“It’s kind of like dating. Once you’ve tried something of high quality, Tim, Donald and Buck just don’t do it for you anymore.”
The first cup.
The first time Jessica McCarrel tried coffee, she was repulsed. The beautiful aroma that filled her childhood home was a façade. By the time she was in post-secondary, the ‘shit-coffee’ that her school’s cafeteria served was just a way for her to stay awake.
Similarly, the first time Phil Robertson of Phil & Sebastian ordered a cup of coffee, it wasn’t any better. He just needed a way to stay focused in his engineering classes, “It tasted awful, but it worked,” said Robertson. And when Cole Torode of ROSSO was sixteen, he just wanted to find out what all of the fuss was about at Starbucks. So he ordered a vanilla latte.
“I hated it,” said Torode.
Most of us have come a long way since our first sip. We no longer order a triple chocolate frappuccino and call it a coffee. Now, it’s become much more about connecting with each other than getting our caffeine fix. When someone says to you, “Let’s grab a coffee this weekend,” you know that this means more than the words themselves; it means you’re going to connect, catch up, or gossip about last weekend. McCarrel’s cafe, Kaffee Klatsch, literally translates to ‘coffee’ & ‘gossip’.
But that doesn’t mean the quality of what we’re drinking doesn’t matter; it matters a whole lot, especially to these roasters and baristas. This is the story of the individuals at the helm of ‘Coffee Culture’ in our city. Whether they forged the path or are just getting started, they’re ensuring that we no longer settle for ‘shit coffee’ while we send emails or get our gossip in. Jeremy Ho of Monogram explains that these days, “People’s standards are higher about what they put in their mouth.”
That’s what she said.
Where them good cups of coffee at?
Pre-Beltliner, McCarrel was always on the hunt for good coffee. “Straight up, I didn’t like anything that anyone made,” said McCarrel.
A few more years back in time, Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb, two engineering lab buddies, were also lamenting the fact that good coffee was so hard to find. Eventually, rather than just loving good coffee and complaining about having no where to get it, the two of them decided to step up and create such a place.
Lech Wojakowski, owner of The Roasterie, shared the same problem: a love of good coffee but no where to get it, and so began his 30-year journey. His shop in Kensington was the first of its kind, bringing roasting to a street front cafe. It was the first time a lot of people had tried something other than Maxwell House or Nabob, “People were curious and in a very short time, we had a line up out the door.”
Simply put, it was about noticing that there was something missing in our city and then doing something about it.
So it’s clear that we needed better coffee, but how does one decide to turn this quest into a career?
“I guess the sexy answer would be, I don’t even know what I would do without this,” laughs Ho. Four years ago, two of the three Monogram boys were working at Phil & Sebastian, “I found myself researching coffee in my spare time. I was giving so many hours to work, and barely any to university,” said Ho.
Terrible student – but an amazing barista.
McCarrel’s career choice was a process of elimination. “I have like, two interests. The visual arts, and coffee.”
For Phil & Sebastian, their partnership was one of serendipity. After a mix up with his school registration, Robertson found himself with a brand new group of students in year two of Engineering. Annoyed that he was separated from the peers that he had already formed relationships with, he needed a new lab partner, and Sztabzyb happened to be standing beside him.
The rest is history.
“Right away we were fairly inseparable,” Robertson tells me about how more than once the university turned the lights out on them in a lab. They never stopped working until their projects were perfect.
It’s this very same standard of excellence that drives their business today.
Unlike the others, Russ and Chris Prefontaine – better known as The Fratello Brothers – have a long history with coffee that dates back to the 70s. Their father, along with Wojakowski, were the first two pioneers of coffee in Calgary. Their business’ may have been separate but the goal was common – to create a community around independent coffee.
Wojakowski, about to celebrate The Roasterie’s 30th anniversary, tells me that he knew there was a lot of opportunity in coffee, but never thought he would do it for 30 years. That’s the thing about finding the right career, whether you’re born into it or you stumble upon it, the passion takes over, “To me it was never work … it was just a really good ride.”
As I sipped on a latte at Corbeaux, The Fratello Brother’s reminisced about their long caffeinated history, “It’s literally the only job I’ve ever had,” says Chris. “I’ve never thought that we wouldn’t do this.”
Looks like Chris takes the cake for sexiest answer.
