Emirates Man speaks to Founders Robby Ceriale and Ash Worthington of blu matcha on what it takes to open a Gen-Z lifestyle concept cafe and the vision behind the rapid expansion.
What do the first 30 minutes of your day look like, your morning routine?
RC: I use my first 30 minutes to prepare my mental state for the rest of the day. Depending on the season, I normally catch up on baseball highlights, see what has happened in global news overnight, and spend some time with my partner and our dogs. I try to not eat until lunch, as I find I am much more productive in the mornings when I am just running off my morning matcha.
AW: My morning routine is typically spent with my 7-month-old son. I am usually up just before him, as I am an early riser. This time is very important to me because it puts me in the right frame of mind to take on the day’s challenges. We typically throw the record player on and entertain ourselves, while my wife prepares herself for the day.
Where does your love of matcha come from?
Our love of matcha comes from our appreciation for Japanese culture and culinary expertise. We both worked in Japanese restaurants for many years and have both spent some time in Japan, where our passion for Japanese products really started to take form. The dedication the Japanese people have for completing every task with perfection was truly inspiring to us, however, we wanted to put our own fun twist on a product that has been around for thousands of years and had not been properly introduced into the Middle East.
What are the health benefits of matcha that sets it apart from drinking coffee or tea?
While there are many health benefits of matcha, what sets it apart from drinking coffee is the caffeine component, L-Theanine. This type of caffeine produces a state of calm and alertness by reducing the brain’s levels of cortisol. Coffee does the exact opposite, by producing high levels of adrenaline and a cortisol spike. In a nutshell, matcha gives you a “matcha” more sustainable boost without the spike and crash.
Matcha is healthier than drinking tea because you are digesting the entire plant and not just steeping the tea leaves. Therefore, the number of antioxidants and benefits to your body are much greater.
What inspired you to create the brand?
We started blu matcha because there was a lack of quality matcha beverages in the region. While matcha did exist here already, it was not made right and had a negative stigma around its taste. We decided that we wanted to make matcha fun and accessible by showing people that it can taste good, and its applications are endless.
What hurdles did you encounter when you launched, and how did you overcome them?
RC: What hurdles did we not encounter? While there were and still are hurdles that we face every day, what was hardest for me, in the beginning, was realising there are a million things that I needed to focus on at the same time. Whether that was landlord relations, supplier issues, dealing with contractors – it felt like there were not enough hours in the day. What I found out is that organisation is key, and writing everything down to plan out your days, weeks, and months is huge. It sometimes can all feel overwhelming, but when it is all clearly laid out in front of you it all becomes manageable.
AW: Since I deal heavily in the operational side of the business, I too felt that there were many things to focus on, and learning how to prioritise them was paramount. Certain decisions we chose, such as making fresh soft-serve ice cream, turned out to be much more challenging than we initially thought. Who knew there is a lot of science behind soft serve!
Once we opened, it was extremely difficult to change the negative stigma around matcha. This hurdle is a constant battle, but with our passion and light-hearted spirits, we show people that matcha is both fun and accessible. Having a good and trusted business partner and best friend to be able to bounce ideas and issues off is also a lifesaver with any hurdle!
What sets blu matcha apart? Can you tell us more about the concept?
When we started this business, we were the first in Dubai to have a dedicated cafe, and now others have slowly started to appear – we see this as proof that we are onto something big here!
Having a dedicated matcha concept is something that we approach with a fun and light-hearted attitude. We like to say that blu matcha is “inherently sophisticated but does not take itself too seriously”. The success of our concept has opened up numerous opportunities for us in various business areas such as retail, fashion, government entities, and many others that we were previously unaware of. Our growth and expansion strategy will leverage these opportunities to further solidify our position as a leading player in our industry. Every day is a learning experience, and we are both very grateful for that.
How difficult was it sourcing the highest quality matcha?
Luckily, we found an amazing UAE-based tea emporium, that is as passionate about matcha as us! So, getting the matcha was not necessarily difficult, however, it was difficult to choose which matcha we wanted. This process involved many different matcha tastings and note-taking on what flavour profiles suited our beverages best. For our ice cream and pastries, we even worked with them to get a special important culinary grade matcha that is out of this world.
How do you see the brand evolve and scale in the next five years?
From when we first opened just over a year ago until now, I think the brand has evolved in many distinct ways. The brand collaborations we have undertaken with renowned brands such as Rimowa, Les Benjamins, Tesla, The UAE Space Agency, and many others have exceeded our expectations and have allowed us to expand to multiple locations now.
After seeing how much we have evolved in one year, who knows what the next 5 years will have in store! We are currently focused on really cementing a strong footprint in Dubai as well as moving to Abu Dhabi. We are also focused on setting up blu matcha ice cream carts and then eventually scaling towards the rest of the MENA territories – Saudi Arabia in particular right now.
What do you enjoy the most about running blu matcha?
RC: I enjoy the ongoing challenges and the subsequent victories. Ash and I often joke about the challenging situations we have encountered, but we always manage to succeed. I also take great pleasure in having guests who initially claim to dislike matcha but end up falling
in love with it. Those small moments are crucial for a growing business and receiving customer validation brings a smile to our faces.
AW: What I enjoy the most is having a business of our own that I can fully dedicate my passion and attention to. Working with such talented individuals and being able to bring out the best in each other, as well as witnessing people’s reactions after trying our ice cream for the first time, is truly rewarding.
The branding is Instagram-friendly, unique, and distinctive. How involved are you both in the creative process of the business?
Both of us were heavily involved at the start in coming up with the branding alongside our strategic business partners. We went through many iterations of our branding before we landed on the simple, yet infectious and relatable smiley face. Now, we are blessed to be able to work closely with our amazing in-house designer on all the media and design strategy teams.
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What would be your advice for those wanting to start up their own business?
RC: My best advice would be to not be afraid of constantly evolving. Your business ideas, strategies, and vision will constantly take on new life and it’s important to embrace this evolution. Also, you are only as good as the team you have around you.
AW: I believe that listening to others is important, but trust in your own intuition. Keep the passion and the drive high and never give up. Focus on the present because the end goal will follow.
How many varieties of matcha do you offer? What are your must-try matchas?
We currently offer three different types of matcha in our beverages, as well as one for our culinary offerings. These include our “cocktail” grade – Kagoshima, which is an organic matcha from the prefecture of Kagoshima in Japan, which lends itself to milk-based beverages and our two ceremonial grades – Yame, and Fuji (also organic), from the Fukuoka and Shizuoka prefectures, respectively. Our culinary grade is called Brewstring, it is also organic, and it is used predominantly in our ice cream alongside other food offerings from time to time.
Our must-try matcha is without a shadow of a doubt, our signature – the Vanilla Almond Latte. This is the drink that started it all and uses Kagoshima matcha combined with our homemade almond milk. It is rich and creamy and has just the right amount of natural sweetness in it from the dates within the milk.
Please share your matcha-making tips.
Matcha must always be kept in the fridge! Contrary to popular belief, matcha does go bad after some time, so keeping it in the fridge will prolong its shelf life and keep its vibrant green colour. Run your matcha powder through a sieve. This will ensure there are no large clumps and that the matcha blends easily. Remember to always add your water to the matcha and not the other way around. Lastly, make sure to whisk your matcha thoroughly. Do not rush this process. Make sure it is all evenly whisked throughout.
With those three steps in mind, go out and make the perfect matcha latte!
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