Startup To Scale

176. Copper Cow Coffee, Debbie Wei Mullin

July 01, 2024 Foodbevy Season 1 Episode 176
176. Copper Cow Coffee, Debbie Wei Mullin
Startup To Scale
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Startup To Scale
176. Copper Cow Coffee, Debbie Wei Mullin
Jul 01, 2024 Season 1 Episode 176

 Debbie Wei Mullin, founder and CEO of Copper Cow Coffee, the sustainably sourced and (soon to be) very first certified organic Vietnamese coffee company. Debbie founded Copper Cow in 2016 out of her sister’s garage with a mission to transform Vietnamese coffee farming via sustainable practices – now, they’ve sold 20 million+ coffees to date, all while supporting farmers in Vietnam. they've certified Vietnam's first-ever organic coffee farms, and later this year Copper Cow will become the first organic certified Vietnamese coffee brand (8 years in the making!). They've invested over $100K into converting the farms to organic + pay farmers 2x the market rate for their coffee. 

Startup to Scale is a podcast by Foodbevy, an online community to connect emerging food, beverage, and CPG founders to great resources and partners to grow their business. Visit us at to learn about becoming a member or an industry partner today.

Show Notes Transcript

 Debbie Wei Mullin, founder and CEO of Copper Cow Coffee, the sustainably sourced and (soon to be) very first certified organic Vietnamese coffee company. Debbie founded Copper Cow in 2016 out of her sister’s garage with a mission to transform Vietnamese coffee farming via sustainable practices – now, they’ve sold 20 million+ coffees to date, all while supporting farmers in Vietnam. they've certified Vietnam's first-ever organic coffee farms, and later this year Copper Cow will become the first organic certified Vietnamese coffee brand (8 years in the making!). They've invested over $100K into converting the farms to organic + pay farmers 2x the market rate for their coffee. 

Startup to Scale is a podcast by Foodbevy, an online community to connect emerging food, beverage, and CPG founders to great resources and partners to grow their business. Visit us at to learn about becoming a member or an industry partner today.

Copper Cow Coffee, Debbie Wei Mullin

Jordan Buckner: [00:00:00] Building out a CPG brand is been especially challenging the last few years because there's been this switch between digital growth to in store growth and back and forth. I think, you know, we've been talking a lot about building an omni channel brand, but when you're a small team, you tend to kind of focus on one channel or the other for your growth because you're going to leave to buy your attention and resources.

So far, I think what's also amazing is there's been a growth in brands looking to build sustainably sourced companies and really paying attention to where their products are coming from and the both, you know, health sustainability and then also environmental sustainability around that as well. So, one thing I want to do is invite on today's guest, who is Debbie Wei Mullin, who is the founder and CEO of Copper Cow Coffee They're a sustainably sourced and soon to be first certified organic Vietnamese coffee company. One thing that's great is Debbie started the company in 2016 out of her sister's garage, really with a mission of transforming Vietnamese coffee. coffee and [00:01:00] farming via sustainability practices. She's Vietnamese Jewish American herself, and they've been able to grow the company to now over 20 million coffees sold today.

Debbie, welcome to the show today. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: Thank you so much for having me. 

Jordan Buckner: So why Vietnamese coffee and how did you kind of get into the industry now? Eight years ago. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: Well, Vietnamese coffee, I always joke it's the gateway coffee. Even if you don't drink coffee, you're gonna like Vietnamese coffee. It's so my mom's from Vietnam and I just think Vietnamese coffee is super, super special.

But at the same time, my dad is a big coffee head and he's from LA and. Always grew up drinking pour over coffee. And so it was kind of interesting to grow up in California and see my dad's pour over go through this total renaissance about like suddenly I knew so much more about where the beans were coming from and how it was ground and how it was going to be brewed.

And then But that my mom's Vietnamese coffee everywhere was just kind of the same and though it was always one of my favorite copies, but I was like, why isn't there kind of a similar [00:02:00] evolution happening with Vietnamese coffee? And so , eight years ago, I was working at the World Bank and fairly disgruntled in a very large bureaucratic company and wanted to be able to have impact in Vietnam, which is why I started to work at the World Bank.

