China’s coffee upstart Luckin pushes into India and Middle East

Luckin continues to expand at jaw-dropping speed as it announced plans to open shop overseas for the first time. On Monday, the Starbucks challenger from China said it has signed a memorandum of understanding to set up a joint venture with Americana Group, a major international food group.

The deal will see Luckin launch a new retail coffee business in the Greater Middle East region and India, said the company that in May took public its 18-month-old business. Its partner has a far longer track record. Founded in Kuwait more than 50 years ago, Americana owns the local franchises of KFC, Pizza Hut, Friday’s, Costa Coffee and other prominent casual dining brands across the Middle East and North Africa.

Luckin did not provide further details of this new venture and a spokesperson for the company declined to comment when contacted by TechCrunch.

But there’s still a lot to read into its international foray. For one, Chinese companies have had a growing presence in the Middle East and India in recent times as Beijing puts forward its Belt and Road infrastructure development and investment initiative. Notably, the MoU between Luckin and Americana was signed with both Chinese and Arab government officials in attendance.

Chinese tech giants have already taken notice of the regions. Alibaba is active in the Middle East with its cloud computing business. Up-and-coming Chinese app developers such as ByteDance run the immensely popular TikTok and Helo in India. 

These countries are also blessed with emerging middle-class populations, the demographic that Luckin targets back home. In China, the coffee startup is known for shelling out large subsidies to lure millions of tea drinkers into trying its coffee beverages. Instead of attracting them to sit and relax at Starbucks-like retail stores, Luckin relies on a massive network of pickup points and delivery staff — which allows it to save on rent and take advantage of China’s relatively cheap labor — to complete orders.

Luckin also owns a massive amount of user data, as all orders and payments take place over its app. It can be imagined how the Chinese startup sets out to replicate this digital-first model in places with booming internet populations.

Like China, India is historically a nation of tea lovers that’s experiencing rapid growth for coffee consumption. The beverage scene is crowded with popular tea brands like Chaayos and foreign players that team up with local companies to gain an upper hand. Even international coffee behemoth Starbucks is no exception as it works closely with Indian conglomerate Tata to operate more than 130 stores.

“We at Americana believe this MoU will revolutionize the food and beverage retail industry in the Greater Middle East and India, regions that provide promising prospects for new retail growth and expansion,” said Americana Group chief executive officer Kesri Kapur in a statement.

Luckin CEO Qian Zhiya noted that her company looks “forward to further expanding the freshly brewed coffee market internationally as we realize the incredible growth opportunities available to us through our innovative business model.”

The startup has indeed recorded months of stunning growth, but it is also facing skepticism from investors who are put off by its continued cash burn with no plans to achieve profitability on the horizon. Luckin is aiming to double its China-based operations from just over 2,000 locations to 4,500 by 2019, and its new global ambition is set to even further test investor patience.