FREE TRADE IS A JOKE

You heard about the multiple free trade agreements signed between countries and groups of countries. And you want to contract a shipping company to import the components you need or to export your finished products. You do not know what you might face.
Between you and your provider or your client are the customs. All powerful and unimpeachable!
Last summer I ordered 1000 bottles from Italy to San José to produce our shower gel for tropical countries. I had planned to put it on the market for Mother’s Day on August 15.
The plastic bottles weighed 98 kilos and were worth 1000 euros. The customs kept them for 3 weeks, without giving any reason. Result: a 650$ bill for warehousing only. There was no duty to pay.
The first time we exported finished products to Europe, it was a large consignment – for a small company like Fleur de Café. The German customs opened a dozen of parcels. They kept 4 perfumes. Did they really need these 4 bottles to check the liquid inside? Moreover, they literally threw back inside boxes the products they had taken out, thus damaging many packaging.

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Just before Christmas, I had asked Imprenta Vargas to produce boxes for all our cosmetics: the body spray, the body lotion, shower gel and soap. This time the customs did not open the shipment but… taxed it as if it contained the products themselves!
Courage! You need to be resilient.






QUALITY CHAMPION

How is it that I did not tell you about the International Star Award for Quality yet. Fans of Fleur de Café should be the first to hear about our successes.

One day, I received a message telling me that Fleur de Café had won the gold award for quality and that we would receive it in Geneva in September 2014. I did not believe it; I thought it was a joke or a spam or a trick by some obscure company to get money. So I looked in the web for former winners and asked a couple of them what they thought about this award. They were happy and said it had been good publicity.

They convinced me as publicity for a parfum de niche is so difficult to obtain and so expensive that usually it is last priority. But I had to write a piece on my vision of quality, something good to do as it is much more than quality control. First it is about people, about their will to work to the best of their knowledge and of their possibilities. Second it is about writing down every step and acknowledge in writing the good and the bad experiences. Working with the Federation of Colombian Coffee Planters helped us to describe all operations clearly and discuss them with very qualified and experienced engineers.

In September I went to the Geneva Intercontinental. The first day, each of the 75 winners of 2014 had to present briefly his or her company. There were people from all over the world, women with magnificent outfits – a Nigerian lady whose birthday was on that day was wearing an ample “boubou” with assorted headscarf, a Mongolian young lady with a dress embroidered with gold and there was Daphne Mashile-Nkosi, the chairperson of the biggest manganese sinter plant in the world.

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The following day took place the official dinner with the reception of the prizes. I went with Elena, member of the Board, and with my daughter, Magali. I do not remember if a couple of days before I had seen Roger Federer brandishing a new cup or the Swiss football team winning a tournament, but it seemed obvious to brandish our new award. And for some reason a photographer or an editor liked    my pose and put me on the front page of Beatton, a US economic journal.

Beatton Oct. 2014

Making the front page of a magazine at my age is a real achievement! Moreover next to Obama and Warren Buffett.

 






2014 HARVEST

This year was a little bit special: it was the 10th year of harvesting coffee flowers and the first one since Don Helmut, Don Otto’s son, took over from his father. I was a little bit nervous and I went twice to the finca to discuss details – cost as well – with Don Helmut and try to get to know him a little.
Things have changed: Don Helmut changed his irrigation scheme. As aluminium tubes and copper connexions were regularly stolen in the fields close to the road, he had decided to remove all pipes and to irrigate 3 other coffee fields in remote places. The day before harvest began, I went with him to visit the fields.
The first one was just behind a eucalyptus grove, which was providing a soft shade. As a matter of fact, it was quite close to the houses and warehouses and Don Helmut told me a lovely story. When he was an 11 years old child, he challenged his father who was driving his 4X4; he ran through the woods, and arrived before his father.
The second was hidden in a vale, with a lovely path under some trees. Mario and his cameraman were with us and they were taking some shots of the landscape for our website. Both of them were discovering their own country… they had never seen coffee flowers! It is in the third one, La Maravilla, that I was overwhelmed by the scent: tears came to my eyes. Under a huge “guanacaste”, coffee bushes pressed against one another, their branches bowing under the quantity of flowers, were embalming the air and the same temptation animated me: getting drunk with that fragrance.

