Through Pandemic And War: The Inspiring Story Of How A Belgian Scaleup Brought Net-Zero To Food Roasting

Can a little-known Belgian climate tech scaleup take on and transform the global food roasting industry that has seen little innovation in 100 years?

It may sound like mission impossible, but impossible isn’t a word in the dictionary of Ray & Jules. Co-founders and husband and wife, Koen Bosmans and Sarah Bergé, have already beat nearly insurmountable odds to bring their vision to life.

What is this vision?

To disrupt food supply chains that contribute to climate injustice by eliminating 100 million tons of CO2 emissions per year.

Ray & Jules is bringing the power of climate tech to the food sector with the world’s first continuous zero-emission technology for roasting coffee, cocoa, malt, granola and nuts.

How sustainably our food gets roasted isn’t something that often falls on our radar – the technology for batch-roasting food products was first invented in 1880 and it has only incrementally evolved since. It’s an ancient, energy-intensive process: every year, major food roasting categories emit 100 million tons of CO2. “Roasting coffee or cocoa with current batch technology is like driving a Karl Benz three-wheeler automobile on the highway today,” Bosmans explains.

Bosmans and a team of engineers had been looking for ways to optimise the gas-fuelled batch roasters for a largescale coffee roaster when they came up with an out-of-the-box alternative: switching over from batch to a hyper-efficient continuous roaster powered with renewable energy.

The idea was dismissed as “too innovative,” but Bosmans persisted. He went on to set up and patent the zero-emission roasting technology and build his own coffee roaster prototype. He made the bold move to step into the coffee market and launched Ray & Jules – the sunny kind of coffee to show there’s a better way to do business, and to prove it to the sector incumbents.

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However shaking up the status quo didn’t always come easy: “One of the myths we busted is that you have to always roast with a lot of fresh air; thermodynamically this makes no sense, it is much more logical to smartly reuse heated air.

“Some of the reactions we received were disbelief and even outright hostility, as we were ‘breaking down the craft of roasting’, says Bergé.

But the incredible benefits of bringing continuous slow-roasting to industry-scale were undeniable: not only for a rich, balanced flavour and taste, but for a net-zero food manufacturing industry that works in harmony with nature, not against it.

“Our technology has the capability to roast coffee, cocoa and malt with incredible precision, while consuming three times less energy and without emitting greenhouse gases emissions compared to the existing technology. It can be operated off-grid, making it also applicable in countries of origin or close to point-of-consumption. So rationally, the choice is self-evident,” says Gert Linthout, who joined Ray & Jules to strengthen the market side.

However, food manufacturing, he says, “was very similar to the automotive market before Tesla kicked in.”

Ray & Jules launched as coffee roaster in 2019. They not only leveraged their zero-emission solution, but also developed end-to-end into honest trade relationships from sustainable agriculture to sustainable packaging and transport.

They got off to a flying start, quickly gaining traction in the SME B2B market. But then the unimaginable happened: the global Covid pandemic erupted and the scaleup lost 100% of its turnover within weeks.

“While in lockdown with our small kids, we had to rethink our market strategy,” says Linthout. “We decided to pivot to the consumer market, with a fresh-roast direct-to-consumer model.”

1.5 years later, Ray & Jules had seen 20x growth and arrived at break-even. Their relief was palpable: they had survived the pandemic and the outlook was that the world would start to return to normalcy.

Then the Russia-Ukraine war broke out.

“It had a huge influence on energy prices, consumer trust and family budgets,” says Bergé. “We had to switch focus again to on-board B2B customers. This gave us the necessary oxygen to overcome the energy crisis period in 2022 and head for profitable growth in 2023.”

It took ingenuity, an ability to quickly pivot and adapt, and an against-the-odds passion and will to win, but within less than 3 years on the market, Ray & Jules’ customer, partner and ambassador base had grown to an impressive 20,000 strong following. In parallel, cleantech sister company CEE expanded roasting capabilities and partnerships to include cocoa and malt.

“The hugely positive feedback of the market, investors, partners, gives us the strong conviction that we’re reaching the tipping point for clean tech in this energy-intensive industry,” says Linthout.

“In the meantime, we see the increasing impacts of global warming and this makes us impatient,” he adds. “We start seeing traction for the technology from strong global food players where our technology will have the largest direct impact in CO2 removal at source. And this, of course, is why we started Ray & Jules.”

To speed up the adoption, Ray & Jules has packaged its technology as a ready-made ‘plug-in’ solution that can be quickly incorporated to operate in or alongside existing roasting production infrastructure.

The scaleup also leverages the experience of cleantech sister company CEE to work in consortium with large financial partners to offer its technology to food roasters in an innovative pay-per-use model. This significantly minimises the investment risk and implementation timeline.

Bergé, Bosmans and Linthout are driven by a sense of responsibility to “pass on our planet in a better state then we received it,” and by bringing net-zero technology to food roasting and eliminating 100 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, they certainly will. In their entrepreneurial journey they follow a philosophy of being “grateful, generous and decisive.”

Ray & Jules have already prevented 150 tons of CO2 emissions so far through 10 million cups of sunny coffee. They’re currently expanding into Eastern Europe and exploring further growth into new markets including Scandinavia, the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Their goal is to work in partnership with local entrepreneurs to create a global network of solar-powered coffee roasteries that are close to the customer and fair to the farmer: “we’re building an ‘army of friends’, says Linthout, “making big waves of positivity and disrupting the sector into a new era of clean and honest businesses.”