It all started in a digital circuits class. It was 1996. Phil and I were both at the University of Calgary studying to become engineers. As fate would have it, we were paired as lab partners. I’d like to say there was a thunderbolt moment where we both saw our futures unfold in front of us, but it was substantially less monumental than that. We worked well together, largely because we’re both perfectionists. I never had to convince Phil to stay up late to keep working on a project and he never had to convince me to stay up even later. During our time as lab partners we became friends. We were odd ducks in the world of engineering because while most of our cohorts feasted on pizza and beer, even as scruffy students both Phil and I had a taste for the finer things and bonded over a shared love of fine food and wine.
In 2002 we discovered espresso and just how good or bad it can be. The discovery happened for both of us accidentally and concurrently. For Phil, the revelation was sparked by his late Uncle Billy. When Phil visited Uncle Billy, who was quite the aficionado, Uncle Billy would meticulously prepare espressos for the two of them to enjoy. The process piqued his curiosity and Phil bought a Gaggia Baby espresso machine and began experimenting. Around the same time I was dropping some rather unsubtle hints to my wife Emily that it would be nice to make espressos at home. You can imagine my surprise when on my birthday a Delonghi espresso maker showed up. Despite using nice beans the results were atrocious and I can quite honestly remember asking myself why anyone would bother to drink the crap. After many discussions between Phil and I, along with some fairly extensive research (this is where it’s beneficial to remember our engineer-like tendencies) the truth was revealed. While Phil’s Gaggia Bay was a decent espresso machine, my Delonghi was essentially useless and would never produce a drinkable espresso. It was immediately exchanged for a Rancilio Silvia. The results went from atrocious to drinkable, but barely.
Then fate intervened. Sadly, uncle Billy passed away and in his will he left Phil a book, David Schomer’s Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques. As ridiculous as it may sound, that book changed our lives. I can honestly say that I don’t know where we would be had it not come into Phil’s possession. It introduced us to the science behind espresso, appealing to the engineer and the budding aficionado in both of us. We were zealots, learning about dosing, distribution, and tamping. We also learned that in order to create a great espresso it was time to invest in another piece of brewing equipment. I went out and purchased a Rancilio Rocky grinder, multiplying my wife’s initial investment in my birthday present by tenfold. But finally, we created something drinkable, and although we didn’t know it at the time, we had also created Phil & Sebastian’s first tasting lab. The cinematic progression of our story would involve the swift opening of a coffee shop. In reality that day was still more than half a decade away. And let’s just say life had a few curveballs planned for us in the meantime.
The tasting lab, also known as my former kitchen, was operating in full swing and we were starting to experiment with other espressos. It was our first cup of Seattle’s Vivace Espresso, roasted by the aforementioned David Schomer that really changed the game. If we’d looked up to the man before his espresso turned admiration into full-blown obsession. Not only did he have his own roasting business, he also had a small cafe where drinks were served small and without syrups. A road trip was in order. We ignored a lot of sound advice, the March road conditions and a severe avalanche warning and headed to Seattle. In tow were two friends who would both become instrumental in the creation of Phil & Sebastian, Joe Oppenheim, a long time friend, who is now our company lawyer, and Jonathan Herman my brother-in-law, a designer and now a guiding force behind our brand (who, as hard as it is to believe, at the ripe age of 21 had never had a cup of coffee).
When we finally pulled into the parking lot at Vivace both Phil and I were overcome with a strange Beatles-groupie like excitement. We each ordered one cappuccino and one espresso. The cappuccinos were life altering. They were sweet, chocolatey, caramelly, creamy with only the slightest trace of bitterness. There was absolutely no need for cream or sugar, it would’ve been redundant to the already exquisite flavour. Then came the espresso. It was rich, thick like molasses, so smooth and intense with so little bitterness you almost didn’t know what you were drinking. Those drinks combined with the relaxed vibe, and the tattooed yet knowledgeable baristas, were what finally brought us to the realization that we needed to open a place of our own in Calgary.
