In 2001 specialty coffee was still unknown territory for most people. Nobody was talking about 'single origin' or 'Direct Fair Trade', but Tom Janssen had a dream. When he met his future wife Katrien Pauwels and shared his vision, she knew there was no way to escape from his passion for coffee and they started OR Coffee Roasters together.
Do you want to learn more about OR's origin story? We interviewed Katrien Pauwels, founder of OR coffee Roasters:
Katrien: 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.
Did you know anything about roasting coffee before you met Tom?
Katrien: Although coffee was part of my daily ritual, it never crossed my mind 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.
How did the roastery start?
Katrien: 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 had put every single Euro we had in this coffee project of ours.
How did people react to OR Coffee Roasters?
Katrien: 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.
When did you decide to open the first OR Coffee bar?
Katrien: 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.
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. It was the best decision we ever made (apart from falling in love with each other ;-)
Training barista's is imporant if you want to open new coffee bars, but what's OR SCHOOL?
Katrien: Coffee is a difficult product. When you open a bottle of wine and pour a glass, not a lot can go wrong. That's very different from when you open a bag of coffee beans: you still have to grind the beans, choose a brewing methode, make milk foam,... Because we were already training our staff, it was a small step to also invite all our wholesale customers to the trainings. Today we have a training programm open for everybody who wants to learn more about making an espresso, latte art, filter coffee and more.
Today around 90% of OR coffee is Direct Fair Trade. When did this become important for you?
Katrien: 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 knew there was still a lot to learn and we dicided to travell to the origin and meet the people who grow our coffee.
After meeting farmers in Africa and South America, we felt responsible for these people who work really hard, but very often dont get a fair price for their coffee. To skip the traders we bought our first batch of beans directly from a farmer. It was an expensive operation, but the only way to learn more about how the beans are grown, harvested, processed. Once again we had taken an extra step in the coffee chain. A step that had taught us a lot - and still does.
Katrien: When we started buying directly from the coffee farmers, our network around the world grew very fast. We discovered more and more oppurtunities for excellent green coffee. What we have been doing for one roastery, we wanted to share with other roasteries across Europe. In this way we can help more farmers al over the world and increase coffee quality all over Europe. It also brings us again one step closer to our dream of making OR Coffee a 100% Direct Fair Trade coffee roastery!
What will the future bring?
Katrien: We source most of our coffee directly. We have our own roastery. We have a coffee training center. A total of four espresso bars (in Ghent and Brussels) and a growing number of wholesale customers. The basics for sharing our passion for specialty coffee in Belgium ar ready, but will we ever be done? No chance!
Coffee is a never ending story. And we will continue writing it.