NO ORDINARY MR BEAN
Bernard Smith is New Zealand’s longest serving coffee bean roaster. His Christchurch café Vivace Espresso is a local legend and his roasted beans in demand nationwide.
I n his 30-plus years serving New Ze Zealand’s coffee industry Bernard Smith has witnessed a massive ma transformation. His passion for roasting coffee has been bee at the forefront of the industry’s development over recent years.
Bernard’s roasting lineage extends back three generations and his knowledge of roasting the revered ‘green bean’ is second to none. In the 1940s there were only a handful of coffee roasters in New Zealand. Browne and Heaton in Christchurch was one of them. Bernard’s grandfather worked for the company, and after its owner suffered a fatal heart attack one day while talking on the phone, he purchased the business. Subsequently Bernard’s father also joined the business – which was eventually sold to Robert Harris in the 1980s.
For young Bernard, coffee has always been in his veins. “I grew up immersed in coffee from a young age,” he recalls. “I remember jumping and playing on the coffee sacks in the weekend as a young boy. “I tried my first coffee when I was ten and liked it – but probably more the idea of drinking it! It was filter coffee back then.”
He went on to open his own café, Vivace Espresso, in Hereford Street in 1997, importing a roaster from Turkey to roast specifically for the café, and it is still in the roastery today.
“It can roast 5kgs at a time, but now we have machines that roast approximately 60kgs!”
Bernard remembers the first year in business being extremely hard – by the end of the year the balance sheet was $35,000 in the negative. There was no social media in 1997 – it took time, money and a concerted effort to build up a client base.
Back then any café that roasted its own beans stood out – especially if it produced memorable blends. Word got around – the café became really busy.
But for Bernard Vivace Espresso was always a front for his true passion – roasting coffee. It meant that at one stage he worked 90hour weeks, but did become “quite a good barista”.
After 12 months he was able to hire more staff and focus on the wholesale roasting side of the business. Word of mouth, the original social media, proved to be the key to growing the business.
“I remember three women one day walked into the café and ordered coffee,” he says. “They liked it so much they asked if they could stock my coffee in their business Strawberry Fare. That’s [the way] the business grew.
The thing about coffee is you're aiming at a moving target all the time – beans change from season to season, crop to crop.”
“A competitor of ours at the time was going through a transition stage and a lot of their customers weren’t happy with the quality of service,” he adds. “So we ended up taking some of their clients.
“A lot of the [early roasting] businesses have now been bought by international companies.”
A fine art
Change has been a constant in the coffee industry, and in his time Bernard has seen it all. In the 70s cafés were called tea-rooms, and most restaurants were located in hotels.
With the huge growth in the hospitality industry this century and the amount of coffee beans available the market has changed dramatically, Bernard reports.
“When I first started roasting we sourced beans mostly from Papa New Guinea, the closest source to us, but now there’re hundreds of origins from all over the world – Brazil, Sumatra, Indonesia, Africa, Central and South America – and micro lots: specifically around what altitude the beans are grown in.
“It’s now more of a science, experimenting with how to process coffee beans to get more flavour and varietals of coffee plants. Coffee machinery has also improved from stagnant machinery to high-tech espresso machines.”
So has Bernard got roasting absolutely perfected yet? Is it even possible?
“The thing about coffee is you're aiming at a moving target all the time – beans change from season to season, crop to crop,” he explains. “So just when you might think you’ve nailed something the beans change. It’s a continued process; just because the coffee is good one year doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same the following year. It depends on climate – such as sunshine and rainfall. And even if you get the technique right you’re still having to deal with different quality beans.”
Ambitions and advice
Often fast-growing boutique coffee roasters get bought out by international companies that treat everything as a spreadsheet balancing exercise, but Bernard is having too much fun and still learning so much to go down that road.
There is always that demand for quality too, he says. “If companies start slacking off on service, training or the quality of coffee, it simply creates more opportunities for us – the smaller players.”
Looking ahead, Bernard’s plan is to continue the steady growth of the business – especially in the North Island. “But we don’t want to grow at a rate that would cause any problems for our customers,” he says.
And supermarket sales aren’t the answer either, he says, because of branding and quality issues.
“It’s hard to have that quality in the supermarket as [the product] sits on the shelf and can become stale over time.”
Today the business turns over around $300k per month. Staff numbers are now 20 and wholesale clients number more than 200. The wholesale business has also grown by ten percent over the past year.
In light of such success, would Bernard encourage others to get into the roasting industry?
“You’d have to ask yourself first why you want to do it. It’s not easy now to break into the industry; there are so many of us now so it’s not so easy to build up a client base.
“It’s very competitive, most cafés require machinery - $12k to $15k per machine - so you need a lot of capital to start with.
“You also need to consider your points of difference. Where are your customers going to come from and how are you going to acquire them?”
With the focus on growth, Bernard’s only fear is of becoming too large to care for the end user.
But on his watch that’s simply never going to happen – he’s too busy chasing that everelusive roasting perfection.