A taste of Cameroon on Madison

Kribi Coffee officially being mentored by Starbucks co-founder, Zev Siegl

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Melissa Elsmo

Food Editor

Zev Siegl, co-founder of Starbucks, is a global speaker focused on inspiring entrepreneurs to make thoughtful and innovative decisions to set up new ventures for long term success. He has presented keynote addresses and served as a business advisor in Kuwait, the United Kingdom and South Africa, among others. And now Siegl's expertise is making an impact in Forest Park.

"Zev Siegl is officially advising Kribi Coffee through a pro-bono mentorship," said Jacques Shalo, Oak Park resident and owner of Kribi Coffee, 7324 Madison St. in Forest Park. "He has garnered so much experience across the board and is known for discovering unique businesses and personally mentors two or three at a time. We are among the businesses he is mentoring now."

Shalo has been cultivating a relationship with Siegl for the last two years after a friend alerted Siegl to Shalo's coffee aspirations. The coffee mogul began doing background research on the business before Shalo, whose business at the time was focused on air roasting technology, reached out to Siegl for the first time in late 2018. The business mogul requested patience and indicated his busy schedule would likely prevent prompt responses but urged Shalo to get into the coffee shop business as quickly as possible.

"He told me to stop talking about the technology," said Shalo. "He wanted me to get into the position where people were tasting the coffee and let them tell the story."

That singular email inspired Shalo to acquire Counter Coffee in Forest Park and from there the two developed an easy rapport and communicated sporadically via email. Siegl's interest in the endeavor piqued substantially, however, when the shop rebranded as Kribi Coffee Air Roasters to reflect Shalo's Cameroonian heritage in July 2020. Jerimiah, Shalo's son, captured Siegl's attention through his powerful branding and design contributions to the project. Communication became more regular and the Starbucks co-founder offered valuable behind-the scenes guidance for Shalo and Kribi Coffee.

In late December 2020, the mentorship became official.

"This mentorship has emboldened me to be true to my vision," said Shalo.

Kribi Coffee was established with the intention of disrupting the value chain of coffee by putting more dollars into the hands of hardworking farmers rather than the roasters. Kribi's onsite roasters allow for green coffee beans, with a long shelf life, to be roasted just before brewing. The approach results in a superior cup of coffee.

Shalo, who grew up on a coffee farm in Cameroon, was sourcing green beans from various countries around the world, but Siegl suggested Shalo narrow his focus. Shalo was hands-on in his family's coffee business from age five onward until his family fled the country when he was a teenager. Siegl encouraged Shalo to focus his coffee sourcing exclusively on the farms and farmers in his home country.

Inspired by Siegl's advice Shalo reached out to his eldest sister and legal practitioner, Barrister M.N. Weledji, who resides in Cameroon. Weledji wrote a biography of Shalo's mother in 2013 detailing how the family came to own their coffee farm because of their mother's entrepreneurial drive.

"I was determined to act on my legacy and bring as much sincerity and heart to Kribi Coffee as I could," said Shalo. "My sister, who was actually waiting for me to step up, connected me with friends and relatives who worked on coffee farms in Cameroon."

In fact, Shalo, connected with Kyle Abongnwi, a distant relative and agent with Aseans Cameroon LTD, a respected privately held coffee and cocoa export company in Cameroon.  Serendipitously, Abongnwi was already managing more than 400 farmers, educating them to on how to improve their product and paying them two-to-three times the commodity value for their coffee.

Over the past six months, Shalo successfully worked with Abongnwi to gain the trust of the farmers in hopes of pre-buying their highest quality green Arabica coffee beans for use at Kribi Coffee.  Shalo established a farm for Kribi comprised of 11 acres of land and built relationships with 600 farmers who are harvesting 500,000 pounds of green coffee beans for Kribi Coffee. The Forest Park coffee shop acquired a warehouse and expects the first shipment, totaling 40,000 pounds, to arrive as early as February.  The beans will be offered at Kribi Coffee bringing a taste of Cameroon to Madison Street and used partially for wholesale distribution.

As for the future, Shalo is making the most of Siegl's direct mentorship and documenting processes to ensure he has a replicable model designed to have social impact in Cameroon as well as local communities. In an aggressive projection, Kribi Coffee could grow to 690 stores worldwide over the next seven years. An incremental step toward that goal involves a very realistic expansion in Chicagoland. In the coming year Shalo aims to open a second Kribi location in Oak Park with expanded on-site storage and roasting capacity to facilitate a robust e-commerce business.

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