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I am sure that paradise is full of coffee bushes flowering all year round!                                           The following morning, at 6, everybody was in the fields, ready with baskets – the one that are used for coffee beans – and snacks for breakfast. I was there of course and I was meeting Maria and José, who were going to report about Fleur de Café. With them we went to the … Women were there picking up flowers, the three same ones who came to pick up flowers for the trials 10 years ago. We hugged and kissed each other, smiling at our wrinkles, we are all 10 years older. I do not know their name but we see each other every year and they come with their daughters now.                              In all there were 32 women and a couple of men to tell the truth. We had underestimated the timenecessary to pick 150 kilos of flowers and by 11, everybody was hungry. With Maria and José I went to the village and bought bags of pastries and fruit juice and we came back to distribute it to all workers.                                                                                                                                              The foreman was driving from one plantation to the other to pick up enormous plastic bags full of flowers, to weigh them and bring them to the chemical technicians. Brian and Eduardo also started early. Brian was not with us for the trials but from the fully fledged harvest, in 2008, he participated and knows the various steps by heart. I am always admiring how disciplined chemical technicians or engineers are. They look at their watch, write down the time, take note of every batch and never miss the next step. They start the extraction process and they were on their feet the whole day and could not take a break. At 5 their work is finished and they thoroughly clean all instruments, bowls, canisters, pales.                                                                                                                                 What a day! I have been on my feet the whole day too; and I have been answering questions of journalists the whole day too! My throat is soar and I have lost my voice. Tomorrow will be easier.

Ten days later Don Otto died. He was very ill and wanted to leave this earth. Without him I do not know if Fleur de Café would have been created. Don Otto believed in the idea and he did everything to make our work easy and agreeable.

 

 

 

 






HOW TO VISIT A SOAP FACTORY WITHOUT BRAKING YOUR LEG

“Savon de Marseille” is the mother of all hard soap in Europe. It is not a European creation, the method was imported from Alep in Syria during the Crusades in the 12th century. It is the mother of all hard soap because thousands if not millions of mothers produced it in their kitchen during centuries.

The traditional technology is to mix vegetable oils and caustic soda and to warm it. The soap based on olive oil is a brownish-green colour and the soap made of copra and other vegetable oils is white. There is now a protected denomination for production using traditional methods and Savonnerie Le Sérail is one of only 3 factories certified in France.

Savonnerie Le Sérail is not that old but still I was very impressed at the idea to enter it and to see all the process. There starts the adventure: all the floors, the staircases, the ground are slippery from this oily soap. Everybody working there wears mountain shoes with nails underneath. Visitors have to grab whatever banister, table, shelf or rack, in order not to fall and break a leg. Big suspense and big laugh!

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The visit starts upstairs, at the top of huge cauldrons, 10 meters high. At Le Sérail there are only 2: one with olive oil and the other one with a mixture of copra and other vegetable oil. Olive oil smell is very strong and, if one wants to perfume the soap, it is better to use oils with weaker scent. The oil and caustic soda are warmed during 4 hours during which time the “maître savonnier” moves continuously the mass. Then salted water is added several times in order to remove all soda impurities. It is by tasting it – yes, tasting with his tongue – that the “maître savonnier” can say if the soap is sweet enough. If it is still acid, the cleaning with salted water continues.

At the end of this process a huge lid is put on the cauldron and the soap rests for 36 hours. The cauldrons are connected to large shallow pools on the ground floor and the soap, still liquid and still very hot, runs and fills the pools. It looks like hot lava during a volcanic eruption. In these pools it needs 2 days to cool and to dry and at the same time harden.

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You can test if it is hard enough by walking on the soap. Indeed, the “maître savonnier” gets on the soap and, with a big ruler starts drawing lines and cutting big rectangles. Once cut, these are brought to the die cutter and a worker pushes them through steel wires until the soap reaches usable size.

The final operation entails engraving the name given to the soap and the name of the company. Le Sérail has agreed to try to mix our coffee flower essence of Costa Rica with their soap and hopefully it will mix nicely. And we shall mark the bars with a coffee flower.

