The Insider talks to Nick Fitzwilliams, the founding force behind the celebrated JAVA Coffee Roasters brand…
So, 2020! That was fun…
This time last year, 98% of what we were doing concerned the wholesale of coffee; our workload focused on the hospitality sector, namely independent cafes. Always, that was our magnetic north. Now though, many of those cafes have either closed – temporarily or permanently – or resorted to serving paper cups through a doorway. Basically, our customer base was decimated.
How have you responded?
We’ve had to pivot our business model. But while our wholesale volume has dropped 60 to 70%, we did find our online sales lighting up. It’s meant we’ve had to reallocate responsibilities and learn how to navigate the labyrinth that is online retail. Arguably, we could have done it a lot quicker, but we got there in the end.
It’s brought challenges, no doubt…
We’ve adapted to a whole new model. For instance, private consumers aren’t going to be buying the big bags we were selling to cafes so we’ve had to switch to smaller bags. That’s meant five or six times more packaging; more stickers. You name it. There’s a lot more work on our plate but at least it’s kept us busy! I can also say I’m very lucky that I’ve got twenty people working that are completely passionate about coffee. Of course, the hierarchy of needs means that they’re in this job for a salary, but they also clearly love what they do. It’s a pleasure to work with them – even in a year like 2020!
How did your Warsaw adventure begin?
By accident. I was meant to go to Johannesburg but a last minute change meant I was sent to Warsaw instead – working for a multinational at the time, it wasn’t something I had a say in. This was the mid-nineties, just as the London coffee scene was opening up and while I could see how popular that sector was becoming in London, there was of course nothing like that in Poland at the time.
How did you get involved in the Warsaw café scene?
It was while I was working fulltime that I became a minority investor in a café project – essentially, I got involved because I’d always been interested in the business of coffee and cafes. I’d always been fascinated by the café culture and how it was that in these places people gathered to talk and make decisions. Coffee is a great leveler – over coffee, everyone is equal. I’ve always loved that.
What happened next…
We must have opened and closed twelve locations. Finally, the business went bankrupt in 2003 so I decided to step in with what little money I had to try and salvage what was possible. Pretty much immediately I realized that continuing in the café business was too high risk and required too much money. Then there were the headaches attached to it – getting up at five in the morning and remembering to put the lettuce on a sandwich before the tomato just wasn’t that much fun.
But the business was already involved in roasting and wholesale so that was the area I decided we should expand on. From there JAVA was born: we’ve built our brand by ethically sourcing higher grade ‘specialty coffee’ and applying the best roast profile to unlock the most delicious notes inside the bean.
At which point did you become interested in roasting yourself?
It was a revelation to me! I’ve always been a foodie, and it just struck me that the coffee that we were roasting ourselves was so much more superior than anything else on the market. Back then most cafes were sourcing their coffee from the big Italian and German firms, but while their marketing was slick, it dawned on me that we were producing something far better with our little machine.
Over the years, what trends have you seen emerge?
We’ve got quite a sophisticated community here that’s very aware of quality. Consumers are becoming more discerning and, moreover, we’ve seen a willingness to experiment and break boundaries in Poland. People are bold in trying new products.
Most recently, we’ve seen experimentations with barrel-aged coffee, while the last couple of years we’ve seen a rise in non-standard processing methods involving fermentation or carbonic maceration. These are all inspirations that have come from the wine industry.
As importantly, what’s actually selling!
Specialty light roasts. Typically our customers gravitate towards Ethiopian, Kenyan or Columbian coffee. In terms of brewing, Chemex, V60, Kalita and Aeropress tend to be the most popular specialty brewing techniques.
Outside of the geek talk, what consumer patterns have you noted?
There was a bit of cabin fever I think this year, but that helped drive online coffee sales. People wanted to escape and coffee allowed them to do that. We found a whole new group of customers that decided to be a little bit adventurous. When it came to coffee, we saw a lot of people decide to trade up from what they usually drank.
How do you advise people to enjoy their coffee?
It sounds silly, but the customer really is always right. The coffee ritual is an intensely personal thing, so it’s not down to me to dictate what people should do. However, what we can do is gently guide people. But really, it’s not complicated. You can get choosy about the water, but the most important ingredient is fresh coffee that’s been roasted well – then just add water. Getting the brewing method right or the temperature correct really isn’t all that difficult.
Anything you want to see happening in Warsaw this year?
Last year the city was meant to host the World of Coffee event. Simply put, everyone on planet earth involved in coffee would have been in Warsaw for that, and it would have been a terrific platform for our roasters and independent cafes to show what they could do. I have no doubt it would have put Warsaw on the world map, so I’d love to see that rescheduled.
Will things get better!
The end of the first lockdown was a great reminder of how quickly things can return to normal. The café scene felt like it exploded in the summer! It will happen again. When? I’ve no idea. But I am certain it will. I just hope that the smaller places can cling on. Independent cafes compete against chains with better quality. They work harder for less margin. Basically, buy local or say bye bye local!
JAVA Coffee Roasters