From Indonesian coffee stall to making $100 million/year

In college, Edward Tirtanata had a brewing love for coffee, so much so that he’d order “one huge cup” every day from either Dunkin’ Donuts or 7-Eleven.

Today, the 35-year-old CEO and co-founder of venture-backed unicorn coffee company Kopi Kenangan, still has his cup of joe daily — except that he’s upgraded it to three or more cups a day for “product testing” purposes.

What started as a local Indonesian coffee stall in 2017 has now become an international coffee brand worth over $1 billion, with more than 800 locations across Southeast Asia.

The company raked in over $100 million in sales in 2023, according to documents provided to CNBC Make It.

Within the span of seven years, Kopi Kenangan went from a local Indonesian coffee stall to a venture-backed unicorn coffee company.

Entrepreneur in the making

Tirtanata grew up in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

But he moved to the U.S. in 2007 when he started college at Northeastern University in Boston, where he studied finance and accounting.

While he never enjoyed studying, he had the heart of an entrepreneur from the start.

Edward Tirtanata with his parents.

Courtesy of Edward Tirtanata

“When I was a kid, I was definitely naughty — I didn’t really study much,” he told CNBC Make It. “But whenever there is an opportunity to make money or do businesses, I always [got] excited.”

“It’s not about the money — it’s about the pleasure of doing it. It is something that really excites me until today,” he said.

Even as a student, Tirtanata discovered a key business principle: “Buy low, sell high.” He learned to sell Pokémon cards and gaming bots to friends at school for a profit. It was almost instinctive for him.

Inspired by his parents who were also entrepreneurs, Tirtanata always enjoyed the hustle of making his own in the world.

Edward Tirtanata with his family.

Courtesy of Edward Tirtanata

During his freshman year in university, he received a fateful call from his mother, who revealed that his father’s business had encountered some major financial setbacks.

After that call, Tirtanata decided to speed through his five-year program and finished it in three.

He quickly returned to home Indonesia and became his father’s business partner.

“Back then, my days were filled with a lot of stress and uncertainty — but I think this is one of those moments that made me a better entrepreneur,” said Tirtanata. Despite facing these financial difficulties with his family, Tirtanata went on to forge his own entrepreneurial path.

Business beginnings

Before starting Kopi Kenangan, Tirtanata opened a tea shop chain called Lewis & Carroll in 2015 with locations across Indonesia. By the time he opened his fifth store, he realized that the tea shop wasn’t as profitable as he expected.

Tirtanata and his long-time friend James Prananto discovered the problem one day, when they were having a casual chat at his tea shop: many of the big coffee and tea chains in Indonesia were too expensive for the local population.

According to the Starbucks Tall Latte Index, while a Starbucks tall latte costs approximately 2% of the median daily income of people in the U.S., that same drink costs more than 30% of the median daily income of people in Indonesia.

Kopi Kenangan’s first outlet in Indonesia.

Courtesy of Edward Tirtanata.

The idea of Kopi Kenangan was born.

In 2017, Tirtanata and Prananto together invested a total of $15,000 into their first grab-and-go location in Jakarta, Indonesia. This model allowed them to ditch the costs of renting and designing a sit-down cafe space, and instead, invest that money into quality ingredients. 

“Instead of focusing on the sofa, or fast Wi-Fi, we’re going to focus on a good, high quality cup of coffee,” Tirtanata said.

This decision helped Kopi Kenangan scale to over 200 locations and 10 cities within the first two years of operations.

Kopi Kenangan’s secret formula

It’s no secret that the coffee business is highly saturated, especially in big metro areas.

Asked what has separated Kopi Kenangan from its competitors, Tirtanata said there are three major reasons: the company’s grab-and-go model, it is a tech-enabled business, and it takes a hyperlocal approach.

“So while Starbucks and other global coffee chains really prioritize consistency, I realized that people have different tastes and preferences,” he told CNBC.

“This is where we really shaped our strategy for our global expansion — we want to make sure that the sweetness and robustness of the coffee really suits the market that we are operating in, using a data-driven approach,” Tirtanata said.

Taking a data-driven hyperlocal approach means that a Kopi Kenangan latte in Singapore will taste different from a latte in Indonesia.

During Covid, Tirtanata and Prananto doubled down on their efforts to integrate technology into their business. This helped Kopi Kenangan more than triple its store count during the pandemic.

From Indonesia to the world

As of April, the coffee chain has raised over $230 million in funding from investors across the globe, according to documents seen by CNBC Make It.

Tirtanata with the Kopi Kenangan team.

Courtesy of Edward Tirtanata

Today, Kopi Kenangan stores can be found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

But that’s not enough for Tirtanata, who plans to expand the company globally and hopes to list the business in the U.S. one day.

“It only gets more complicated as a business grows bigger — so I try to learn everyday how to become a better leader,” he said.

“I’m very excited [about] what the future holds for us. I believe that we are just [at] the beginning of our journey.”

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