Ask Pietro Comino if he’s got another 15 years left at the helm of Francesco’s Coffee Company and he’ll tell you that he probably does.
“I’m more passionate than ever about this,” he says. “I love what I do.”
He’ll tell you about the pivotal moment, when amidst the dot-com bust he watched hundreds of millions of dollars worth of once-promising chip technology be “vaporized,” and how that led him to move to Italy for a while, learning everything he could about coffee roasting, and then how that led him back to Ottawa and, eventually, into a small unit in an industrial park in Nepean where, with a small team, he says he's roasting some of the best coffee in the City of Ottawa.
Founded in 2002, Francesco’s is a bit of an unusual player in the coffee world. You don’t sense much of the haughty coffee snob culture there -- the back of every bag reads: “We know it’s your coffee and we won’t lecture you about how to make it….not get all preachy about what kind of water to use…you got this.” -- but there's no distain for them either.
It began as a passion project for Comino, and he demands that kind of feeling out of the roasters who work under him — he knows they’re ready to fly solo, he says, when they “start to have opinions.”
“We’re a business-to-business company,” Comino says. “When people need good coffee, that’s what we specialize in.”
Their beans -- sourced from around the world, with beans from Central America to Sumatra to Ethiopia, and quite a few places in between -- are served at luxury spots like Le Nordik, and in many of the top-end restaurants in the city (“If people are making frozen, pre-cut chicken breast, these are not our guys,” Comino emphasizes).
They’re one of few companies that operate that way in the city, focusing on wholesale rather than running a cafe or drumming up retail sales. (They have recently made it onto some grocery store shelves, which is helping boost their sales, especially through COVID.)
Sure, you might say there’s no shortage of good coffee beans in the 613 — where PhDs, grad students and government policy people go, coffee tends to follow, after all (or is it the other way around?). But Francesco’s approaches the process differently than many small cafes or boutique roaster.
Comino, ever the tech-head, wrote custom software to manage the logistics of roasting to order and just-in-time fulfillment. Basically, he says, that only makes the coffee fresher, since it virtually eliminates time that the beans spend sitting in a warehouse and, by extension, vastly reduces the time between roasting and brewing.
It is a pivotal moment, however, for Francesco’s, and few would envy being a B2B wholesaler when demand for the product has been decimated by restaurant closures.
“Francesco’s is like the barometer of the economy,” he explains — when it tanks, Francesco’s gets hit hard; when it hopefully soars back, Francesco’s might benefit.
You can roll with the punches as much as possible, but there’s no hiding the hurt COVID has put on their customers. (350 or so, before COVID hit; how many are still in existence in a year or two is anyone’s guess.)
“We are in tears for our brothers and sisters who are going through it right now.”
With that uncertain future ahead, how Francesco’s adapts could serve itself as a useful barometer — for changing supply chains and changing needs in the COVID era. Whether that means leaning harder into retail sales, or doubling down on a B2B strategy remains to be seen, and in truth it might be too early to tell for a food and drink industry that’s wondering what kind of pain still lies ahead.
But if your thing is making good coffee, as much a cultural touchstone and conduit as it is a raw commodity or finished product, possibly the only thing you can do is stay the course, hope it all shakes out in your favour, pray that the coffee gods will look favourably upon you.
“We’re doing okay,” Comino says. “All you can do is make a really good product, and let people be themselves.”