these people that I was going to live up to the promises I was making.
Knox: What makes Copper Cow stand out and defy those regional bounds of coffee that often exists?
Wei Mullin: We began to look at national data on coffee grocery sales and that there are so few nationally distributed coffee companies. The issue is that when you discover coffee, it’s going to be in a cafe first, especially specialty coffee products. That cafe centric experience is going to be fairly regional. For instance, if you’re in LA, it’s Groundwork’s or in the Bay Area, it’s Blue Bottle. That brand is going to be so strong there because of the cafe pull and brand ambassadorship that it brings. We’re a digitally native company so we cross those geographic bounds. Additionally, we have this really authentic story around how we have created the product and the taste profile around Vietnamese coffee that resonates with people. What has been exciting is to see that because of this, we don’t do better on the coast and we don’t do better in a specific state. This is something that translates to everybody wanting to have an at-home cafe experience.
Knox: When you look back on the entrepreneurial journey, what is something you wish you had known earlier?
Wei Mullin: The “if I had only known” sentiment never ends. The one thing that I always come back to though is choosing to do things with more confidence that everything was going to work out. Bootstrapping a business for years and sitting there and looking at your bank account, trying to figure out how you’re going to get something done is scarring. It is really hard to feel like, “Okay, this is going to work out, I’m going to commit. And I’m going to just bet on myself and bet on this idea.” But that is something that I wish I had leaned into more in the earlier days. Obviously, it’s easier now for me to do it. Now it’s a different version of that because the stakes are higher. But I could have saved myself a lot of heartache and a lot of stress if I had just been a little bit more cognizant that things are going to be okay.
Knox: This month you are launching in Whole Foods nationwide. How did that relationship begin and what other opportunities are in store for the brand this year?
Wei Mullin: It was interesting timing because right when we were launching, Whole Foods was being acquired by Amazon. It actually took a couple of years for us to get into our first regions of Whole Foods. Right before the pandemic, we were really lucky that we got into two regions, both Southern California, as well as the Rocky Mountain area. We were pretty blown away by how well we performed in terms of a weekly velocity. It might have been expected in Southern California where we are based but to see that kind of velocity in the Rocky Mountain area was exciting. That momentum gave us the opportunity to expand nationwide, and in October, we are going to be on shelf in every Whole Foods.
Beyond distribution, we are really excited because the format is perfect for flavors. Today we have these flavored coffee concepts where the individual pour overs just have natural herbs and spices in them. For instance, our lavender latte literally just has lavender in the coffee. You might not want a whole pot of lavender coffee, but it’s wonderful to have a single serving on that Sunday morning. The flavors have been such a big driver of the brand and sales and the experience of Copper Cow.
So we will continue to innovate on that front. On our website, we’re now offering something that’s a little bit more customized in terms of an experience that you can pick whatever flavors you want. You can pick the number of creamers you want, if any, and so that you can have it more day to day. Treating the website as a product for a customized coffee solution is something that we are excited to continue to invest in. And we’re definitely excited about coming out with new formats. The pour over is a wonderful expression of Vietnamese coffee, but there are ways that we can make it even more accessible and easier for a consumer to have that same Vietnamese coffee experience. Our goal is always to make it even easier for you to enjoy a high-quality cup of coffee at home and on the go.
Knox: With your success, what has been the ripple effect on all of the farmers that you’ve worked with for the past few years?
Wei Mullin: What has been so great about our supplier is that from day one, they have really invested a ton into the co-op where they get coffee from. That’s required so much training on undoing decades of degradation into the Vietnamese coffee market. While Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, during the Communist era, you got one price for coffee no matter what. It led to a lack of quality and because of that, most of it was just being made into instant coffee. People didn’t care when they picked the cherries for instance. There are all these things that began to fall to the wayside if it didn’t really matter how good your coffee was. That has now changed as the market has developed.
Related to that, we are in the process of being fair trade certified and trying to become the first organic certified Vietnamese coffee company out there. It is a steep learning curve for our farmers to understand what that means and why our consumers care about it. But it is definitely influencing how this co-op is run and how Vietnamese farmers are thinking about the fact that we are going to pay them twice market rates to eliminate chemical dumping in the coffee processing and to pick cherries when they are red. And to know that I am going to come back next year and the order is going to be even bigger. They are incentivized to do it right. The coffee quality today is incredible and will be even better in the years to come.