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The Coronavirus Economy: How my job in coffee sales changed

March 20, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

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Coffee roaster La Colombe started out with one café in Philadelphia in 1994. Within 25 years, the company has closed in on a near-billion-dollar valuation. Most of that growth has developed since 2014, when a $28.5-million round of funding propelled the expansion of La Colombe’s physical cafés outside Philly, and since 2015, when Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya became the majority investor and the company launched its line of canned Draft Lattes. La Colombe has continued to innovate in the retail space, with its cans showing up on the shelves of Target and Walmart, new SKUs launching every season—their oat milk latte, go figure, won BevNet’s 2019 Best New Product award—and new for 2020, a single-serve canned coffee that heats itself in two minutes.

Despite this rapid retail growth, La Colombe at its core is a hospitality company, and that’s where Roland Bui comes in. As one of the company’s wholesale sales reps, the Belgian-born Philadelphian is in charge of acquiring and nurturing new coffee accounts. Granularly, that means advising on café layout and design, conducting staff trainings, doing tastings, maintaining equipment, driving around the state with a trunk weighed down with beans and lattes, and dining out with industry folks. Networking is the No. 1 way Bui gets leads for new business, which, by and large, happens in bars and restaurants, one of the most highly impacted industries during the coronavirus pandemic. And Bui is doubly impacted; he moonlights as a bartender.

Roland Bui is a wholesale sales rep for Philadephia-based La Colombe coffee.
Courtesy of Roland Bui

Fortune spoke with Bui for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his employment status and his plans for the future, and to get a sense of how he is handling this news both emotionally and financially. The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Fortune: How long have you been with La Colombe?

Bui: I’ve been here three years. The big capital flush predates me, but La Colombe has grown tremendously since I’ve come on, and it’s been very exciting. I’ll say in the past five years, the wholesale business has doubled. Besides Philly, we have wholesale hubs in Boston, Miami, D.C., Chicago, L.A., and New York. I’m in acquisition and the team handles five states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.

Gourmet coffee is a crowded market. How do you go about acquiring new accounts?

I do a lot of searching and hunting, networking online on social media and at bars. That’s where you get a lot of information—from bartenders.

You would know.

I would. Besides La Colombe, I bartend one night a week in Chinatown in a place called Johnnie Walker Lounge. Very high volume, very fun. I was helping out the guy that opened it, and I’ve been there for three years as well. It’s like a night out for me. Of course, like many places in Philly, it’s temporarily closed.

How is a bar a good place to get business leads?

General managers don’t have time to talk to you during service. But if you have a drink with them, have dinner with them, you can get information and learn what new ventures are coming out. I follow food writers and real estate [agents and developers] from other cities to learn what developments are coming up. Usually there’s a coffee shop, there’s a restaurant, there’s a hotel. I find a contact, reach out hopefully via somebody that can introduce and vouch for me. And then, see if I can help them.

Networking is the No. 1 way Bui gets leads for new business, which, by and large, happens in bars and restaurants, one of the most highly impacted industries during the coronavirus pandemic.
Courtesy of Roland Bui

Now that COVID-19 has effectively shut down restaurants for dining in, how will that effect your ability to acquire new business?

There’s going to be a lot more Instagramming and Twitter and emails.

Is that as effective?

It can be very effective for people I already have an established relationship with. It’s definitely going to be tougher for people who don’t know me, whom I haven’t worked with yet, just because I think there’s a personal aspect to this. I have to sell myself. Besides the program and what we offer as wholesale, I’m the person who’s going to help you and your business, this business that you’re going to put a lot of hours and money into. So you have to establish that personal relationship.

Given that you have a five-state territory, does your job involve travel?

Lately, I’ve been focusing mostly on Pittsburgh and Baltimore. I typically do out-of-town travel two to three times a month. I try to see all my existing business there—just a quick touch [base], saying hi, checking on the coffee, getting a drink, see how things are doing. And then I also usually have appointments already set up where I will meet people who are looking to do new business. So it’s visiting a space with them, looking at their future layout, training before they open. And then more networking is done afterwards at dinner, at the bar where I’ll try to get introduced to people.

“I’ll say in the past five years the wholesale business has doubled. Besides Philly, we have wholesale hubs in Boston, Miami, D.C., Chicago, L.A., and New York,” notes Bui.
Courtesy of Roland Bui

And all that goes away now?

Right. Now I’m not going to travel for the foreseeable future, first because the company has mandated that we limit unnecessary travel, and second my children are out of school for two weeks at least, so I will be taking care of them, watching them at home while I’m doing work on the phone and computer.

How old are your kids?

Olivia just turned five this past week. Isabel turns four Tuesday. They’re a joy. Being a father is very much part of who I project to the world. I’m concerned about their health, but more afraid of how they might be vectors for their grandparents. We see my in-laws once a week at least, but we’re going to be holding off on visits for quite some time.

How will not being able to acquire new accounts affect your income?

I get paid a base, plus commission based on revenue from accounts I’ve signed. So if that revenue goes down, my commission will go down. People are going to delay openings. I’m working on a few openings over different states right now, and it’s certainly going to delay hiring, training, and opening. I’ve already accepted that the next quarter, the next two quarters, three quarters will be affected by this virus, which means that my overall revenue for the year will be diminished. Thankfully, I do have a base, which is substantial enough for me to pay off my bills. But the commission would surely help.

How are you planning manage that loss?

Sandy, my wife, and I spend a great deal of money going out eating and drinking. Those are things that we really enjoy, but we have to cut that out as best we can while also trying to help our friends by supporting them as long as they’re open. I’m in the midst of this, we’re getting married in May. Well, we’re already married, but we never had a wedding.

Have you had to cancel?

So far, not yet. But the wedding celebration is in Mexico with guests from Mexico, the U.S., and Belgium, where my mom, dad, brother, and half my groomsmen live. The head of the White House task force, Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, he said it could be up to eight weeks. Eight weeks is exactly when we’re getting married. If we have to reschedule, that’s what we’ll have to do. It’s going to be unfortunate, but there are more important things to worry about.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

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—The oil sector takes its next hit: Coronavirus on offshore rigs
—Some of the most extreme ways companies are combating the coronavirus
—How luxury designers in Italy’s fashion heartland are facing the coronavirus
—Amazon tells employees to work from home if they can. Warehouse workers can’t
—Why Dollar General thinks the coronavirus can help business
—Coronavirus may not be all bad for tech. Consider the “stay at home” stocks

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus and its impact on global business.