Local brew maps offshore expansion
It started out as an idea while she was taking up her diploma in sports science and exercise at the University of the Philippines-Diliman a decade ago. Tired of the countless coffee choices that didn’t suit her taste, Cheng Pabilonia founded Starkaffea Corp., aiming to bring to the market “indulgent” and “beneficial” beverage.
It was the first business venture of this coffee connoisseur. Starkaffea is a pioneer in using coconut sugar in its beverages, making the brand a great choice for diabetics due to its low glycemic index. It also uses local, high-quality and sustainably- sourced ingredients.
Kaffea, the flagship product, is dairy-free as it uses coconut creamer, thus suitable even for the lactose-intolerant. The blend also includes regulated coffee content, agaricus mushroom, collagen, COQ10, gano derma, grape seed extract, glutathione and L-carnitine.
Its Chocolea fortified chocolate drink is enriched with Vitamins A, C, E, calcium and iron, along with iodized salt, nondairy creamer and cocoa powder.
Finding its niche
Starkaffea is small but it is a family-driven success. Julian Pabilonia, the founder’s late father, had played a crucial role during the company’s early days. This 2023, Julian Victor Pabilonia Dupaya, joined as a doctor consultant on call.
The 46-year-old Pabilonia is now bringing Starkaffea coffee and chocolate beverage products to the global market.
It is often believed that being small keeps business enterprises nimble and Starkaffea is no exception.
“We are a lean team of 10 people and three management staff but we are ready for any eventuality,” says Thelma Gecolea, marketing lead and board director at Starkaffea. She was also Pabilonia’s professor at Centro Escolar University when she took up her degree in mass communication. Gecolea had also worked with Pabilonia in the creation of Chocolea.
Starkaffea’s products had already been distributed in Singapore from 2019 to 2022 but pandemic uncertainties disrupted this.
Its global expansion was put on hold until February this year, when a group of Filipino-American business executives and health advocates from California approached the company. The parties sealed an exclusive distributorship arrangement and the first order from Kaffea Gold USA arrived a month later, marking the soft launch of Kaffea and Chocolea in the United States.
“While we have not yet reached our prepandemic sales record, we are optimistic that sales will slowly inch their way to recovery as economies continue to open up and to go back to normal. Sales performance, however, improved by almost 30 percent since the height of the pandemic,” says Gecolea.
“We are taking our baby steps in global expansion as of the moment but hopefully, we want to reach out to Filipino communities in the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, European Union and in Middle East countries,” says Gecolea.
In order to break into the competitive US market, Starkaffea leverages social media and e-commerce platforms like Shopify and carves its niche by appealing to Filipinos looking for healthier options.
The pandemic had a surprising effect on Starkaffea as Filipinos became more health-conscious.
Starkaffea is also launching a resellers program targeting overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in order to connect more with the Filipino communities in the US.
“Kaffea and Chocolea are proudly Philippine-made. Our primary market is Filipino community but we are proud to share with you that Americans and Europeans have tasted our brands and are satisfied with the brands,” says Gecolea.
Gecolea adds that initial feedback from OFWs in the US has been very encouraging. This pushes them to do even better with their products, she adds.Starkaffea might be heading now into the international stage but it is still committed to source its raw materials from farmers in the Philippines.
Gecolea adds that the packaging for their products is eco-friendly and that the company supports and encourages sustainable farming practices.
“We collaborate with our farmers who are helping us and whom we are helping as well. There is always mutual benefit and support, and we are thankful that we have the farmers behind our back,” says Gecolea.
As Starkaffea takes its flavorful journey across borders, its Filipino roots remain deeply ingrained. With a lean yet determined team at its helm, it aims to conquer all challenges along the way.