Why are more people buying custom roasted coffee instead of grabbing a Starbucks? If you ask these pros what goes into a quality cup of coffee, you’re going to be there awhile.
“It’s not ever one thing,” explains Robertson, “It’s about all the links in the chain. That’s where you achieve quality.” A little coffee 101 for you: those links he’s talking about are origin, roasting, and brewing, “You need to get all three of those right to achieve excellence.”
Even if consumers don’t understand all of the chemistry behind a good cup of coffee, all of these roasters spoke to the fact that they have a lot of confidence in people’s ability to taste the difference.
“Environment, service, product. It’s gotta all come together,” says Chris. “When you can hit it all, you’ve got something interesting.” Russ adds, “A good cafe should be helping educate the consumer on discovering different flavours.”
Chances are what you’re going to discover is the passion and expertise going into the coffee at these cafes is worth the trip.
More than a flavour.
The quality of the coffee and the bean itself goes with saying, but the community of coffee culture in Calgary is just as important, “We heavily focus on service and creating a warm environment,” says Ho. “It’s assumed it’s going to be good coffee – we don’t have to talk about that.”
Whether it’s the 75-year-old lady who has been a regular since day one, or one of their frequent canine visitors, when these coffee fanatics started talking about their community, that’s when they really light up.
All the coffee connoisseurs spoke to the joy of getting to know their regulars and watching their lives grow. From dates, to newlyweds, to babies and business, “It’s great feeling like we’re a part of that” says Jessie Attrell of Rosso.
Even though they’re all serving the same beverage, you don’t get a sense of tense competition. Wojakowski shares the discussions between roasters at industry conferences are always about the newest bean or innovation, “It’s always this happy group of people together.” They simply inspire one another to raise the bar. “We want to pull from the Tim Hortons and the Starbucks, not each other,” says Torode, “The more vanilla lattes we can transition the better.”
I also asked everyone what their biggest challenge has been.
“I think for me, it’s been working with Ben,” laughs Ho.
For Rosso, it’s saying no to vanilla lattes.
But in all seriousness, they have the same challenges as any small business running on passion.
“You have this idea of where you want to take your business,” explains Robertson. “But you need to have the patience to let it be realized. I always have higher expectations than we ever achieve. I always want it to be better, whatever it is.”
And of course, like in business and in life, the people you surround yourself with are key.
“The hardest variable to control in all of this is people,” explains Chris Prefontaine. “There are so many hands that have touched every step of the process. What is critically important is that you align yourself from start to finish with people that give a shit. That’s the key.”
Starbucks versus Everyone
Robertson puts it this way: “How do you compare Model Milk to McDonald’s?”
Ho gets me to consider the difference between going to Tim Horton’s and sitting at Monogram. “They are almost like different products. Obviously they still have the same bones, but when you think about the drinks and the experiences that you get, it’s so different.”
It’s not to say that Starbucks is the devil, “They have done an amazing job in terms of consistency,” says Torode. Attrell adds, “People like what’s safe and they recognize a brand. But it’s worth stepping outside of the box to experience something special.”
Wojakowski recalls when Starbucks started, “They brought a large scale of awareness to specialty coffee.” But it’s clear that being a part of a smaller micro world has a certain richness to it and unique opportunities for innovation.
“Independent cafes should always be better. Period.” says Sebastian. “It shouldn’t be a question about where to go. The fact that we have to answer this question means we still have work ahead.”
It’s kind of like dating. Once you’ve tried something of high quality, Tim, Donald and Buck just don’t do it for you anymore.
Attrell at Rosso tells me her favorite thing is seeing people’s reaction the first time they taste specialty coffee. Yes, Calgary wants to see local thrive, but it’s the taste that’s really going to hook us.
Because of these individuals’ high standards, the innovation, and creativity won’t stop anytime soon. In fact, with a research project underway at the U of C, Phil is about to start tackling some of the big problems that the entire industry faces.
(Hey U of C – Better keep that lab open late.)
Our city is evolving, and coffee plays a part in that. Monogram, Fratello, and Lech all spoke about international influences in ‘Cafe Society’ and ‘Coffee Culture’, “We’ve experienced excellence elsewhere and we want it at home too” says Chris Prefontaine.
When I asked our original coffee pioneer what was next for him, Wojakowski didn’t hesitate. “Another 30 years.”
In summary, I can tell you from experiencing the taste and getting to know the people driving this industry, the future of our coffee is in good hands.