49th Parallel Coffee Roasters’ relationship-focused approach

How the Vancouver company's commitment to quality coffee (and people) has led to rapid growth.

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Vancouver’s 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters is in a relationship-building business. To hear CEO Vince Piccolo describe it, one might even say people, rather than coffee, is the company’s ultimate raison d’être.

Last week, the coffee chain received a funding injection from investment firm Claridge that will help it expand its portfolio of specialty-grade products, grow its footprint and reach customers through new distribution channels and markets.

Yet Piccolo, who founded the company with his brother Michael Piccolo in 2004, says he agreed to the investment mainly because he views employee growth as a priority. Now with three stores and a nearly 400 account wholesale business throughout Canada and the U.S., “If I’m not growing more, I’m not going to give new opportunities to my staff.”

From its earliest days, Piccolo says the company’s goal has been to “cultivate and create long-term, long-standing beneficial relationships” with its partners, most notably the farmers from which it sources its beans.

Many would describe the model as “direct trade” – going straight to the growers and side-stepping third-parties, including fair trade certifiers, in the process. But the company has avoided using “direct trade” as a CSR stamp, mainly because “we’ve never been great marketers of what we do,” Piccolo says. Instead, he says it has focused on treating farmers equitably, while striving to make quality coffee.

The strategy has worked well for the brand. Ecommerce sales of its coffee have tripled over the last few years, and it currently boasts around 400 wholesale accounts within the U.S. and Canada. It can be found at Whole Foods and B.C. grocery chain Urban Fare. Toronto’s Soma Chocolatemaker, on King Street, currently has its espresso on tap and sells chocolate-covered 49th Parallel espresso beans.

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As 49th Parallel looks to grow, Piccolo says it will maintain its focus on quality by simply maximizing the capacity it already has at its disposal. He estimates its roastery can produce 10 times the volume it currently does, and on the sourcing side, it has already struck new relationships with growers.

Over the coming months and years, 49th Parallel is looking to open additional cafes (starting with Vancouver) and to establish a more visible presence in other provinces. All options are on the table as it makes plans for the expansion, but Piccolo says the company has looked at Toronto and cities in Alberta as possible options.

Inadvertently or not, 49th Parallel’s commitment to quality has placed it squarely within larger trends around responsible consumption and the global premiumization of coffee. Piccolo describes it as fitting within “third wave” coffee trends, in which the beverage is treated as an artisanal drink as opposed to a caffeine conduit.

To date, the company has grown chiefly through word-of-mouth. Its retail stores have also helped, acting as a “showcase of what we do.” But in the future, he sees a bigger role for marketing as it enters into new markets.

“When we go into another city, it’s not like we want to go in there and take over. We want to be part of the community. We want to understand the community, and it order to do [that], we’re definitely going to have to hire somebody on the ground.”

He also notes that a company like his does not need to be the best cafe in an entire city, because coffee is ultimately about convenience. “You only need to be the best cafe within a three-block radius.”