On this week’s episode of Beyond Consulting, Ken welcomes Jonathan Choumas, a former Deloitte consultant and Founder and CEO of Whisha. Jonathan joins us to discuss his experience starting Whisha with a bold and cold sales call.
The Beyond Consulting Podcast is hosted by Ken Kanara.
Ken Kanara: I’m Ken Kanara and this is Beyond Consulting, the only podcast focused on your career, health, wealth and life after consulting. This week we welcome Jonathan Choumas to the studio. Jonathan is the founder and CEO of Whisha, a specialty coffee distribution company. Jonathan, thanks so much for joining us today.
Jonathan Choumas: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Ken Kanara: You bet! Jonathan, could just start off with a quick recap of how you got to become the founder and CEO of Whisha?
Jonathan Choumas: It’s actually an interesting story. As you mentioned, Whisha is a specialty coffee distribution company and I always had an aspiration to be an entrepreneur. a lot of people in consulting I took a little bit of a hiatus and did the grad school thing. During my experience at grad school I wanted to do something a little creative during the internship. I knew I was going back to consulting so I thought, “, I’m not going to do an internship here in consulting,” and I actually worked with an alum at my grad school to help him start a coffee company. It was a really fun experience. I bought the green beans and helped find a machine to roast coffee with, designed the bags, did the cold call sales, and ultimately, did the delivery of the coffee. During that experience I found that delivering coffee is not economical if you’re just delivering 6 or 12 bags. There was no lack of demand for the coffee, it actually wasn’t hard to sell in the grocery stores and there were certainly people that were interested in buying it, but the hurdle was the delivery didn’t make economic sense to deliver the smaller amounts. Again, I thought to myself, if I was delivering 60 or 100 bags to each of these grocery stores, this would be a lot more economical. I tabled the idea, went back to consulting for a few years and then ultimately, took a sabbatical and gave it a shot. I’m now on year seven of Whisha. That’s the quick overview of how I got here and I’m sure we’ll go into a lot more detail here shortly.
Ken Kanara: That is interesting. That started actually as a college internship and has led to a career. If you could just go back to you deciding to do consulting instead of going right into the business that you now started and run, why did you go to Deloitte?
Jonathan Choumas: I went to Deloitte right out of undergrad, I had a couple of opportunities, and it was either going into consulting in the service side of things or going into the industry. I had an offer from a couple of industry players—in hindsight those companies have become insanely big and probably would have been really beneficial stock options or whatever it is. What excited me about consulting was living in a big city versus down in Silicon Valley. I the idea of coming out of undergrad and going into a big city, and then of course the travel. The offer, the job and the lifestyle just sounded a little more sexy than the cubicle thing. For me it was all about the lifestyle. That’s really what led me to consulting. The idea of being on the road, traveling, being in hotels…I was excited about that.
Ken Kanara: Absolutely. I can appreciate that. Actually, from even a young age I knew that I wanted to get into consulting only because I thought it was cool that you got to travel every week. Little did I know that would become a complaint of mine after doing it too many years. You were at Deloitte for a decent amount of time, right? It looks like, if I’m not mistaken, almost five years, maybe even six?
Jonathan Choumas: Yeah, so I did undergrad and then I went to Deloitte for three years, and then I did two years of grad school, then I came back after grad school for another, I think, two years…maybe two and a half. Yeah, almost six years.
Ken Kanara: What kind of projects did you do when you word at Deloitte?
Jonathan Choumas: All kinds of different projects. The ones that stand out the most are probably the ones where I was helping out with technology implementations, mostly because they were a lot longer than the shorter stints. I did everything from an SAP or an Oracle implementation, to more strategy stuff. I did some shorter term strategy projects that I found to be more attractive for me, but less secure when it comes to ratings and utilization, than the technology projects which you get locked in on for a year or two.
Ken Kanara: Sure, that makes sense so then, at a certain point you decide, “You know what, I’m going to go for this idea. I’m going to revisit what I had thought about, call it 6-7 years ago.” How did you make the transition to founding Whisha?