But wanted to think about a way that felt more authentic to myself and to what I thought I could bring to the world, and once I started to find out, look, research about Vietnamese coffee and found out that Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, but totally left out of the specialty space it made me really excited about the idea of what if someone went out there and tried to do the same thing that we're seeing.

And that was kind of the, and I don't know, I started to think about it and then now it's eight years later and I was just pretty obsessed about it. 

Jordan Buckner: I absolutely love that. mean, tell me about the actual products that themselves, because you know, you have both Vietnamese coffee, but you also have a great way of kind of pouring, albeit both the beans, right.

And kind of pourable coffees, so it's easy to wake up. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: Yeah, so we sell bags of coffee [00:03:00] we're coming out with whole bean, but right now all of our coffees are ground because our, we have really exciting flavored coffees like our churro cinnamon or vanilla coffees, and we're the only company that flavors them with whole herbs and spices, so like, We custom grind cinnamon sticks into the churro coffee and that's all there is, versus like a sprayed on essence, which is what all other flavored coffee is, and then we sell our individual pour overs, like you said, so there are these little handy pour overs that are pre filled with our coffee and you can fit them over any mug.

And that's actually, like, how we got into the Shark Tank and all that good stuff was it was very Instagram ad friendly, those little pour overs. And then something else that I think is a really exciting part of Vietnamese coffee is that we use condensed milk which is, like, a really awesome treat in coffee.

And what's great is that it's, it's truly a better for you treat in that, like, all other shelf stable creamers. are full of preservatives and chemicals and sweetened condensed milk is totally shelf stable and it's just milk and sugar, two ingredients. That's all that's in our creamers. 

Jordan Buckner: I think that's amazing.

A great way of kind of bringing those full flavor [00:04:00] profiles in a way that's easy and accessible, even for people who like, don't, you know, grind their own coffee. They can enjoy your products. You know, I'm curious because you've been in this journey for eight years now. The good thing I love about a category like coffee is it's so ubiquitous that there's a incredibly large market size.

You don't have to educate people about what coffee is but at the same time, it's really competitive that there's like thousands of coffees. People have their own favorites that they usually kind of build a ritual around. I think Vietnamese coffee had a lot growing familiarity here in the U. S.

But I'd love to hear some of your challenges, especially early on around building that awareness and education for people drinking Vietnamese coffee. Did you find that it was, you know, Vietnamese Americans who were primarily drinking at the start? Was it a wider customer segment? Did they involve any more education to really understand the differences of the product?

What was that journey like? 

Debbie Wei Mullin: There's been many phases to it, which has been really interesting. And I think that like when I first started you know, I grew up in California, I grew up in the Bay Area, and thought that Vietnamese coffee was pretty well known. Like everybody I [00:05:00] knew knew what Vietnamese coffee was but if anything, they maybe just knew what I knew, which was that, oh, it's Vietnamese coffee, just kind of like that inexpensive coffee you get in a Vietnamese restaurant.

So I set out to make my brand and made like the mark, like kind of like the marketing focused around, this is Vietnamese coffee, but it's really nice. And I very quickly learned that people didn't know what Vietnamese coffee was. And , that like, that you get lost as soon as you, and it wasn't, it actually wasn't hard for people when they would taste it, when they would see the packaging, like it wasn't hard for them to understand that it was a premium product.

It's just that oftentimes talking about it being Vietnamese brought more questions than answers. And I think that I kept coming back to the ethos of like, what was it like for that person who first introduced Greek yogurt? Yeah. I liked it. They'd come out being like, you should try it cause it's Greek and like, no, like that's going to be really confusing.

But it's not, it's not for Greek people, right? Just like my coffee is not for Vietnamese people. And so trying to come back to that being like, so then what's important? Like, I think that it's like, I [00:06:00] need to describe what's awesome about the product. And then when someone's curious about why. Why it tastes the way it does.

Why does it have this like really chocolatey mocha undertones? Why does it have, why does it serve as sweetened condensed milk? Why does it have this flavor profile? And then you could, why is it so much more sustainable? Like all the things that we actually offer as a brand. We can say like this is the power of Vietnamese coffee and like then they can learn more about it rather than that being like the headline.