It was during that summer that planning for our own cafe began. Although Phil and I would both consider ourselves fairly proficient at most things in life, naming the business was not our strong suit. We cycled through some embarrassing and in hindsight rather entertaining options such as Ooze Espresso Bar, Atypica Coffee, Latte Art Coffee House (I blame Phil for most of those). We also started putting down on paper our vision, and mission. To date this is one of the most challenging tasks we’ve undertaken. There was a lot of procrastination, a lot of revisions and a lot of late nights. It reminded me of this scene from Seinfeld where Jerry and George are trying to write script for a show about nothing. After the initial enthusiasm, they find themselves staring into space blankly. This lasts for a few seconds until Jerry remembers he has to call Elaine, and George turns on the television. That was Phil and I. We’d sit down, long stretches of silence would ensue until we came up with a distraction or one presented itself. I am happy to admit that after many painful attempts, and well into the fall of 2005, we had a mission statement. You can read the full version here, but the gist was and still is this: We believe that coffee has great potential for flavour and nuance. We want to introduce this potential to our customers, and help them discover just how great coffee can be.
Although we had cleared a few hurdles there were still many more to come. A major one being we had no real business experience, no experience in the food in beverage industry, no name and only a partial business plan. Fortunately during another bout of internet research, we came across a conference called Coffee Fest held in Seattle. Once again, Jonathan in tow, we headed across the border. We sat in the front row at every single seminar, asked way too many questions and basically scrounged together an education on hiring, retention, pricing drinks and pretty much anything else you could think of. We were introduced to the coffee community, and to a brand-new machine that would change the coffee world. The Clover would allow baristas to brew one cup at a time, changing the parameters of each cup and launching the single-cup brewing phenomenon now seen in pretty much every quality cafe.
It was around that time we finally found our name. It was Jonathan who suggested Phil & Sebastian. At first we weren’t taken with the idea of naming the company after ourselves, but soon the personal nature, authenticity and the sheer simplicity of the suggestion overcame us, not to mention our other options were all terrible.
Around the same time we secured a name, we also came to the realization that two guys opening a coffee shop without ever having worked at a coffee shop was a dumb idea. So we decided to divide and conquer. My wife Emily and I had a baby on the way, so it was decided I would work on securing a location and finishing up our business plan while Phil would move to Vancouver, work in cafes and immerse himself in the coffee community. Our good friend Joe (who accompanied us to Seattle the first time) lived in Vancouver, and graciously granted Phil use of his couch. Phil quickly found work at the Hines Roasterie. He also visited every coffee shop in sight, and conducted informal interviews with anyone in the coffee business who would grant him an audience. Phil spent eight months in Vancouver. During which he also worked at Caffe Artigiano, and an establishment no longer in operation called Cafe Natura (it proved to be a very valuable lesson in “what not to do”). Meanwhile I was struggling to find space in Calgary. Commercial rents were at an all-time high, and landlords weren’t keen on a cafe operated by two fellows with no operational experience.
It was during a trip to the Calgary Farmers’ Market that we finally stumbled across the solution. It was the perfect place to launch. We’d have low initial-overhead, the customers were more discerning and for the most part people weren’t in a rush. However there were a few issues, there was a three-year waiting list, and the market already had two coffee shops. Trying to pitch a third wasn’t going to go over well, so we decided we’d get our foot in the door by pitching a tasting bar for the purposes of selling whole bean coffee and home brewing equipment.
It’s important to note that there was a management change going on and the gatekeeper to the GM at the time was a lovely woman named Beverly. It’s also important to note that aside from my wife, it’s generally been women over 50 who have found me the most charming. Beverley bought into the concept immediately, and agreed to pass it onto the GM at the time, Darrell. Unfortunately she wasn’t the decision maker. Many weeks elapsed with no word. Finally on November 17th 2006, I headed down to the office uninvited. Beverley seemed nervous but agreed to put me in front of Darrell. He took one look at me and said “The answer is no and that’s final.” I’m not sure if it was the shock, the disappointment or the potent combination of both that caused me to launch into an rampant diatribe about how he was missing an opportunity to inject some much needed passion and energy into the market, how nobody in Calgary was doing anything like this, and how the market deserved so much more than its current coffee offering. I’m not sure if Darrell was inspired or bemused but something in my speech stirred him, and he told me “Come back tomorrow and we’ll figure out how to get you into the market.”