Jonathan Choumas: To be clear, the idea came during grad school. I had already spent time at Deloitte when the idea came. Three years after being at Deloitte, being on a variety of a lot of the shorter term projects that were mostly strategy-oriented, focused primarily on the supply chain stuff, I was able to correlate my experience with this coffee company that I was working with and helping build and sourcing the green beans and everything. I was able to correlate that with my experience at Deloitte, and I thought to myself, “I’m going to go back to Deloitte for the next two years and really focus heavily on supply chain stuff, to the extent that I can.” You know, sometimes things are just out of your control.
During those next two years I did a lot on supply chain. I did a lot across the board and just always had this idea in the back of my mind. Now, to be completely honest, I had 1,000 different ideas. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I was dabbling in all kinds of stuff while on the road. At the end of the day, the coffee thing just stuck with me. Two years later—that’s when you qualify for a sabbatical with Deloitte based on a couple things. I don’t even know if the sabbatical program still exists, but I hit the two-year mark and it happened to align perfectly with me also getting married. I think I got married and then took a sabbatical a month later, so I went back to work the next four weeks and then took a sabbatical. I was going to go on the honeymoon during sabbatical, but on day three or four of the sabbatical I gave selling coffee a shot with just a local grocery store. I said, “Hey I can offer you a variety of different coffees. I’m going to go talk to all these different great roasters in the area and I can be a one-stop shop for you,” and sure enough, that first cold call—I didn’t even have a business—it was just a thought. They said, “Absolutely, we’ll take everything you have.” I literally just had samples in the trunk of my car and delivered them into the store, didn’t have an invoice…I basically dropped the coffee often said “Yeah, I’ll e-mail you the invoice.” Then I scrambled home, put together a quick Wix website, came up with the name of the company and blasted over an invoice that I created on Microsoft Word. Shooting together the e-mail, the website, everything…it was just all slapstick the same day. I just though, “Hey, I’m onto something.” If the first grocery store I go to wants to buy a bunch of different crap coffee, I think we have something here.” That’s how it got started, a sabbatical.
Ken Kanara: That’s great. You either somehow found the exception to the rule or you were onto something, and clearly it was the latter. That’s a great founding story. Why is there such an opportunity for a business like yours in terms of specialty coffee distribution?
Jonathan Choumas: We could have a two hour podcast on just coffee by itself. Really the reason is because coffee has been undergoing a change and I think a lot of consultants listening would agree that coffee is a pivotal part of the daily routine, but not crappy coffee, a good coffee. You can find good coffee in cafes throughout the country, but at grocery stores there was a very limited selection. It was usually Starbucks and I don’t want to sit here downplaying Starbucks, but it’s not like it was local stuff. It was normally Starbucks, Folgers and Maxwell House…maybe a white label coffee, something like that. There weren’t any local offerings and people want to have good coffee at home just as much as they want to have it from a café. Grocery stores wanted to provide it, so traditional distribution methods were very focused on mass grocery items, like palletized items—huge boatloads of pre-packaged products. There wasn’t a solution to take handcrafted coffee and deliver it to grocery stores. A) There is a growing demand for craft coffee at home, B) There’s not a solution in place to get it to the grocery stores, so that’s the impetus for Whisha right there.
Ken Kanara: That makes sense. I personally go to the grocery store every week, or, well every couple weeks I should say, and look for one specific type of Stumptown Coffee and nine out of 10 times they have it, but the reason I stock up is for that exact reason, is they don’t always have it. I’m looking for a specific blend and it’s not as easy to get as you’d think it would be in 2022, so I definitely see the business opportunity there. Okay, so then you have that first order and where do you go from there? What was the next big step for you?
Jonathan Choumas: My sabbatical was six months and so I had six months less time set aside for a honeymoon, which of course, was an even higher priority for my wife, but six months to go out and shotgun and sell. I was given this internal timeline and said, “If I can work this business up to be sustainable in the next six months such that I can live off of it, then I will continue with it. If I cannot then I will go back to my consulting career.” So I gave myself that timeline and just shotgunned through the next six months. I went to all these local independent grocery stores, was very frank with them, and said, “This is just a new business I’m trying to start, throw me a bone.” It seemed to work. I got into a couple of local retail chains…chains that have six or seven stores and then ultimately I knocked on the door of one of the big box stores…I should say one of the big grocery box store—big grocery chains in the area, and went into it, asked the local clerk if they’d be interested in local coffee. Of course, they were interested in local and they said they support local…I got over to the headquarters and ended up getting a meeting at headquarters and they said, “Well cool, can you deliver to all 200 stores?”
