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Phil & Sebastian - Small Business, Epic Story featuring Rob Oppenheim

Posted by Alden Hui on March 8, 2018
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Small Business Epic Story

Ten years ago, it was difficult to find any high-quality coffee shops and roasters in Calgary.

That's why two local engineers, Phil and Sebastian, decided to pursue their passion, coffee. Their mission, to push the envelope forward in terms of coffee quality. Today, they employ around 80 coffee-enthusiastic employees with a dedication to the craft. 

Phil & Sebastian (P&S) was founded on the idea of wanting to do things differently than what most people in the coffee industry were already doing. This involved sourcing coffee beans directly from quality focused farmers (a 100% direct trade model). One of the founders flew out to visit their producers every year. This high quality focus also permeates to aspects of freshness and skill, such as seasonality, serving time, and roasting time. 

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Phil & Sebastian

1. What makes your business unique / stand out from competition?

The way we source coffee and roast it.

We use a 100% direct trade model.

2. What is something that most people don’t know about your company?

We source 100% of our coffee using a direct trade model and are one of the very few roasters in the world that do this.

3. On Success / Accomplishments

Our greatest accomplishment is creating a culture of much higher quality coffee here in Calgary. When we started in 2007, there was no other business following a similar quality-focused model. Nowadays, we have more direct competition. Calgary has become a leading North American city in terms of speciality coffee with P&S at the forefront.

 

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4. What is the single most important decision that contributed to success?

The intense focus on continual improvement. It’s a philosophy of never believing that we’ve found the perfect coffee. How do we make better tomorrow, what we are doing today? You have to put in consistent effort.

5. What is the biggest obstacle you have faced while running the business?

I think the economic challenges of Calgary, both in terms of continually increasing costs and at the same time, a recession. There are less people spending money in general.

6. How important are employees to your business?

Employees are the most important. Our bartistas train coffee and expresso for 3-5 months before making drinks for customers. It’s almost like a university course. They have to pass an exam to be qualified. That’s very unique. In most coffee shops, like Tim Hortons and Starbucks, their baristas aren't as trained on skills and knowledge. Everything is automated. We require much more artisan and craft. 

 

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7. What’s next for P&S?

In the short term, we are continuing to expand our wholesale business by introducing our products into other independent restaurants and cafes across Canada and the US. 

 

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About Rob

8. What is one thing you find to be true that most people would disagree with?

I think that we are all, in a way, constrained by our own biases. I’ve learned that its important to understand where someone else is coming from. Most people think of themselves as objective. The reality is our opinion is based on our individual biases and constraints. I like to follow a general principle, which is to first seek to understand others, even during employee and customer issues.

9. How do you recharge when you are feeling drained?

I'm never drained. It’s a matter of keeping things in perspective and being able to carve out time for both family and the business. You have to love what you do.

10. If you could time travel back to the first day working at your business and have 15 minutes with your former self to communicate any lessons you've acquired, what would you tell yourself?

I would tell myself it’s important to hire good people, but also to trust them when delegating responsibilities. I figured that out eventually, but it took me a few years. 

There’s no secret to hiring the best people. If you have to choose between someone knowledgeable with the industry vs. a good fit, culturally and personality-wise. It’s much better to hire the good fit. You can train someone technically, but not vice versa. It's a common tradeoff.

 

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12. How do you divide up your typical day (in percentages)?

It is different everyday. Every partner does many different things. I manage the wholesale side; working with staff, customers, and dealing with problems that come up. 

13. If you were to do some business venture again, outside of your current industry, what would you choose?

It has to be relatively simple and scalable. It’s the opposite with P&S because it's hard to make good coffee and retain scalability. This creates a great amount of labor.

14. What is your dream collaboration? 

It would have to be with the NBA. We could be the official coffee sponsor with a logo on each jersey and P&S coffee served at all arenas.

But on a more realistic note, more affiliation with Calgary institutions such as UofC, government of Alberta, or even local establishments. We want to build the Calgary brand together with the locals.

 

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Topics: small business epic story, phil and sebastian