In October of 2013, Megan Ducharme and her partner (now husband) Kyle traveled to Thailand to teach English. They had no idea that less than a year later, they would start their own coffee company, Kao Jai Coffee, working with Thai farmers to sell their delicious coffee beans to American customers at prices that were fair to everyone. Kao Jai is not only exceptionally delicious coffee (seriously, I’m usually a “six sugars and a ton of cream” girl, but I drink Kao Jai black!), it’s coffee with an inspiring story and an unwavering social conscience behind it. None of this would be possible without Kao Jai’s ebullient co-founder, Megan.
Megan was kind enough to take a moment from her busy schedule and talk with Ravishly about her unexpected career path, going into business with her significant other, and being open to new opportunities — even when they involve trekking up a Thai mountain in search of a great cup of coffee.
Let's start at the beginning: what brought you to Thailand?
After Kyle graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, we decided we wanted to go on an adventure together before setting down roots somewhere and getting traditional jobs. At the time, we had some friends that were teaching abroad in Madrid, Spain. We reached out to them and heard that they were getting paid to teach and also had their living accommodations paid for, so we thought, “Hmm we could travel abroad while keeping our savings intact? That’s perfect!”
We decided we not only wanted to go to a country where we didn’t speak the language, we also wanted to go somewhere where the culture was drastically different than what we knew in America. Kyle reached out to one of his friends who was teaching in Thailand and she told us about the program she went through to teach there. After a little more research, we decided it was the program for us!
We went to Thailand with the intention to teach English and came away with a coffee company.
How did you first become acquainted with Thai coffee and the farmers who grow the coffee beans?
Our school placement was in the North of Thailand, just outside the small city of Chiang Rai in Ban Du. On the weekends we would ride our motorbike downtown to hang out at various coffee shops to plan our lessons. At first we couldn’t figure out why there were so many coffee shops — there was one on every corner and three in between. Eventually we found our favorite, Yoddoi Coffee & Tea, and after a few visits we started to learn about how coffee is grown in the mountains nearby. About three visits after that we decided to ask if we could tag along to the mountain with them. The owner of the shop connected us with his sister, who took us the following weekend. We got to visit the farm three times throughout the season. We got to help harvest the coffee on the first visit, process and sort the coffee on the second, and prepare the coffee for export on the third.
What did you know about coffee prior to this experience? Did you ever imagine that you'd be running a coffee business?
We knew how to order a “tall coffee” before we went to Thailand. That’s about it. We had no idea about the different growing regions about the world, the varietals, or the roasts of coffee. We primarily drank drive-thru Starbucks and McDonald's coffee before visiting Thailand and learning about Thai coffee. Before leaving for Thailand, we were excited about the possibility of wild and crazy adventures we read about in our friend’s blog posts, but we never imagined we would come home entrepreneurs in a market we knew nothing about. It’s been a wild ride — even more wild than the four-wheel drive trek up the side of a mountain without paved roads to the farm — but we have learned so much about starting a business and the amazing world behind a simple cup of coffee.
At what point did you and Kyle realize this crazy coffee dream was actually a feasible idea? When did it hit you that you could truly make this happen?
After we visited the farm and saw the way the farmers were living, we knew we wanted to make a difference. We had no idea how this was going to happen, but it was a desire that was strong, and remained strong after the first visit. We decided to take the extra time we had at our desks between classes to research as much as we could. We researched importing and exporting, packaging, roasting, distributing, grading, the market, and used any blog or YouTube video that we could learn from. After we found a shipping company that gave us the go-ahead, and after we received a specialty grade from the Q grader we sent a sample to in America, we decided this could actually happen. We found an amazing roaster near Nashville, Just Love Coffee Roasters, and we decided to invest our savings and give this our best shot.
What was the process like to not only start your own business, but to figure out how to import a product halfway around the world? I'm getting a headache just thinking about the logistics!