Ken Kanara: Wow
Jonathan Choumas: And with the best poker face I’ve ever had I said, “Absolutely, when do you want me to start?” Little do they know, I’m just delivering coffee out of the car that I showed up to this meeting with, so it was really a little bit of a hustle there. They said, “Yeah, how about in a couple months?” Then I had a couple months to really throw things together and I was then on this path that I’m probably not going to go back to consulting. It sounds like I’ve got something going here.
Ken Kanara: Wow, that’s incredible, especially because, if you think about a lot of folks that try to start a business the first six to twelve months is just getting the proof of market concept out there, right? It’s a lot of changes, iterations, right… the original intent or service of the business that started can significantly change. So what a story to start. What’s been the biggest surprise as being part of this industry then for you?
Jonathan Choumas: I got a little lucky with coffee, to be honest. I don’t know why, other than the experience I had in Grad School with somebody wanting to start a coffee company. I could have easily gone down any product category in the grocery store but I ended up having a passion for coffee and so I have been able to ride the coattails of the coffee growth. I think that if I would have gone into the industry with any other type of category it wouldn’t have worked, so it’s been surprising to see support that the coffee industry has provided this business. It was a little bit of luck. Coffee is going through the evolutionary change, transitioning from a commodity to a specialty item and Whisha happens to be here alongside that transition and is obviously fully supporting that transition. It’s been a special ride, and a surprise.
Ken Kanara: That’s great. Obviously, luck is part of it, timing is part of it, but I also want to recognize the fact that you’re willing to put yourself out there and go knock on doors and pull up and shoot when that takes a lot more courage, probably, than most of our listeners realize. As consultants, and I’ve talked about this on other episodes, we’re really smart at figuring out all the reasons things are going to fail…let me tell you all the reasons why it’s not a good idea for Jonathan to just walk up to the first grocery store and say, “I can get you the specialty coffee you need,” right? I commend you for your efforts and, I guess, guts there.
Jonathan Choumas: Well it’s funny because as a consultant, you’re also the expert in the room. You learn how to pretend to be an expert. There was a lot of that when I would go into grocery stores and pretend to talk about how much I knew about coffee, when the reality was, I had roasted coffee but I didn’t grow up as a barista or anything.
Ken Kanara: Yeah. What about your team? What does the business look like now after seven years?
Jonathan Choumas: We started in the San Francisco Bay area. We’ve expanded operations to service almost every grocery store in Northern California, as well as Southern California, Texas and Colorado. We service over 1000 grocery stores. We have about 60 employees or service reps that are out there servicing those grocery stores. We went from NorCal to SoCal and then we launched in Texas and, in 2021, we launched in the Rocky Mountains. Those regions are still growing. They’re still very much expansion regions, but so is coffee there. Coffee has always been a little of a regional thing, so you never know in which region you’re entering into the maturity the level of the coffee industry, how much they’ve switched over to craft versus sticking with your commodity stuff.
Ken Kanara: What is, in your view, other than delivering the coffee,…are there other ingredients to your success with the grocery stores? For example, I would imagine it’s not just getting the product, right”
Jonathan Choumas: Absolutely. So our services extend far beyond just providing coffee to grocery stores, on both sides of table there. On the coffee roaster side, we’re creating a path to market. Traditionally, roasters have to go talk to grocery stores and go through a lot of red tape to get into the place like Whole Foods or Safeway. While it’s certainly possible and these stores are very supportive of the global companies, there’s a lot of insurance in meetings and networking paths to get done, to get into these places. Whereas, with Whisha, you can get on the Whisha truck and you have access to all of the different stores.
Now on the grocery side—and this also correlates to the roasters. Our value prop is multifaceted. First, we’re a one-stop shop, so you don’t have to worry about working with multiple vendors. Secondly, we curate, so we help grocery stores identify which coffees are going to sell the best at their different stores. There’s different demographics, varying consumer trends in different cities or states, counties or whatever it may be, that may all be under the same grocery banner, so we allow them to offer different coffees in different stores based on its unique to Whisha. That’s not necessarily something other distribution companies do.
