There’s Something Seriously Going On…

Wake up Vancouver Island! There’s some fresh coffee a’brewin and a wickedly good brioche with your name on it. Seriously! No, your mother hasn’t moved back in with you overnight, but perhaps even better, there’s a new place in the neighbourhood where you could both start your day…with some pretty Serious Coffee, and crumbly little bits of hot muffins and drizzly white icing that she’ll make you wipe off your fingers…

At the Serious Coffee warehouse and roasting headquarters in Duncan, partners Steve Brown, Bill Grant and Dave Goudy have a vision for their coffee beans – buy top-quality varieties from around the world, air-roast them in pre-ordered batches, and deliver them to their customers the next day. It’s a vision that they’re very serious about, offering coffee lovers a choice of brew that tastes fresh and rich, and doesn’t harbour any bitter or burnt aftertaste. It’s also a vision that foresees solid, steady growth in the number of Serious Coffee stores operating on Vancouver Island, all the while promoting the feeling of these locally owned and operated community gathering places with variety, quality and quantity in the food and beverage products that customers are looking for.

Their loyal customers are already many and the numbers keep on growing. Supplying their beans to 13 franchised locations, (their newest store has just opened this summer in Nanaimo), with a further 12 stores waiting in the wings, they are also wholesalers to a myriad of small and medium-sized independent coffee shops, as well as to a diverse collection of community outlets including the Cowichan Community Centre and the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria. They are noteworthy for their widespread involvement on the Island, supplying the coffee and supporting fundraising efforts at events and through promotions large and small, such as the Dragon boat festival in Nanaimo, the Vancouver Island ‘Tour de Rock’ and the MS ‘Grape Bicycle Escape’ held at Brentwood College in Mill Bay, to name just a few.

Dave Goudy explains their philosophy: "I was born in Victoria. I like to give back to the Island. So we also do small one-pound bags for our fundraising program. What we’re trying to do is: anybody that’s non-profit, a lot of schools, sports teams, clubs, anything at all, we’ll give them a good break, because if you’re selling things like chocolate-covered almonds, or chocolate bars etc., the margins are very small and you have to sell huge volumes. We will sell our coffee at cost and they’ll make about a 50% profit on each bag. It’s a great thing and it sells itself. There are lots of things we can do like that.” And, Dave adds, ultimately, it’s really all about people: Vancouver Island people, the franchisees and everyone who loves a good coffee. He describes the Serious Coffee business as an Island family operation – one of the partners is his brother-in-law and the Office GM is his sister. But they consider the over 150 people now working at Serious Coffee stores as a part of their bigger family.

This home-grown venture started out in 1994 with Bill Grant (and two other partners who have since left the business), primarily as a wholesale roasting operation known as the San Juan Roasting Coffee Company. From a little downtown Duncan restaurant with an on-site roaster, (Dave says, "It sounded like a big blender going – quite loud – but people didn’t seem to mind at the time,”) the company opened a second San Juan Roasting Coffee store in Victoria at the Town and Country Shopping Centre. In 2000, a small Mill Bay store originally called ‘Mill Bagel’ was purchased – the location proved to be very advantageous. Signs on the highway advertising some "serious coffee” soon lead to the name change for this and all the subsequent stores.

The Mill Bay store became the flagship location where all the rest of the ingredients for the grand vision began to come together – pricing, quality control and a background commissary for making most of the food products to sell in the stores. Their menu now offers a variety of complementary coffee treats, which are baked up fresh at all the stores, including a signature brioche, muffins and scones, and grilled panini sandwiches. Meanwhile, the wholesale roasting operation had been moved from Duncan to the basement of a house in Victoria, and then to a leased warehouse in Victoria. By 2003, volume and real estate markets dictated another move to a larger warehouse and roasting plant, returning them to Duncan once again. 2003 was also the year that the present three partners began to offer franchises for sale and initial plans were for a total of 20 stores to be operating on the Island. Three short years later, having just recently opened their 13th store with the other 12 coming soon, Dave acknowledges, "25 will do.”

