I still can exactly remember where and when our coffee story has started. Tom and myself met each other working in informatics. Informatics?? I hear you asking? Indeed.
I can still remember exactly where and when our coffee story first started. When Tom and I met, we were both working in IT. Yes, you read it right: both of us were in Information Technology. The first thing Tom told me was that it was his dream to become a coffee roaster.
A coffee roaster? I was intrigued. Although coffee was part of my daily ritual, I had never stopped to think that somewhere, someone actually “made” that coffee. I had no idea about the process that led up to it. Tom was raised in a coffee family. His grandfather had been a roaster, as was his uncle. But that was it. He had no experience, no expertise. What he did have, was a lot of passion and a very clear vision: he wanted to introduce Belgium to a different kind of coffee. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the idea. And with Tom. Only a few months after that first conversation, we decided to take a sabbatical and spend a year traveling around Asia. That’s where the idea of starting our own business was born.
We started our own coffee roastery in 2001. It wasn’t as fancy as it sounds. We rented a small but comfortable shop in Aalst, a town near Brussels, installed a shop roaster, and started roasting. We had no knowledge, no experience and no real business plan. But we did have a massive amount of passion - and boy, did we need it! At times some doubts would creep in, but the thought about the investment we had made kept us going. There was simply no way back. We put every single Euro we had in this coffee project of ours.
Needless to say, nobody was waiting for Tom and Katrien to start roasting beans. Coffee was already there. It had always been there. We needed to learn to navigate the coffee landscape, explore the market and find our niche. At the time I was still working in IT at Apple - a job I needed more than ever in order for us to make ends meet.
After struggling for a while it dawned on us that roasting is merely one step in the entire coffee chain. Preparing coffee was just as much a part of it - if not more.
We had already built a decent client base of wholesale customers, restaurants, cafes, etc. But all we did was roasting beans and delivering them. We didn’t actually prepare the coffee. So we decided to open a coffee bar - it would be a “coffee lab” where we could learn, test and fine-tune our roasts.
It was the best decision we ever made (apart from falling in love with each other ;-)
We based our first coffee bar in Ghent. The startup was such a success that we soon decided to open a second location in Brussels, which up until then had been deprived of any real specialty coffee bars. Now that we had control over both the roasting process and the coffee preparation, we couldn’t help but wonder about those green beans that kept arriving at our roastery: what did their journey look like before they ended up in Belgium? We decided we needed to learn more, and so we started traveling to their roots. Pretty soon we bought our first batch of beans directly from a farmer. Did we need to do that to make a profit? Not at all. But is there any other way to learn all there is to know about how the beans are grown, harvested, processed and handled? To really know the coffee, we needed to go back to its roots, and experience all of this first-hand.
Once again we had taken an extra step in the coffee chain. A step that had taught us a lot - and still does.
Today we buy 70% of our beans directly from our farmers. The remaining 30% is bought through specialty coffee traders. We’re aiming for 100% direct trade - which is definitely a challenge for a relatively small roasting company.
We source directly, we have our own roastery, we have a coffee training center, a total of three espresso bars (in Ghent and Brussels) with a 4th location opening early 2016, and about 300 wholesale customers. Will we ever be done? No chance!
Coffee is a never ending story. And we will continue writing it.