The next day I went back. Darrell suggested I approach Bob, the owner of one of the existing coffee shop Bit O’ Beans, about purchasing his business. Bob had achieved great success at the market with Simple Simon Pies. The coffee business was running as a mediocre offshoot, a second thought to an already thriving enterprise. Darrell also suggested that while I was offering to purchase Bob’s business I bring along a six-pack of Beck’s. I have to be honest, at that point I really had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to approach a total stranger and ask to purchase their business. Thankfully Bob is the kind of guy who will spend five hours on a Sunday talking to a total stranger about selling his business as long as that stranger was friendly and happened to bring along a six-pack. The deal to take over Bit O’Beans happened slowly and to say informally would be an understatement. Over the next few months, Phil and I had many “meetings” which were the three of us, a few pints and some incredibly entertaining tales about Bob’s youth. In the end we bought Bit O’ Beans without signing a single document.
Now that we had space secured, and some experience under our belts Phil moved back to Calgary and we got to work. We took possession of Bit O’ Beans on March 12th 2007. The plan was to open for business on March 30th 2007. That’s a fairly tall order for any start-up but it was an especially tall order considering we were two guys with no budget, no drawings and limited construction know-how. We did however have two of the most sophisticated pieces of brewing equipment in the world, a 3-group La Marzocco FB-80 and a Clover by-the-cup brewer (one of three in all of Canada). At the time they were both living in my basement which was operating as our testing lab and also as an impromptu coffee house with friends stopping by to taste our experiments. We approached Karo Design to help us get things started. The budget we managed to scrounge together was measly and to this day I’m not sure why Karo Design agreed to help us, but they did. The construction crew consisted of myself, Phil, my brother Rodrigo who at the time was a carpentry student (he’s now a very established cabinet-maker), Jonathan who isn’t handy, and Sebastian’s brother-in-law Lou, who also wasn’t handy. We were a sorry excuse for a construction team led by a first-year carpentry student. Thankfully a few fateful turns helped us get things on track, most notably the support of our friend the very capable handyman Bruce Weir. None of us are quite sure how it happened, but by the evening of March 29th we were ready for business. Well, almost ready for business, the cash register wasn’t functional so we armed ourselves with a shoebox and a calculator. That night, in a fit of panic that no one but our families would make an appearance, I sent out a 3:00 am email begging everyone I’d ever met to please come by. That first weekend was extremely rewarding. Sales were nothing to write home about, but based on customer feedback, we felt we had succeeded in re-creating our amazing beverage experience from Cafe Vivace years prior, only this time we were on the serving side.
On Sunday, local food critic John Gilchrist approached the bar. I nervously took his order, and whispered a very encouraging “Don’t fuck this up,” into Phil’s ear as he prepared John’s cortado (an espresso with a very small amount of warm milk). Just as he was finishing his cortado, John mentioned that he’d like to run a feature on Phil & Sebastian in the Calgary Herald.
Early on the morning of the April 14th Phil and I met at the market having already read the story. Phil asked me what I thought, so I told him. “I think it’s good, right?”. Phil’s neck immediately turned purple, this happens to him during moments of extreme excitement. “You THINK it’s good. Really. Did you read the headline? How much better than ‘Farmers’ Market Brews Coffee Nirvana’ can it get?” Clearly my nerves had prevented me from absorbing the true sentiment of the article. By 8:15 that morning a line began forming and Phil & Sebastian quickly became a sensation, attracting locals and coffee lovers from across Canada.