Concentrating on supplying their stores and wholesale customers with premium coffee beans means shopping the world for over 30 different types of coffees. And being aware of evolving market trends and customer preferences is crucial. Serious Coffee stores offer organic, fair trade (certified) and fairly traded, as well as Swiss water decaffeinated blends, and put information pamphlets in the all the stores to answer questions about the different types.

The raw, green beans from Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, Central America and many other countries are bought on the commodity futures market, where they try to buy a year’s supply at a time to keep the prices steady for consumers. The 150 pound sacks are shipped from the country of origin to the Port of Vancouver, trucked to Duncan and unloaded in pyramids of up to 500 sacks. In its raw state, the coffee beans will ‘hibernate’ and keep up to seven years in a dry and temperature controlled environment where they don’t attract interest from pests of any sort.

When it’s time for roasting the beans, the process is done in a machine that operates similarly to a popcorn popper using hot air. Called the Fluid Bed roasting system, the beans are heated and kept moving, so they never touch the sides of the roaster, and the considerable volume of hot air blows away the chaff and any smoke released in the process. Dave explains that this eliminates any burnt taste usual in a flame roasting system. The chaff or ‘skin’ of the beans is collected in a Separator and makes a very good soil nutrient material, which is collected regularly from the plant by local gardeners and a nearby blueberry farmer for his organic farm. Originally, the partners had to seek out people willing to take the chaff and the coffee grounds (which are left in their paper filters from the stores) and use them for composting in an environmentally sound way. But now the constant demand from gardeners all over the Island keeps up to the supply.

When the beans have been cooled, they are packaged into 5 pound bags, sealed and dated. According to Dave, "The reason why we have such a good product is we don’t have it sitting around. It has a very short lifespan. Coffee roasted today goes to the client tomorrow.” Serious uses a ‘reverse psychology approach’ with their orders to ensure quality control. They wait for the customer to phone in their order and then roast the beans for them – a ‘just-in-time’ roasting system. "We’re not doing grocery stores because we can’t be guaranteed that they’re going to have the rotation of their stock quickly. Our mandate is freshness in a Serious package. That’s why it’s all dated.” Once coffee has been roasted Dave adds, it becomes more volatile and must be treated like a perishable. Each bag has a one-way valve to let the carbon dioxide gas out otherwise it would "blow up like a balloon,” and they tell customers, once the bag has been opened, coffee should be stored in an airtight container in the freezer where it will keep dry and fresh, and not the fridge where it will go moldy.

Along with the ever-increasing market for coffee consumption (next to oil, coffee beans are the second most valuable commodity traded on the world market today *) the partners are also exploring their future in tea. "Everyone is becoming more health conscious now, so we’re bringing in all different kinds of teas. And learning a lot: like keeping tea out of the light in dark containers, and what a macha is, and which teas are cleansing.” So is there another name change on the horizon, perhaps to Serious Coffee and Tea? "Absolutely,” says Dave. "If it’s high quality, and healthy, in the market that we’re looking for, then we should do that, because you’re going to drink tea and I’m going to drink coffee. You have to have that product available and do your homework to make sure that it’s done well.”

Whether Serious remains focused on coffees, or coffee and tea, the company emphasis is on being the little Vancouver Island-Canadian company. "We think it’s working because we’re keeping the stores on a small profile, a family type of thing. The franchisees come to us and we take them under our wing.” Dave would like to see jazz trios and the works of local artists being featured in the stores regularly, and says Serious is not into the mass merchandizing of related products through their stores. "We’re all people-people here at Serious. Success is the goal and the vision, but the people are the most important thing.”

So go on, take your mother for a coffee. It’ll cost less than building on a spare room… seriously!

* from: "Spilling the Beans on the Coffee Trade” The Fairtrade Foundation

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