Waka Coffee spearheads the instant revolution

Waka Coffee does not want consumers to abandon their coffee routines, rather, its products are designed to offer better quality coffee on-the-go. Image: Waka Coffee & Tea

Waka Coffee is on a mission to change instant coffee and tea’s reputation from ‘bad’ to a good ‘cuppa’ that just happens to be quick, easy and convenient. By Kathryn Brand

“When we started Waka, more than three years ago, we tried to bring the instant revolution to the United States,” said founder and CEO of Waka Coffee, David Kovaleski, explaining that the company’s ambitions are to change consumers’ perception of instant coffee and tea. In the US, where Kovaleski noted that “instant coffee is perceived as your grandma’s coffee,” Waka has already seen growth in the instant market, with its own sales increasing four to five-fold since before the pandemic.

Kovaleski said its winning secret has been to augment the US coffee market rather than to upheave it, “We are never saying to our customers: ditch your coffee maker, ditch your ritual, we say complement it.” He insisted that customers can still enjoy their rituals of grinding their coffee beans, steeping their tea, but Waka comes into its own for on-the-go beverages or times in the day when the ritual isn’t quite so significant. “A lot of companies tell you: we are better, choose only us. We’re saying we are better than any other instant coffee out there and we are better coffee for preparation, for ease of use but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need only instant coffee always.”

Distinguishing its instant

The quality of Waka’s instant coffee is something Kovaleski believes sets it apart in the market, by freeze-drying its 100 per cent Arabica bean coffee. “Most traditional instant coffee, especially in the US, use Robusta beans and spray-dry their coffee, that’s why you have this bitter aftertaste. Our instant coffee is made from a higher end coffee bean and is processed in a more delicate way, so it preserves more of the aroma and flavours of the beans,” he said.

Waka’s instant tea is also made from 100 per cent real tea leaves which are brewed into a super concentrated liquid with cold water rather than hot to preserve the flavours and aromas. It is then spray-dried to evaporate the thick liquid into a concentrated powder which dissolves straight back into regular tea when water is added.

David Kovalevski, founder and CEO of Waka Coffee & Tea. Image: Waka Coffee & Tea

Beginning only with instant coffee, Waka introduced a single SKU of instant tea as an ‘add-on product’, which grew organically into its own category. The pandemic played a large role in this growth, for both instant tea and coffee. Social media trends such as whipped Dalgona coffee, health shakes and recipes requiring instant tea dramatically lifted Waka from a start-up business, to having its inventory sold out in a week. “A lot of people in the US were looking for ease and convenience when the pandemic hit. They were now working from home more and were caught off guard without coffee makers,” Kovaleski commented, adding, “When you want to have a coffee break when you work from home, it’s a much easier product.” He noted that the US instant coffee market grew by 30 per cent during the [initial] Covid-19 lockdown.

The pandemic was a driving force of this interesting shift in coffee habits with both US and UK consumers. As Kovaleski revealed, instant coffee was unpopular in the US before the pandemic, but the newfound necessity of it during the lockdowns and homeworking allowed many mindsets to be changed. However, the market in the United Kingdom is very different. Instant coffee was mainstream before the pandemic, but then people missed their coffee shop visits and replicated that routine in their own homes by investing in their own coffee machines and making the switch away from instant coffee.

Navigating new markets

Walnut, California-based Waka’s products are available in the US online and in retail stores. It ships its products internationally via iHerb to 165 countries, including the UK. Navigating the contrasting UK and US markets is a challenge Waka is looking forward to confronting head on as the business grows.

“In the US we are pretty much starting afresh, and we need to convince consumers that our product isn’t your old school instant coffee,” shared Kovaleski. “So, in that regard it’s harder because we still need to do the education, but it’s also easier because for them we are new products. However, in the UK it’s easier on the one hand because instant coffee is already well perceived, but on the other, it’s harder because people already know what instant coffee is so they’re judging us a bit more.”

