After listening to this week’s terrific This American Life episode, “Origin Stories 2014”, I found myself considering the origin story of Reunion Island Coffee. Along with questions about where the name comes from (“Is there actually a Reunion island?”), people always seem to want to know how we got started. The first, of hopefully many, blog posts on our shiny, new website seemed like as good a place as any to do some explaining.
Without getting into too many superfluous details, I’ve got to go all the way back to 1978 to begin properly. It was a different time in the 70s… collars were bigger, TVs were smaller, and coffee was still just coffee. When you hear people talking about coffee in waves, the 70s puts us right in the heart of the First Wave. Folgers and Nabob were considered “gourmet” and “specialty” coffee still hadn’t got off its feet – the coffee equivalent of the dark ages. My father, Peter, had been working for a food company that sold some pretty average coffee and consequently saw a growing niche in the market, for something of a better quality.
Borrowing money from just about everyone he knew, and a few people he didn’t, he started his first company, Bourbon Coffee. As one of the first companies in Canada to consider quality as a core tenet of their business, Bourbon was at the vanguard of the specialty movement in Canada. After quickly parting ways with his first partner, and vowing never again to have one, Peter went on to grow the business into one of Canada’s premiere coffee roasters.
Fast forward 10 years and coffee ostensibly had come a long way (yet clearly still had a long way to go). By the late 80s, Starbucks was still a small chain picking up steam in the US, bringing about the “Second Wave” of coffee, with the rising prominence of espresso-based beverages and an increased interest in coffees imported from exotic locales, like Costa Rica and Indonesia. It’s at this point that Kraft Canada (the then, to me, heroic company responsible for Kraft Dinner), started buying up and consolidating many of the best roasters from across the county, including Bourbon.
Peter stayed on at Kraft as a coffee consultant for a few years, and worked with a slew of iconic Canadian coffee brands (ie. Second Cup, Timothy’s, and Timmy’s) and grew increasingly weary of the kind of corporate culture you would find at such a huge multi-national. So he begun to prepare for his exodus. Eventually Peter found a small roasting company in Mississauga called Universal Coffee and bought it, with the aim of getting back to his roots in specialty coffee and working closer with independent cafés and restaurants.
Now, here’s where the mythology of Reunion Island Coffee really begins. To kickstart the new company, Peter convinced Maria and Doug, his first two employees back in the late 70s, to come along (insert platitude about the ‘good old days’ here) for the ride, as well as Walter, the sales manager at Kraft – all of whom still work with us today. While sitting in the office at what was still then, Universal Coffee, lamenting about how much they hated the name and trying to come up with something new, they delved into a brain storming session. Being that they were all together again, the name “Reunion Coffee” came up, but with no known coffee context, it just didn’t jive.
It’s at this point, as the story goes, the phone rings. On the line is an old friend of my father’s, asking a question about harvest time in Rwanda or some such thing. So Peter reached for “Coffee Produced Throughout the World,” by Phillipe Jobin (truly required reading for anyone in the business of knowing about coffee). He flips the book open, trying to find the section on Rwanda, and at the top of the page is the word ‘Réunion’. Spooky.
Peter marks off the page, flips to Rwanda, answers the question at hand, and quickly flips back to see what the ‘Réunion’ is doing in a book about coffee. As it turns out, La Reunion is an island country (yes, it is a real island) off the coast of Madagascar. It was popular port in the early days of coffee, as it was being shipped from the first plantations in Indonesia, to Amsterdam, as well as the country where many coffee cultivars still grown today were created. Coffee context: check.
However, it’s upon further reading that things really take a turn for the spooky. As it happens, Réunion isn’t the first name of the island. As a French colony, it had changed names a few times, and during the 1848 French Revolution, was permanently changed to Réunion from it’s previous name: “Bourbon Island”. Cue the spine tingle
Well that was enough for the name to be finalized on the spot… coffee context and a clear sign from the universe, and that’s how we got our name. Of course, there’s much more to us than just our name. Without our unfailing commitments to quality and sustainability, and the people that make up all facets of our company, Reunion Island Coffee would be nothing more than a company with a really great naming story.
So, on September 1st 1995, a company was born, and the rest is history. But there is of course, so much more story to tell (like when I signed up my first customer when I was just 14, or the time some lady thought that it was us using live dogs to hunt sharks), and I can’t wait to share it all with you, here on this blog. It probably stands to reason that we’ll also talk some nerdy coffee esoterica, tell you more about the producers that grow the coffees you love, try to impart some wisdom about brewing better coffee, and update you on the goings on over here at the Island. Oh, and how we’re trying to make every aspect of the coffee supply chain more sustainable – that’s bound to come up, so long as I have fingers to type with.
Thanks for reading… and stay tuned.
Adam Pesce – Director of Coffee