Probably most importantly to both sides is that we are innovating how coffee is being treated at a grocery store. Historically, coffee is considered a grocery item, just like a yellow box of pasta or a bag of chips. It comes in on a dry pallet in the back and then it gets put on the shelf and is sitting there until somebody buys. Well, that was yesterday. Today, coffee is a fresh item. Everyone is looking at “roasted on” dates, “best by” dates. The fresher the coffee, the better it tastes. Coffee can very much be compared to baked goods in this sense, or cheeses or dairy, in that it’s shelf life is going down. It’s aging with every day that goes by. It needs to be merchandised the same way that bread needs to be merchandized. You have a bread delivery driver going into the grocery store pulling old bread or stale bread off the shelf and putting fresh baked bread on the shelf. We do that exact same service for coffee. That allows grocery stores to maintain freshness, a high quality product, support local, work with one vendor, so on and so forth.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. I didn’t even think about all that when I buy my coffee. It gives me a whole new perspective, despite the fact that I do look for the roast date. I never thought of it in that context and that’s quite a range of services that you provide. Could you talk to us a little about your team and how you think about leadership just given that you went from a consulting environment, where you’re probably managing a few people on a project, to leading, what is now a 60-person-plus company.
Jonathan Choumas: I will admit that some of the leadership team here are former consultants and people that I’ve worked with, which is great. Our team is structured very much like any other organization. You have your business development, you have your finance, you have your operations…The thing that I found to be the most standout with former consultants and the thing that I take away as one of the biggest qualities of being a former consultant, especially at the leadership level, is the amount of work ethic and attention to detail that comes out of that career. We’ve hired leaders here that have come from very well-known companies, that weren’t consulting companies, and they’re incredibly talented. They bring a lot of qualitative additions to the team and then there’s also the consulting side which brings these well-polished PowerPoint presentations and works out all night to just get a couple of things done. It’s just as important to see that well-roundedness, but to take away where the consulting career stands out as the focus and attention detail as compared to some of the other qualitative aspects that come from elsewhere.
Ken Kanara: That’s great. It’s funny, you mentioned the former consultant thing, I mean a lot of our team, as you can imagine, is also former consultants. I think there’s a lot of parallels, I just always find it interesting going from that color project environment to real world operations.
Where do you think about where the business heading and what does the future look for Whisha?
Jonathan Choumas: I think that we’re going to continue to expand geographically. there’s a lot of continued growth in demand for craft coffee across the country so our hope would be to expand these services to every major metropolitan area It seems very aspirational at this point but, also definitely something that we think the market is going to demand. We’ve already started the chatter with different stores and different roasters across the country and for the areas that we’re not in, We’re still seeing grocery store shelves being a little plain, for lack of a better term, and there’s opportunity for us to support the local economy there, and the local roasters getting them on the shelves.
There is also, outside of just geographical expansion, there’s ecommerce and online trade. We do a little of that—plug baristami here…baristami.com, which is our online subscription service so we offer such a variety of coffees that usually you would only be able to get at your grocery store, but now you can get them online. There’s a lot of platforms out there that stick to varying coffees but our value prop is that we have so many different coffees that we carry at grocery stores that you can sign up for the subscription with us and get a different coffee every single week for a couple of years. You would never get the same one, unless you wanted to order it, whatever it may be so there’s along when it answer but the summary of that is that we want to be able to provide a local craft coffee to every major metropolitan area in every grocery store to support those local roasters, to support the coffee industry and to support the transition coffee from commodity to craft, but we’re not blind to the fact that a lot of retail is transitioning to ecommerce, so we’re also setting up systems to support e-commerce fulfillment and things like that.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. Well, best of luck to you on that. The last thing I wanted to ask you about, just because I think our consultant listeners will find this interesting and I’ll probably pronounce the word incorrectly, but you’re also a certified Sommelier, is that correct?
Jonathan Choumas: Yeah, I am.
Ken Kanara: Is that how your pronounce it, by the way?
Jonathan Choumas: You may have pronounced it better than it’s supposed to be pronounced. The way you pronounced it sounds very elegant. It’s sommelier, so a sommelier of wine.
