Guilt-free Coffee Pods

Sharing an article I was commissioned to write last year by Seima for their product magazine. 

When faced with the environmental problem of coffee pods, Toby Strong decided not only to do something about it, but also wow people in the process.

It’s rare these days to find a kitchen without a coffee machine. The proliferation of pod machines has put great coffee at the fingertips of those who balk at more complex processes, but the trend comes with a cost – the environmental damage of all those used pods. While no one knows the exact numbers, it’s estimated that in Australia alone, billions end up in landfill each year.

Like many coffee pod users, Toby Strong felt guilty about their effects and hoped that someone would do something about it. But following the birth of his son, he realised that someone had to be him.

Toby Strong

Fortunately, Toby was in a position to make a difference. He’d been the first to introduce Nespresso-compatible pods to the Australian market and his business, Podpac, is a wholesale coffee company making pod products for other brands.

“There were a lot of people crying out on social media for an eco-friendly pod, so we added a biodegradable product to our range. Having that technology costs more, but it worked out at retail to only 10 cents more per pod.”

The product bombed. Fortunately, Toby enjoys a challenge.

“Challenges help you grow as a person, and sometimes that means failure but you learn from it and you get better. I guess I get a sense of fulfilment from tackling a massive challenge and overcoming it one way or another, it’s like playing a mental game of chess.”

He decided to seek a new approach. “I figured we had to create a different system where we could still offer a biodegradable product but at the same or cheaper price, that didn’t require people to change their habits. To do that, we had to come up with an entirely new business model.”

The answer was Urban Brew – a coffee pod product sold direct to consumers online, using recyclable and biodegradable pods and eco-friendly packaging. The high-quality coffee is ethically sourced and Fairtrade, roasted onsite, and caters to all kinds of coffee lovers, from those who like an intense caffeine hit (strength factor 12) all the way down to decaf. The products also cater for Nespresso, Caffitaly and K-fee/Aldi machines.

Getting it right meant more than just great coffee and a wide product range, though. Toby wanted to have the focus on the customer throughout the whole process and inject a sense of fun into the brand.

“We all have a lot of fun together here and I wanted our customers to share in that,” Toby says. “I wanted it to have personality and humour, like with our website, it gets stupider the further down you go.”

They’ve gone extra lengths to make the customer experience a positive one, starting with making it easy to purchase. There’s no minimum spend on individual purchases, free shipping is offered Australia-wide and subscriptions can be paused or cancelled at any time.

How far they’re prepared to go to wow customers is evidenced by their handmade choc-dipped wafer cup, originally added to every order of five boxes or more. Offering it meant learning how to work with chocolate – a far cry from roasting coffee.

“That choc cup was a major challenge to get right as chocolate can be far more temperamental than coffee. Once, during a heatwave, the chocolate kept blooming, so we sent out bags of lollies with an apology note, instead.”

Yet there’s one thing customers seem to love even more – a handwritten card in every delivery.

“Of all the things that we do, people have really been surprised by that card. I’ve been advised to get them printed instead but I want people to open that package and be wowed by how much love and care has gone into it.”

Clearly, they’re getting it right – they are regularly contacted by customers who tell them how much they love the product, and in just 18 months, online sales grew to about 20 percent of the total business and they’re in the process of expanding.

As for how Toby feels now his idea to make a difference has become reality, he says simply: “I sleep much better.”

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