The export paperwork from Thailand and import paperwork to the United States was definitely the hardest, most time-consuming part of everything. Each time we thought we had everything that we needed, we had to fill out one or two more forms, and finding a place to print, scan, and email each form took what seemed like forever. After getting all of the forms together, we hired a customs broker to take care of the import for us. After the coffee arrived in LA we were able to hire a transport company to get it to Tennessee. The feeling of seeing the boxes that we had helped prepare for export in Thailand sitting in Murfreesboro, Tennessee was one of the most amazing feelings in the world, followed by picking up our first roasted bag of coffee that was ready to sell.
How did you choose the name Kao Jai?
Kyle thought about the name Kao Jai almost immediately after coming home from our first trip to the farm. A little background — "kao jai" was one of the first phrases we learned when we became teachers. To gauge the understanding of our students we would say, “Kao jai mai kha?” which means (roughly) “do you understand?” The students would give us a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
"Kao" means “enter” and "Jai" means “heart” so "kao jai" literally broken down also means, “to enter one’s heart.” These two meanings together could not have been a more perfect fit for what we wanted to do with this company. We wanted to help people understand the process behind their morning cup of coffee, and we also wanted them to meet the farmers, understand their way of life, and see why being a coffee farmer is a lot harder than most of us realize. Giving some background on the culture of the hill tribe people and the hardships they face will allow our customers to enter their heart, in a way. That’s what we are trying to help them do.
What do you love most about running your own business? What has been the biggest challenge?
I love being in control of our brand and what we are putting out into the world. We want to be a positive light and to be able to inspire a childlike sense of wonder about where the products we consume and use each day come from and how they were made, just like how we felt when we were on the coffee farm. I am excited to share the farmer’s story, but also to be in control of what we want to represent as a company. We are excited to also fund service trips in the US because that’s our background and we have seen how serving others allows you to understand them and their situation better. It’s too often that we find ourselves saying “I would never do that,” or “I would never let that happen to me,” but once we are able to understand, and enter one’s heart, we are able to relate and realize that we are not so different after all.
The biggest challenge is getting our name out there. We are such a small company with a wonderful coffee from a region in the world that is not known for growing specialty coffee. Many of the conversations I have with roasters and coffee shops involve a lot of teaching and storytelling, which I love, but it can be hard to get turned down a lot because many people haven’t heard of Thai coffee.
What's been your proudest moment so far?
My proudest moment so far is when I met with Batch Nashville and they loved our coffee so much that they decided to carry it in their retail store. I thought about the time we spent harvesting the coffee, helping to prepare it for export, finding a roaster, figuring out packaging, along with building a website and social media, registering a business. Finally seeing a small craft bag of Kao Jai Coffee sitting on a store shelf 8,000 miles around the world was truly unbelievable — not to mention watching someone we didn’t know buy it!
What advice would you give other first-time entrepreneurs, especially people who have found themselves on a totally unexpected career path?
I would tell them that they are going to get a lot of “no"s, but to keep going until someone believes in you, and make sure to listen when they tell you why they believe in what you’re doing. We found that telling the story of the farmers often got people more interested in the coffee and sparked more sales. Once we figured that out, it changed the way we approached potential clients and we became more successful. Always listen to the market and do what you do best — don’t waste time on what isn’t working.
Any tips for going into business with your significant other?
At the beginning we thought, "Oh no, this may not work!" because we were always working on the same tasks with different opinions. As time went on we realized we were were more successful and fulfilled by certain roles, so we stuck to those and acknowledged each other’s strengths. There were times when we would ask each other for help, but for the most part we kept our roles separate. We both agreed from the beginning what we wanted our brand to be and the mission of our company, so we were able to stay consistent. Once we were able to trust each other in our different roles, working together became such a joy. We love to grow together as a team both in our relationship and in our career.
What's your ultimate vision for Kao Jai Coffee? What is your definition of success?
Our definition of success in Kao Jai is ultimately creating sustainability for the farmers in Thailand. I am sure we will have many pivot points and changes in the way that we do things, but ultimately we want to help the farmers and help coffee lovers understand the process behind their daily routine. We want to help bring our experience and our feelings when we were on the farm home to America so others can have the same appreciation for coffee.
Perhaps most importantly: where can people find you, your amazing coffee, and order some for themselves?
If you would like to try out some of Megan's great coffee, check out Ravishly's Instagram to enter a giveaway and win some free Kao Jai coffee!