Ken Kanara: That’s incredible. How did you get into that? Was it consulting?
Jonathan Choumas: Maybe in part there’s a little iota of consulting there…some of the nice dinners that you go out with clients and stuff and get a glass of wine but really, I grew up close to wine country. There’s a lot of restaurants in the area…you look at the wine menu with real expensive wines and you always want one or feel guilty buying one, yet you still buy one because you just want to have some good wine. For me it was, I don’t know anything about this wine. I feel the need or desire to get a nice bottle of wine when I’m at a nice dinner rather than the cheapest bottle of wine. I should educate myself on this. And that was really where it all stemmed from, was I wanted to know, personally, a little more. I could have probably just gone on Wine Folly, and taught myself everything, but I figured, I’ll go the professional route, get the certification. It’s a fun thing to have and now I can walk into places and say, “Yeah I’m a wine sommelier here.” It translates to coffee, too.
Ken Kanara: Yeah, I was thinking, it was an interesting parallel given the business that you’ve built. Well very good. And Jonathan, I just wanted to conclude with any advice that you’d have for folks that are either currently in consulting or have left consulting and are either in a corporate strategy job and really thinking about trying to become an entrepreneur, but haven’t quite made the leap yet.
Jonathan Choumas: I would say, “Do it.” It’s easy to say. I still find myself in shock that the business that I’ve started has come to where it’s at. I remember sitting on the other side going, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” I took advantage of the sabbatical program that kind of had an insurance policy that I would have a job to go back to, so, you can do it on the side while you’re working, but do it and don’t underestimate yourself. The consulting background really is almost like a boot camp for your professional career that fast tracks your ability to do quantitative analysis, PowerPoint presentations—by the way, PowerPoint presentations…I don’t know, but I’m sure everyone realizes this, but for me, it was an epiphany when I came out of consulting was putting together PowerPoint presentations. The PowerPoint presentations that I put together would be these well-polished ones and I was comparing them to others and I just though everyone just knew to put together a nice PowerPoint presentation. I didn’t realize that this was a skill set that I had learned during my time as a consultant. It goes a long way. It extends beyond presentations, I’m talking about sales pitches. You can get on PowerPoint, knockout a sales deck and bring it to whatever meeting you’re at. People will look at it and see how well-polished it is and they think the real deal.
So A), do it. Just really, really, do it if you’re going to do it, go all in on it and don’t underestimate your ability to do it, especially with a consulting career. You’ve been through boot camp with consulting. We all know that it’s a grind but the reality is, with the grind you’re learning so much that you don’t realize other people haven’t learned it outside of consulting.
Ken Kanara: I love that advice, and both pieces too. Especially on the second side, it’s funny. You mentioned, okay, you’ve got this great skill set, and I would say that in certain settings, it’s not the solution to everything, but you’d be surprised how far those things can go in terms of separating you, right? Yes, a deck isn’t going to operationalize a 60 person sales and delivery team, but it is going to impress a potential buyer and really separate you. Great advice, Jonathan.
If our listeners want to learn a little more about Whisha, or you mentioned barista me, could you just give us the website so that they can learn a little more yeah.
Jonathan Choumas: Whisha is 6 letters, spelled W-H-I-S-H-A.com On there, you’ll see the wholesale coffee world and what we offer. Somewhere on there, you’ll see a link to baristami, Whisha is traditionally a BtoB company where we sell to grocery stores. Baristami is our fun side project where we sell the coffee items by a subscription service direct to consumers. So that’s barista, like a coffee barista, and that’s “me” but not M-E, M-I. It’s Italian. “Give me coffee” I think is what it stands for. Baristami.com.
Ken Kanara: Good. You have a lot of discerning coffee drinkers that listen to this podcast. Definitely check that out guys. For those of you listening for the first time, please make sure to subscribe, either on Spotify or apple, so that you’re notified of future episodes. Lastly, if you want to find transcripts to past episodes, you can always go to beyondconsulting.info. Finally, if you want to get in touch with me or anybody else at ECA, it’s going to be eca-partners.com once again, we will talk to you next week when we interview yet another exciting and interesting person just like Jonathan, but until then, thanks so much for joining.