So we are 100 percent Vietnamese coffee and that is like what I know the best. That's what I know. We spent what there's so much depth to what we're going to bring to the market with that. But understanding that even if someone is, has heard of it, maybe they've only had it in like a low end version too.

So just being really cognizant of like. What does this mean to somebody because it being Vietnamese is important to me, but like, maybe not to everybody else. 

Jordan Buckner: Yeah, and I think that's a good point because it probably is by itself a place like L. A., Vietnamese coffee had a high name recognition in terms of like, oh, yeah, I've heard of it, but probably less of a trial initially where they haven't actually [00:07:00] experienced it or understand what's different about it.

And I bet, you know, similar to, you know, You know, Colombian coffee, right? We're doing, you know, coffees from around the world that there's a huge variety in terms of what's out there. There's some really great kind of sourcing stories and production stories and flavor notes that are different from coffees around the world.

Some probably are more blended, some are single origin. And so just one coffee experience with a Vietnamese coffee does not mean you've tried them all. And I can see that being a really cool opportunity, but also a challenge for you. I'm very curious. Did you kind of learn that from? Doing demos and talking with customers of like, really understanding how to change your positioning and messaging.

Debbie Wei Mullin: Absolutely. So it was because we were just hitting the pavement when we were starting, right? You're just going to every fair, farmer's market, if the first grocery stores you go into, you're just like on the floor, handing out samples. So you're, you like in the beginning, it's just you're with customers actually all the time and everyday customers.

Rather than like talking to like, you know, the Whole Foods national buyer, right? And I think that that's been, it's just so critical when you're [00:08:00] starting your company is to not be afraid to just, whenever you have an idea or like, cause I can't even count how many iterations of packaging we went through because of that experience of being like, Hey, it's Vietnamese, but it's nice.

And then like being like, okay, we have to totally redo what we have on the front of the packaging because people are confused. We have to bring this up. We have to make this clear. We have to put pictures on it. You know, I think that it's just really, really helpful to see people walk up, what they pick up, what they buy, what their questions are, what they do when their friend walks up and they tell that they, and they repeat, you know, all these things are really, really critical when you're starting 

your company.

Jordan Buckner: I love that. When you started off, were you primarily selling direct to consumer or in retail? 

Debbie Wei Mullin: So we have a really interesting trajectory in that I wanted to do, I originally wanted to do a ready to drink Vietnamese coffee and I spent over a year trying to formulate it and I had gotten a little table at the fancy food show, which is like one of the big trade shows for you to meet buyers to stores.

And two weeks [00:09:00] before we're, I'm supposed to exhibit. There's a malfunction and, like, the RTD still isn't working. And I learned a lot. It's just because the, what I wanted actually wasn't possible. Like, I was like, I wanted to have a long shelf life and taste amazing and have clean ingredients.

And it's like, actually, that's not, it's actually not possible with the ready to drink coffee. And so I had planned to do this product on e commerce, this pour over and creamer. And I just decided to present it there and we got into a thousand stores right away. Wow. It was just like an overwhelming, we got picked as the top innovate, top five innovation of the trade show.

We got into so many stores, it was really overwhelming and I had raised a little bit of capital at the time with friends and family and I was like, okay, I'm going to fulfill all these orders and then I'm going to launch my D to C strategy and it was a big lesson in cashflow. You know, around getting into all of these retailers and them having these kind of longer net 30 net 45 terms and I'm having to pay everybody because we're just starting out like up front and suddenly, even though it looks like we're making money and growing, it's like [00:10:00] I have no cash.

So we didn't start it. We didn't really start a true D to C strategy until 2 years in after we were able to raise like more significant capital. 

Jordan Buckner: Well, when you switched over to D to C. Were you continuing to grow those retail stores alongside or did you kind of pause with the retail that you're in, maybe take on inbounds, but kind of focus on D2C or did you do that simultaneously?

Debbie Wei Mullin: We did them simultaneously, but we really focused on accounts that were more profitable with, and I think that, and especially things that we thought we would, you know, be able to kind of grow the brand with. So we were actually in a lot of department stores. We were in like Neiman Marcus and just Bloomingdale's and all of these kind of more boutique y kind of stores.

