Today, Nabi Saleh presides over an empire of more than 1,000 coffee houses worldwide, including 60 in the UAE and more on the way.
But 10 years ago his vision for Gloria Jean’s Coffees lay in tatters.
“I got a phone call from my younger daughter. She was crying at the other end of the phone,” says Mr Saleh, who was visiting coffee farms in Indonesia at the time.
“I thought there had been a theft at home or she had a motor car accident, only to be told that … the whole building, offices, warehouse and roasting facilities in Sydney, New South Wales [were on fire].”
Firefighters battled to put out the flames for two days.
By the time they brought the blaze under control, everything in the 50,000 metre complex, aside from a store filled with green coffee beans that had not yet been roasted, was ruined.
“That’s all we had,” says Mr Saleh, who was born in Iran but has lived most of his life in Australia.
But within days, Gloria Jean’s in Australia was back in business after Mr Saleh borrowed a friend’s facility to roast the green beans.
Mr Saleh’s insurance firm paid to have replacements for stock lost in the fire flown in as it knew it would have to pay out to Mr Saleh for the profit lost as a result of the blaze.
He put out a tender to the airlines to bring in 500 palettes of stock, which was won by United Airlines.
“[The airline] had just entered into Chapter 11, so they were very keen to get the business and when they got the business they started to fill the aircraft, taking the seats out for my stock because it was more profitable for them than bringing passengers,” he says.
Mr Saleh could have walked away with the insurance money but he was not ready to give up on his vision, which he had already fought hard to establish.
He has always worked in the tea, coffee and cocoa business, and he bought the Gloria Jean’s master franchise for Australia in 1993, shortly after the founders, Gloria Jean Kvetko and her husband Ed, sold the company.
“I opened two coffee houses in 1996 and the brand didn’t work. It kept losing money more than I could try and save it. I had to stop and take stock and say, ‘What has gone wrong with my vision and my dream?'” he says. After a year of soul-searching, Mr Saleh decided the fault lay in the concept, which he had imported from the United States. The coffee houses had no seats, no food, and sold a range of porcelain china gifts.
“[Customers] wanted to have good coffee in china cups and not only in paper cups but also with something to eat and they didn’t want all the gift items that we had.
“They wanted just a coffee house,” he says. Mr Saleh completed the remodelling in 1998. He had established a successful business in Australia, with about 40 coffee houses and bought the master franchise for New Zealand by the time of the fire in 2002. It took the company about a year and a half to get back on its feet, which is about the time he decided to buy the brand itself for a “fairly substantial amount” from Diedrich Coffee in the US.
“I went to them and said, ‘I want to buy the brand globally.’ They said, ‘We have been waiting for you to come,'” he says.
At that time in 2005 Gloria Jean’s was in six countries. It now has a presence in 44.
“We have 60 coffee houses [in the UAE] and growing. We will have 100 by the end of the next three months,” says Mr Saleh.
“[They will be] in businesses, malls, universities and we are also looking at expanding into airports and places like that. And also high-rise buildings.”
Mr Saleh aims for Gloria Jean’s to become the most loved and respected coffee company in the world – an ambitious aim in a space dominated by Starbucks.
But he insists there is ample room for everyone. “Coffee is the second-most traded commodity after oil,” he says. “We aren’t after numbers and we are not running a race. We know where we are going and we know who we are. Yes, we look at what’s happening around us – and there are many good brands around us. But there is a share in the market for each and every one of us.”