In the business realm of specialty coffee, challenges abound as passionate purveyors strive to stand out amidst the giants of commercial coffee. Their efforts are often beset by hurdles like the complexities of sourcing and supply chains, quality workforce, price-sensitive consumers, and the need to educate the masses about what sets their brews or beans apart.

In the United Arab Emirates, an unsettling trend has been brewing beneath the surface, catching the eye of international coffee professionals. The Map It Forward podcast (featuring Lee Safar and Nawar Adra) shed some light on the subject and now it seems that the world is watching as a growing list of UAE-based roasters and coffee suppliers have been stirring the waters and engaging in some unsavoury tactics. Their sales efforts include under-the-table commissions to baristas, incentivising them not only to favour their beans but also to sabotage the competition. This dark practice has unleashed a storm of ethical, legal, and business quandaries that threaten to leave a bitter aftertaste in the specialty coffee industry.

city skyline during night time
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Imagine a world where trust, integrity, and honest competition in coffee circles are replaced with manipulation, dishonesty, and bribery – a world where the aroma of freshly brewed coffee is tainted by the stench of deceit.

This questionable strategy doesn’t just raise eyebrows; it can lead to legal repercussions, as it often constitutes bribery or unfair competition. Moreover, it erodes the bedrock of professional relationships, causing a domino effect that can burn bridges between coffee roasters, baristas, and coffee shop owners.

What’s worse, prioritizing personal financial gain over the quality of coffee served is a recipe for unhappy customers and a bruised reputation. By putting profit above passion, baristas may compromise the very essence of their craft. Meanwhile, fair competition suffers as ethically-minded coffee roasters face an uphill battle, overshadowed by their unscrupulous counterparts.

The integrity of baristas who accept these under-the-table deals is also at stake, potentially tarnishing their reputations and career prospects. This practice can even sow discord among coffee shop staff, as those with a strong moral compass may take issue with their colleagues’ unethical behavior, resulting in a toxic work environment.

woman holding mug of cappuccino
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Most importantly, these underhanded tactics chip away at the heart and soul of the specialty coffee industry. The industry thrives on transparency, quality, and a shared love for exceptional coffee experiences. When deceitful practices infiltrate this world, it undermines the very foundation on which specialty coffee is built. As the integrity of the industry crumbles, it’s not just the aroma of coffee that’s at stake; it’s the very essence of what makes specialty coffee so special.

I recently had a chat with a rising cafe owner who was on the hunt for a top-notch barista to head their coffee bar. With a 12-year track record of nurturing local coffee talent, I offered to lend a hand in finding the perfect candidates, and I inquired about the salary and benefits on offer.

What I uncovered next was nothing short of mind-blowing. The owner casually mentioned the salary cap was a paltry AED1,200 per month, all-inclusive. When I challenged this jaw-droppingly low figure, given the skills and expertise required, his response left me speechless. He basically confirmed that the barista would make up for the low pay with a commission from the coffee roaster, as they saw fit.

hand holding fan of us dollar bills
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I couldn’t fathom why he would even entertain such a thought. Under this model, it seems the barista would be more loyal to the coffee roaster than the cafe owner. They might prioritize boosting daily coffee consumption without considering the cafe’s operating costs or even deliberately increase waste, eyeing a bigger commission at month’s end. Worse still, this approach leaves little incentive for the barista to meet service quality standards or KPIs set by the cafe, essentially sabotaging its success.

In this swirling storm, there’s yet another trend that adds a twist to the tale. Increasingly, baristas are taking center stage, stirring up negotiations and playing roasters against each other, all in a quest to secure the most lucrative commission. Amidst this high-stakes game, the coffee itself is often pushed to the sidelines, taking a back seat as the aroma of personal gain wafts through the air. 

In the end, the once-gleaming reputation of a business becomes marred by the stains of deception, while trust crumbles away like the last remnants of a forgotten coffee bean. As the value of the business dwindles, one can’t help but wonder: was the fleeting taste of short-term gains truly worth the bitter aftertaste of a ruined legacy?

shallow focus photo of coffee beans
Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on

Fair to say, it’s time for a fresh start and a renewed strategy. One that embraces ethical practices, sustainability, transparency, and top-notch product quality to build a robust, resilient local coffee culture that thrives in the long run. By championing these values, a roastery can create a magnetic brand that attracts loyal customers, fosters meaningful partnerships, and leaves a positive, lasting impact on the specialty coffee industry.