Waka’s instant coffee comes in a variety of formats. Image: Waka Coffee & Tea

The cultural disparity between UK and US consumers is of course also present in the tea market. For Brits, tea is hugely cultural and ritualistic, and the prospect of instant tea is almost sacrilegious. The process of putting on a kettle of water to boil, brewing the tea and memorising everyone’s specific milk and sugar requirements is not something that would be given up easily by Brits. However, Kovaleski feels that there is a lot Waka can bring to the table. “There are two things, first is useability, and second is actual functionality.”

He said that instant tea’s useability exceeds that of tea because it can be brewed cold as well as hot, a huge benefit for those wanting to make iced tea. It is also significantly more concentrated so a much smaller quantity is needed—only a quarter of a teaspoon per serving, with each bag containing 200 servings, and retailing at USD $14.99 per bag, makes it highly economical, and cheaper than a tea bag. It also has a longer shelf life than tea bags, which sit at between six and twelve months, compared to Waka tea at about three years in its resealable bags.

In terms of functionality, Kovaleski said that Waka’s tea is much more eco-friendly. “You don’t have tea bags; you don’t have waste.” Many other tea companies will use bleached tea bags, many of which also contain plastic that poses the risk of microplastic contamination to both the body and the environment.

Waka’s instant tea experienced strong
sales growth during the pandemic. Image: Waka Coffee & Tea

Waka perpetuates its sustainability principles throughout the rest of its company practices too. Kovaleski explained that in terms of sourcing, it works only with coffee and tea suppliers that it knows are adhering to its sustainability values. Its packaging is all recyclable and made from recycled content and any paper that is used is certified by the Safe Forestry Initiative. Waka ensures its packaging is as compact and light as possible to limit its carbon footprint and it donates to support clean water initiatives in 26 countries, as well as managing its own Add Water, Give Water programme which is donated to on a rolling basis.

Yet there is always more to be done. “Our goal, as technology evolves and more packaging solutions become available, is to offer our customers even more eco-friendly solutions. We are all about less mess, less waste in how you make your coffee and tea, so we also want to make sure that this is how we deliver our products as well,” said Kovaleski.

Planning Ahead

As a relatively new company still, Waka is of course looking to the future, not just with its sustainability but with its future business plans. At the end of 2021, it received a $725k investment infusion, which it has already begun to use, and there are plans to utilise it further, alongside raising additional funds.

“We are going to double our SKUs of instant coffee, and we are going to launch light and dark roast coffee from Ethiopia and medium roast from Papua New Guinea in instant coffee,” shared Kovaleski.“We are rebranding, and we have launched new SKUs, new packaging types, and are going to change all of our websites; they’re going to look even more approachable and allow us to put our name out there in a more professional way.”

Reiterating the company’s desire to change the perception and demographic of instant coffee consumers, Kovaleski said Waka’s new packaging and website will look to encourage this evolution by being more colourful and designed. “All of our branding is much more approachable, young, inviting nothing like your old school instant coffee.”

Waka began rolling out a new line of instant flavoured teas in April starting with a peach-flavoured and a lemon-flavoured green tea. Image: Waka Coffee & Tea

Waka also began launching a new line of flavoured teas at the end of April, beginning with a peach-flavoured instant green tea, which will shortly be followed by a lemon variety. “All our flavourings are made from natural ingredients with no added sugar and are non-sweetened; there’s nothing like that in the market,” said Kovaleski noting that most people are accustomed to instant tea from the current two or three players in the industry, “which all have a bunch of sugar, additives and preservatives so ours is just natural flavours mixed with natural tea.” He also revealed that flavoured coffee is in the works.

Waka invests a lot in Intellectual Property trademarks that relate to its proprietary instant process as well as R&D. With the US retail market share of instant coffee at $760 million per annum, and instant tea at $260 million (per IRI Total US Multi Outlet report for the 52 weeks ending 28 November 2021), the instant industry continues to grow with Waka firmly in its saddle.

  • Kathryn Brand joined Bell Publishing as an editorial assistant at the beginning of 2022 after graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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