Jordan Buckner: Tell me about that a little bit more. Why, what led you to think about department stores? 

Debbie Wei Mullin: Well, , they were the ones who were interested in us. I think it was because we had really beautiful packaging and they're always like, you don't realize that these stores actually move a lot of products like this and those like beautiful kitchen displays or like us or a springtime display.

And that there's [00:11:00] actually a lot of opportunity there. I think it's a little bit different post COVID. But back then it was actually I think it made up about half of our revenue up until the pandemic, these stores. Yeah. 

Jordan Buckner: No, that's amazing. Appreciate it. Did the, I was gonna say, you said half of your revenue, so the sales were there at least pre pandemic in terms of like, in the department stores, I think that's amazing.

With D2C, I think your products are great because they're small, they're lightweight, right, especially in the portable kits, which make them like the perfect candidate. What did you do to really grow that D2C awareness? 

Debbie Wei Mullin: It was all meta ads or back then it was, you know, Facebook, Instagram, really Instagram was where we were able to grow insanely fast.

We grew a lot before the pandemic and then during the pandemic, it was just kind of insane. So I think that was, it was really exciting. Like you turn it on you, you give a cost per acquisition, like, target, we were basically always able to maintain that and scale and scale and scale our spend up until the iOS update.

Jordan Buckner: Got it. I think that's amazing. When did [00:12:00] your Shark Tank launch happen or episode happen? Cause I think that's probably a really exciting opportunity. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: Yeah, so we filmed it. It was the first thing filmed After like in the pandemic. So it was the first thing that got greenlit.

So I was six months pregnant and I went to Vegas and they rented out like a whole a whole area of the Venetian. So I just stayed in the Venetian for 10 days. And this was like back, it was the first thing filmed. So we still didn't know that much about COVID. So every day to take multiple COVID tests for 10 days, I wasn't allowed to leave my room for 10 days.

And then you're pregnant and going through this experience. Yeah, it was like so ridiculous. And then it filmed, I remember we were really sad because even if you film, there's only like only a third of the companies actually get. aired and they only let you know a couple weeks beforehand.

And so you know, the whole, the seasons from like, you know, September to May is like the whole, it's like when they air it and it was like, you know, April and they were like, they're not going to air us. We should just take it out of the forecast. And also again, email being like, you're going to be , on the [00:13:00] season finale.

Jordan Buckner: Oh my goodness. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: We were so excited. And it ended up being like a really, really exciting moment. We had a deal on the show with Robert and it was really exciting. It was like I always tell people that it was a really impactful experience. You know, we were able to get a lot of, a lot of new customers and brand awareness that way.

Jordan Buckner: I feel like for a lot of emerging brands, it's really their first national television exposure where it's almost like running a commercial but better because you have a ton of people and a lot of people watch the show are early adopters for products and just like want to find founders and companies that they support.

Did anything special , or unique kind of come from that experience? 

Debbie Wei Mullin: I think that's something it was, it's interesting. A lot of founders ask me whether they should do it. Because. A, it's like really, really hard to even get picked to be filmed, let alone air. And so I think that it's a lot of work.

I think that something that other founders who told me who was on the show was like, don't underestimate, this is actually a lot of work. There are so many rounds of pitching and that you have [00:14:00] to do to be able to make it all the way. And I think that looking back, what I think was an asset that you don't realize that you get is.

As I feel, I thought at the end, I'm like, I know how to be on TV now. Like that's the thing is you get, you get assigned these casting producers who are incentivized to try to get you to the next level. Right. And they want you to film and air too. And so there you get like, you know, tens of hours of like, of like media coaching.

And I think that that was something that I walked away feeling really good about it, even though I know it would have been like a big disappointment to have not aired. But I think that that was, it's made me a lot more confident. Like we were just on Good Morning America a few weeks ago and I feel like I'm like, I'm able to go in pretty confidently versus probably if I hadn't had that experience it'd be a lot harder.

Jordan Buckner: I haven't heard anyone talk about that and I think that's really amazing. I watched the voice and it's kind of like getting acting, or voice acting training and musical training from some really great, so I think that's really exciting. I know one thing that you have been really passionate about are supporting Vietnamese farmers as [00:15:00] well.