November 13, 2013






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THE SHOWER GEL SAGA

This morning I sent one kilo of Marseille liquid soap to our laboratory in New York. The die is cast; it is impossible to produce in Costa Rica a shower gel foaming under European waters. After numerous trials, we decided to produce two different shower gels: one for tropical countries where the water is soft and leaves your skin refreshed and hydrated and another one for European countries where the water is hard and leaves you with a skin tense and thirsty for cream or lotion.

Ricardo worked really hard in his factory in Cartago (Costa Rica). One year ago he started sending me bottles of the product he was trying to make as soft as possible. Here in Switzerland, where the water is as hard as you can think of, I would fill in small flasks and send them to friends, shareholders in priority. I received the most comical answers. But I have to say that Ricardo at first flavoured his gel with fruity scent and coloured it brightly. Shocking! One of our elegant guinea pigs spoke of “your stinky solution”. Some were expecting to develop allergies and were happily surprised that nothing of the sort happened to them. Another one was hoping she could do without body lotion. She loves multifunctional products as she travels a lot and wrote me that she uses her face cream to clean her shoes. Rejoice Clarins and Vichy!

Whenever I was going to Costa Rica I would try Ricardo’s latest version and be satisfied as my skin gave me the impression of being well fed and lubricated for the day. No need to spread and smooth in body lotion.

The question is: what do women expect from a shower gel? Here technicians will align a quantity of adjective describing the consistence, the colour, how it should react with water. What came out clearly in our mini focus group is: foaming is the sign that the product cleans; if there is no foam, women think that they are not clean. That is the first requirement. Then wishes go in several directions: smooth and nourishing, pearly white, transparent, hydrating, cooling, and so on.
Now keep your finger crossed: when the liquid soap arrives in the lab, coffee flower essence will be added to it. How will the gel react? Oxidize and turn brown as did the body lotion? One year of work by the lab was necessary to neutralize that oxidizing effect so that the lotion kept its bright white colour. Let us hope that they will have it easier this time with the coffee flower essence.
I shall keep you informed of the saga developments.

Charlotte Robert, October 3, 2013






INNOVATION CHAMPION

I had decided not to write about coffee this time but it is impossible. Coffee flowers are very rarely used; they are a waste and rot on the ground under the trees. The pulp of the cherries is sometimes composted, or dried and then burnt to dry coffee beans after the pulp has been removed. From aguardiente-kirsch to biogas many products can be made out of the flesh of the cherries.

On August 9, 2013, I was awarded the title of “champion of innovation” by the Ministry of Science and Technology of Costa Rica. It is the fourth award I receive for Fleur de Café. The Minister gave me a lovely golden trophy as well as a book with the 20 winners of the year. Some are in software, others in food production, one even produces organic wood coffins. I would love to meet them, not so much to hear about the techniques developed but to discuss the various organization crisis they went through, or how they managed to get funding, or how they obtained the various sanitary authorizations, labelling, certification. I am sure each of them has a lot of adventures to narrate.

In San José I have a neighbour, Carlos Gomez Odio, chemical engineer and like all chemical engineers I know, he loves fiddling in his laboratory and creating new products. Lately he came to my house and brought me an anti-wrinkle cream. It was in a jam jar; when I opened it the smell was sweet like coffee ice cream and I felt more like eating it as a desert than putting it on my face. Indeed it had ground coffee powder in it! He told me that coffee contains a lot of anti-oxidant and is also good to fight cellulite.

Don Carlos would also deserve the title of innovation champion all the more so as his face and body cream can be licked and eaten: really sexy isn’t it? Do you know of any body lotion which can be savoured like an ice cream?

You can have a look at Don Carlos in http://www.santarosapapelbanano.jimdo.com. As for me, I butter my face every night and I shall tell you in a few months’ time if I look 10 years younger.

Charlotte Robert, August 28






CREMAMAGAZIN – PARFUM MIT KAFFEEBLUMEN ESSENZ

If you are looking for beautiful pictures of coffee be it coffee plantations, harvesting of coffee, coffee machines or coffee shops around the world, then try to get hold of CREMAMAGAZIN. The paper edition is far more impressive than the website. And if you are interested in coffee and speak German, you will read it from A to Z. Germans are devoted fans of coffee.

