Back in November 2009, the Limestone New Media Group hosted their monthly meetup at Coffeeco, specifically at the Kingston Centre location. During that meeting, Coffeeco’s owner, Rich Ottenhof, stepped out from behind the espresso machine to talk briefly about his business as well as his experiments with social media. Rich left me thoroughly impressed, so much so that I was eager to learn more about his personal quest to improve the quality of coffee that’s available in Kingston. Accordingly, we engaged Rich (pictured above and on our Flickr: at work creating latte art) in our latest round of six questions.
1. Coffeeco has distinguished itself from the competition by exclusively offering organic and fair trade products. Why are these high standards important to you? How does Coffeeco remain committed to these superior products and practises?
Rich: Coffeeco’s attachment to organic and fair trade is very complex and can be supported in more than just social justice terms. Setting aside the well documented reasons for choosing fair trade organic (FTO) coffee in terms of how it helps the farmers, sustainable polyculture, traceability etc, what we focus on is the quality of the product. That being said, just because it is organic or fair trade doesn’t necessarily mean it naturally tastes better. I know there are operators out there who make that claim, but it is disingenuous and not supportable by blind cupping. The mechanism we use to ensure that our customers get the finest product is extensive sampling of green coffee through blind cuppings, coupled with my well established industry connections through which we gain access to very small lot coffees. In the recent past we have introduced a new line of coffee we call Coffeeco rarities. These coffees are extensively sampled by international panels and judged to be the finest from each country. At the store level, they demand an even higher premium than FTO, but offer a quality unapproachable by any of our competitors. Once you get access to these coffees you still need to know what to do with them. The quality and experience of our roasting is the single most important element in determining how the customer experiences our coffee.
2: Every bean that Coffeeco serves is prepared in your Kingston-based roastery. I have to admit that roasting coffee sounds like a dream job, however it’s not your average profession. How did you get into roasting coffee? How has your operation changed over the years?
Rich: I founded a cafe/magazine retailer in downtown Kingston in 1996 and became quickly dismayed at the quality of coffee available to us. Shortly thereafter I attended my first Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference and took some roasting courses. I purchased my first roaster in 1997 and soon became overwhelmed by wholesale orders. I sold the cafe and moved our operation to an industrial park in Kingston West. I started that wholesale business on a shoestring budget, making my own tables, acting as roaster, salesman, bookkeeper etc. Slowly we accumulated enough customers where we now have 21 employees and roast every day. I have attended every SCAA conference since 1997 and have attained industry designations and made contacts which put me in daily correspondence with individuals from Ireland, UK, Africa, Central and South America and of course North America.
3: Operating your very own roastery must be equal parts hard work and fun. While I’m interested in learning more about your roasting process, I’d also love to hear more about your involvement in Coffeeco’s daily operations? What makes your work so rewarding?
Rich: I tell everyone this is not work for me. While it consumes most of my day I have an insatiable appetite for it. Rarely will you see me sitting in either of our cafes, and if I do it’s not to relax. I love hanging around the espresso machines and roaster, elbowing staff out of the way so I can have a few minutes where I feel productive. The fun for me is my Thursday morning shift at our Johnson Street location and doing training for new staff. I also get the biggest kick from travelling to coffee events where I meet old friends and colleagues from all over the world. Last fall I travelled to Manhattan to instruct at a Barista Guild of America event sponsored by the SCAA. I was training people from as far away as Korea, Japan, as well as from the North Eastern US on how to properly cup coffees to determine their qualities. This spring I will be instructing similar courses at the SCAA conference in Anaheim California. At the warehouse where our roasting occurs the fun comes from some of the characters who visit us on a regular basis. Everyone who works at the roastery has been with me for years, and they are all extremely professional and know their jobs cold. You can’t produce the amount of coffee we do without that level of professionalism, and that is something I think our customers expect.
4: Another hallmark of your business is that it is powered by clean, emissions-free energy sources. Furthermore, Coffeeco is big on recycling, composting, and environmentally friendly packaging. Why is it important for Coffeeco to adhere to higher standards, and lead by example?
Rich: I always go back to why did I start this business. I didn’t start to do things the way others do but to find a better way. The phrase I use is “it’s not a commitment unless it costs you something”. We pay extra for compostable cups, organic and local products, recycling and composting. Most Kingstonians don’t know that businesses in downtown Kingston do not have access to compost and recycling services because the city doesn’t provide those services to businesses. We remove all of our recycling and composting every day and return it to our warehouse where it is picked up at our cost. We were also the first business in Eastern Ontario to sign with Bullfrog Power, a company we pay a premium to in order to subsidize renewable energy projects around the country.
5: Twitter users are likely familiar with Coffeeco’s regular treasure hunts, which send Kingstonians all over the city in search of coveted, free gift certificates. Additionally, you tweet your special daily roasts. How has Twitter played a part in your growth thus far, and what are your plans for using social media in the future?
Rich: I began to use Twitter quite early on as an experiment. I wanted to see if we could get information out quickly, with little effort and engage customers at the same time. I am very pleased with the results, the feedback, suggestions and small community we have built. The geocache giveaways were a fun thing for me to do which cost so little when compared with traditional media strategies. Recently I have begun to experiment with a blog where I can go into greater detail on coffee related subjects that strike me as important. I have linked the Twitter feed to the blog at the suggestion of one of our Twitter followers as a way of extending the reach of the contests to those who read the blog but are not on Twitter. I have used the blog to convey news about our businesses, but also to shine a light on other espresso bars I visit who are doing a great job. I don’t think that praising others diminishes us in any way but more firmly establishes us as an important part of the high end coffee landscape. I have given Facebook some consideration but have set that aside in favour of the blog.
6: According to your blog, Coffeeco is currently searching for suitable space for a third location. While you already have stores at the Kingston Centre and near the Queen’s campus, why are you determined to setup a shop in downtown Kingston?
Rich: As I type I am in negotiation with a landlord over a prominent corner in downtown. It may not come to pass but we will keep trying whenever a good spot becomes available. I am doing this simply because I don’t think anyone else can touch us for quality of product and the high standards in preparation. Coffee is a perfect venue for our product where we can control the customers experience. At Multatuli we roast and ship but have little influence on how our product is prepared. Coffeeco has become an educational tool for us where we can say, “look a proper cappuccino doesn’t have a meringue of foam on top, this is how you do it”. We feature latte art at our espresso bars, and all of our baristas receive training from myself. I am currently the only barista in Canada who’s certified by the Barista Guild of America and I want to greatly improve the standards practiced in Kingston. People who know great coffee come to us, people who don’t care go elsewhere. I’m betting that Kingston has an appetite for truly great coffee, prepared by well informed baristas using proper technique. There is no reason this city needs to settle for mediocrity and institutional quality.