Reunion Coffee balances purpose and profit

How the craft roaster has built its business model around sustainability, from ethical sourcing to local retail distribution.

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For Reunion Coffee, sustainability has always been a primary driver of its business.

Since 2013, it has been a Certified B Corp, a label awarded to businesses that balance purpose and profit and that are legally required to consider the impact of their decision-making on the broader environment. Company president Adam Pesce is also a vocal proponent of living wages for coffee farmers, and touts the importance of fair trade and organic sourcing in public speaking engagements. And in an industry where the product is “inherently exploitative,” the brand has committed to sourcing 100% of its coffee from certified farms or through direct trade relationships.

Initiatives like these have helped the company weather what is known in the coffee business as the “three waves.”

The first wave was based on drinking coffee at home from green and blue tins, where customers paid no heed to where it was sourced, how it was prepared, etc. The second was the gradual creation of specialty coffee, Starbucks, Illy and the like, as well as increasing customization. Now that the market has matured, Stefan Pazulla, director of sales and marketing, says Reunion counts itself among the so-called Third Wave coffee roasters, along with Pilot and Propeller, which has taken the coffee craft “one step further.” Today, he says, the coffee experience is all about being fully traceable from farm to cup, with an emphasis on quality, sustainability and certifications.

This focus, particularly on sustainability, can be seen in how Reunion has chosen to distribute its products. Pazulla says the brand has always made a conscious decision to keep its products out of mass retail and to work with smaller, like-minded retailers.

Specialty grocers [specifically] have always been a good fit for us as their clientele is typically looking for a premium product and sees the value in our product quality, sustainability initiatives, and our traceability back to the farmer-level,” he says. 

As a result, the company’s coffee, tea and allied products serve local and niche cafes, chefs, hotels, retailers, e-tailers, institutions, as well as offices, and its lines can currently be found in Fiesta Farms, Pusateri’s and in boutique hotels like The Drake. Pazulla says that it is also partnering with small independent grocers as it prepares to soft-launch into the ready-to-drink space this month with its new cold brew and tonic.

But its distribution, while focused on wholesale, has evolved recently as the brand opened up its own dedicated retail location within Toronto’s Stackt Market – a development on unused city land by the waterfront that’s since been transformed into a curated retail destination designed out of shipping containers, where brands like mattress retailer Endy, bubble tea and coffee shop Bean and Pearl, semi-permanent tattoo startup Inkbox, Flow water and beer brand Belgian Moon have all set up shop.

The company is tentatively planning on being at the shipping container location for two years as another way to tell the brand story to a slightly different audience, one that’s a bit younger and novelty-seeking than its more established west-end Toronto location in Roncesvalles Village.

That Roncesvalles location, by contrast, was its first foray into retail in 2015 and its aesthetics reflect that, Pazulla says. For example, the store’s black and white tile spelling out “COFFEE” on the store’s steps as a welcome to customers became a minor local social media sensation, since duplicated by other stores, and the location’s sleek look has also made the location Instagrammable. “It’s very much a neighbourhood café. Stackt is much more of a destination café.”

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But when it comes to the new waterfront location, Pazulla says Reunion is “still figuring out how we fit in and we are figuring out who the customer base is.” He concedes it’s a bit different as people don’t come by for morning coffee; rather, as a destination, people tend to spend the day at the Toronto waterfront market. Regardless, Pazulla says the company’s current locations serve primarily as “branding opportunities,” where customers can go and taste its products. “We are not looking to aggressively grow in retail. The bulk of our business is wholesale.”

In addition to the stores, Reunion markets its brand and products through a monthly subscription and Roasted Rewards program, which started as an initiative to drive repeat purchases on the Reunion Coffee website and which has evolved into more of a club with brand ambassadors and insiders.

“We often send these customers limited release coffees that we don’t make available to the public,” he says. An example he cites is the Gesha, one of the most coveted and expensive coffee varieties. The brand shipped out Gesha to its monthly subscribers to celebrate the rebrand and it will not be made available to purchase online or to its wholesale customers.

The nearly 25-year-old Oakville-based specialty roaster also recently rebranded, dropping “island” from its name as part of its new look.

Pazulla says company founder Peter Pesce regrets initially choosing the name Reunion Island Coffee, an arcane reference to an 18th-century coffee trading hub in the Indian Ocean. And now that Pesce’s son Adam has been helming the company since January, Reunion Coffee is charting a new course as the business grows and he wants to put his own stamp on the organization.

“We decided to take a much bigger look at how the business has evolved, how we have changed, and how we have done things different,” Pazulla says.

The rebrand – led by Blackjet, which Pazulla has had a relationship with since his time in retail – keeps the mountains the company has had on its logo since 2014 and carries the aesthetic throughout the new look in an effort to leverage its history as a Canadian coffee roaster. (When Pesce started the business in Mississauga back in 1995, it was one of the country’s few specialty coffee roasters). “We also did not want to stray too far from our current brand’s colour palette to maintain familiarity and consistency for current customers,” Pazulla says.