Tell me about , your journey of helping those farms become kind of organic certified. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: Yeah. So we've, it's been a. crazy journey because from the very beginning we've been trying to source from organic farms and it was really I was really surprised when I went out to look for them that they just didn't exist.

We could find some organic farms, but none that were certified and that the certification process just seemed way too daunting. And then during the pandemic, it was really hard for us because the country completely shut down or completely closed off its borders. So we weren't able to really make progress.

On organic certification until about, let's see, it's been about two years that the, that the borders opened up literally exactly two years. And I remember getting on like the first flight I could to Vietnam and being like, how are we going to find some, how are we going to make organic coffee ourselves?

Like, how are we going to find partners who want to go down this certification path, who want to commit? To reducing chemicals and to bring a premium Vietnamese coffee products and it's been two years in and we just certified our first farms last month. So we certified [00:16:00] 20 hectares of farms and it's the first of its kind and it's building out the whole supply chain.

We had to make an investment ourselves into some of the processing facilities. And I think that the last two years have been a really challenging time in CPG around. Pivoting more into, into retailers, into like being, having a totally different growth model and all of this stuff is really, really hard, but I think that that's the strength of being a mission focused company is that it always gives you something to be rooted in, to be really passionate about, even if you're like, Hey, we're not growing like 200 percent year over year but instead you're able to say like, well, we're going to grow and what we're going to do is we're going to totally innovate and we're going to.

Double down on our mission. And I think it's been really, really, really amazing for everyone to be galvanized around that. And to see the real progress come in this past month and to be able to have a line of sight now to us being able to say, Okay, this is the first 20. How do we make that 200?

How do we make that 400 so that we can source all of our coffee [00:17:00] from organic farms in Vietnam? 

Jordan Buckner: I think that's so amazing that you've been able to not just Stores from those parts will also help invest in them. How did those conversations come apart? Were it, was it necessary, like in order to get them there, you had to help make those investments along with them?

Or is it something that you just like really were so passionate about that you in the company want to kind of contribute to those efforts to make it happen? I'm, here's how that comes about. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: So it started with us being like, okay, so we found people in a, a really amazing co-op that wanted to go organic as well.

And so we were able to work with them to say, Okay, well, we can help with financing some of , the fees for the farm because it is just expensive the first time that you actually get certified to just really put our money where our mouth is and say, we're willing to pay all of that. And then you guys can just pay it back for us a coffee like through credits for coffee later.

But we can show you. That this is like you are guaranteed this amount of business and that we're not going anywhere. And so that was kind of the first step. And then it's just one of these things where like you just don't [00:18:00] realize what it takes to actually have a fully organic supply chain come from nowhere or like come, you know, come up from scratch.

So after we have the farm certified, you know, that's great. But then you have coffee cherries and like, That have coffee beans in them and the coffee cherries have to be removed and the coffee has to be processed and all of these things and there has to be an organic facility for that to happen and that does not exist in Vietnam, you know, and so I think that it was, and especially because we bring like premium green bean processes, which is not standard in Vietnam, but it's like more standard for specialty coffee.

And so we, yeah. It's like, again, like it's not like you can find one or the other, but someone that does both. And so we basically had to finance it saying like, okay, this is like the whole, what are we going to do? Again, we're going to put our money where our mouth is and we're going to finance this so that we can have the full organic supply chain so that like us or other customers can have a fully or access to fully organic certified coffee from Vietnam.

Jordan Buckner: I think that's absolutely amazing and thanks to you [00:19:00] for like doing that work and helping to support those farmers. I'm sure it makes a huge impact in their lives. Debbie, thanks so much for being on and sharing the journey of Copper Cow Coffee, coffee, I am so excited to hear everything that you've accomplished and all the challenges that you've had to navigate and how you've come out through all of that and can't wait to see what's next with your business.

Debbie Wei Mullin: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. 

Jordan Buckner: I'll put information in the show notes on how you can find out more information about Copper Cow Coffee and learn more. Debbie, thanks so much. 

Debbie Wei Mullin: Thank you.