Coffee is a world on its own. First of all, it is the second most important commodity after oil. I only begin to discover all the art required for its cultivation and processing. In my opinion the grand coffee specialists can be compared to the best oenologists. And some techniques are similar; proof of it: late harvesting is being practiced with coffee as well as with grape.

Right at the beginning of my work for the creation of Fleur de Café, I had to face the stark reality of that plant. Fortunately the reality revealed promising. When I first met our “cafetalero”, el Senior Otto Klöti, he asked me: if you harvest flowers, am I going to have coffee? I had to tell him that I did not have the slightest idea as I am not an agronomist. I added that, as the Latin American agronomical institute for the study of coffee (CATIE) is located in Costa Rica, I would go and talk to some of its specialists. And I met with two senior experts. One told me: no, coffee will not grow if you remove the flowers, and the other told me: do not worry, this tree is auto-pollinizing and the development of the “cherries” does not depend on the flowers.

I had nothing sure nor positive to report to Mr. Klöti. But he was very elegant saying: let us try. The stark reality was that we were in June 2003 and we had to wait until February-March 2004, time of the next flowering season, to find out about the truth. When the first flowers were picked, Don Otto pointed at a tiny bean on a stem and said: there is my coffee! The bean was not bigger than the knob of a pin, but it was perfect. And over the years since then, we could observe that the development of coffee is not hampered whatsoever by the picking up of flowers. You can see hereunder the beans already developing.

beans already developing

The relation between coffee and perfume is old and quite peculiar. When you go to perfume events or fairs or if you are a master perfumer and breathe so many different fragrances, at some stage you need to clean your nose of all these sensations. Then you breathe toasted coffee beans!

Charlotte Robert, August 11, 2013






SHIPPING PERFUME OVERSEAS

Good morning! (Actually it is afternoon here in San José de Costa Rica and it rains heavily today). I have decided to write a blog to share my experiences and allow my friends – or anybody reading this blog – to give me his or her advice. My intention is not to discuss my philosophy of life but to talk about the small success and the small failures which make everyday life of Fleur de Café.
As a starter let me describe a small but recurrent problem I encounter when I have to ship perfumes. A couple of weeks ago, I was informed of a Swiss buyers mission to Costa Rica and was asked to send some of Fleur de Café products to the export promotion office of Costa Rica in San José. They had 5 days to reach that office.
First thing: I went to the DHL counter at Fribourg train station (Switzerland). I had brought my parcel, ready to pay the 180 or so dollars. The man in charge opened my parcel and saw that it contained perfumes. No way! He said. DHL does not send perfumes! I told him that DHL was our preferred shipping agent and that they had been carrying our products since 2008. The man did not want to take responsibility of my parcel.
I went to the main post office. I was honest and said that my parcel contained perfumes. I got the same negative answer. I knew; was I looking for being defeated? Was I looking for trouble? Why did I say the truth? On my way out, I came back and said to the attendant: I am regularly shipping perfumes and nobody stopped me up to now. She recognized that the responsibility of the parcel was mine; to which I added that I always had written: EdT – for eau de toilette – or cosmetics on the customs declaration. Anyway, it was too late to ensure timely arrival in Costa Rica even by paying for the urgent service at more than DHL rate.
Maybe you do not know that, since 9/11, perfumes are considered as dangerous goods because they contain alcohol. They are subject to “dangerous goods taxes” upon going out of a country and upon entering another one.
Finally I wrote to the export promotion office of Costa Rica begging them to go and get products from the place where I keep some products for shows. I had no answer to my request; I tried to keep optimistic and two days later I flew to San José to arrive in time for the meeting with that Swiss delegation (funny for a Swiss producer to meet some Swiss buyers in Costa Rica). Fleur de Café products were not there on the shelf with other Costa Rican products. And I learned that the export promotion office does not have a messenger service.
The following morning, off I went, by taxi, with some nice eau de parfum and body lotion and went to the hotel of the Swiss delegation. The overall cost of the taxi was 50$. How could I have done it better.
Charlotte, July 28, 2013