KB Cafeshop and the rise of the superbarista
For this Paris specialty coffee feature, I sat down with Nicolas, the Founder of KB Cafeshop to discuss the rise of the superbarista and the simple things in coffee.
KB Cafeshop doesn’t scream its self-worth from blocks away. Rather, it announces itself subtly by its throngs of regular customers that fill its window-side wooden benches. It doesn’t paint itself in bright colors and flashing signs, but rather romantically releases its aromas to passerby’s who stop to smell the coffee. The shop is a hidden gem, filled with a crowd who has already matured from the honeymoon stage in Paris. For this reason, it took me a few weeks of ogling the fanciful architecture of the city before my gaze slowed to notice the shop. When I finally saw the fine print on the sign that stated its title, I instantly recognized the name as one of the must-see bucket list Paris coffee locations. I was thrilled, but also dumbfounded to realize that this little slice of coffee heaven was situated right under my nose – less than half a mile from my Montmartre apartment, on the same exact street that I had walked toward the city center twice daily.
Not long after I had my first taste of the shop’s self-roasted specialty brew, I sat down over cappuccinos with the owner, Nicolas, to ask him about his personal pathway to opening this simply splendid café.
After being inspired by the coffee scene while living in Australia, Nicolas set his “adventure” of a business plan in motion by opening a coffee cart in Paris. Yet Nicolas did not always know that he wanted to open a coffeeshop. In fact, when he was laying the groundwork for his coffee cart, he thought that he couldn’t possibly still be interested in coffee as a long-term career. He recalls, “I was always afraid of being bored in choosing my career in life. When I was trying to see myself 20 years later, I couldn’t picture myself every day doing coffee. But it’s been 15 years, and there’s still so much to do.”
Nicolas was hit hard by his caffeine passion, and his cart morphed into a second business that he named Kookaburra (later shortened to KB) Cafeshop, after the laughing tree kingfisher bird that is native to Australia. Just like the wide-eyed Americans in Paris, Nicolas’ eyes too became starry for his new trade. He explains, “You can have people working every day, 20 hours a day, quite simply just doing the job and learning new things about the research or the recipes. So many things that you can do, it’s endless… You can focus on just the shop, you can just serve people, you can focus on just the roasting, or you could even just sell the beans. You can do art, you can do marketing…”
Notwithstanding the blindsiding passion, Nicolas admits that the learning curve to creating quality coffee was steep. He explains, “I hated being on the machine. I was stressed because the few (drinks) I knew, I had not practiced for a year and a half. But the good thing in 2010, people were quite forgiving or their taste was not as demanding so I learned a lot from making for myself, for the staff, for friends, and for the customers.”
Eventually, Nicolas reluctantly realized that he would have to outsource the work behind the bar to a blossoming brand of superbaristas, who could devote themselves more fully to the craft. He admits, “I’d have to do 2-3 shifts a week to be at their level, and I can’t find time to do that. But that’s just a day of work for the barista, making hundreds of good coffees. I can do an espresso, just give me time! I can do a good espresso. I can even do a good coffee with milk, even though the latte art won’t be amazing. I can do something totally different, but I’m still learning.”
Nicolas credits the rise of these superstars on his bar to the fact that being a barista is becoming trendy. He explains, “It’s funny because you hear people saying that being a baker or being a barista is cool again. It used to be cool to be a lawyer or a surgeon, but now you need to be a barista. But it’s still not that easy! A lot of those guys have brains, and the pressure at times is great even when they are washing dishes, making coffees, or making cakes. It’s super hard.”
For the amount of high-stress, demanding work that a barista undergoes on the daily, she could easily withstand the demands of a higher-paying medical or judicial profession. Yet she’d be doing so at the expense of passion. Nicolas states, “I tell the staff, you can be somewhere else. It’s going to be stressful. Just make sure you want to be here. You decide to be here, and we decide to manage a product. Everything you see is coming from the hard work.”
The love for coffee that Nicolas infuses into his shop is contagious. His baristas and customers alike could also spend 43 minutes speaking excitedly about the art in their mugs. Yet Nicolas says that there is simply not time for long-winded education when they’re on the floor. He says, “Some people want to talk for hours about their coffees and they want to talk to their barista. They don’t really realize there is no sustainable model behind that. Maybe there will be 10 years from now, superbaristas will have 10 minutes to talk about these things with customers.”
What else characterizes the superbarista, aside from the ability to work under pressure and talk your ears off about coffee (if they had the time)? Attention to detail. Nicolas explains, “When you want to learn about coffee, you have to respect the recipe. People know that when they do a cocktail at home, or they have to add two fruits to make the cake, but it just seems strange to think when you’re making coffee.”
This meticulous attention to detail enables superbaristas to follow a recipe to the last morsel of ground coffee. Yet their ability to follow the rules is balanced by a creative craving to innovate. Nicolas explains that inkling to innovate goes counter to mainstream belief within the restaurant culture. He ponders, “Everyone thinks they should give the customers what they want, but the trouble with that is that customers can be like kids. Sometimes we want to minimize risk so we order the same thing every time. It seems to bring us more satisfaction. So we try to offer something that the customers want, and we open the customers up. And considering the amount of customers who come back every day when they could go to so many other places gives us courage to keep going.”
This sense of unabashed innovation runs parallel to the values at the heart (or the rosetta, or the tulip, or the swan…) of the shop’s being. Nicolas does coffee unapologetically, as his love child both sustains him and offers something of value to the world. He explains, “I do it for myself. There was never a plan to be the best coffeeshop in the world. Not even the idea of making money, but the idea of making a life.”
For this reason, Nicolas throws aside flashing lights and exaggerated advertising. He chuckles, “We play low key with a lot of things. We have thousands of guides that send us stickers or certificates of excellence, but we don’t put a board out that says we were the best in town or the sexiest.”
For Nicolas, at the end of the day, KB Cafeshop is about far more than the alchemy of his superbaristas or the sexy stickers that self-declare excellence. It’s about being a space where the simple things in coffee shine through. He explains, “Honestly, I could talk about many, many things (in coffee), but my biggest, simplest pleasure is just to be sitting here, looking at the people, looking at this view (gesturing to the room around us). Just watching the team working constantly, trying to do a good job, I love it. Of course it’s hard work, but I am proud of what they do, and it’s good to see all these people, the workers, the tourists.”
The familiarity of these regulars, bumping elbows between their laptops and lattes, gives the shop a distinctly neighborhood feel, akin to the experience of a French boulangerie. Nicolas says with warmth in his eyes, “We hope that tourists and others might be coming from the other side of Paris, but most of the business has always been the local crowd so we can’t be more than going to a good quality baker who is just happy to do a good bread.”
Nicolas continues with nostalgia, “I’ve known a lot of the regulars over the years. There are a lot of things that happen in a place like this. People, they meet, projects, they achieve, books – you’d be surprised, We’ve been acknowledged in books that people have written here or music that’s been made here or more simple things.”
Gazing from the middle-aged mothers chattering in the windowsill to the cappuccino-sipping university students hard at work over their laptops to the superbaristas churning out a double shot of espresso with one hand and balancing a slice of cake on the other while reciting the flavor profile of KB’s current roast, Nicolas concludes, “It’s not about coffee, it’s just about something that is positive in their lives. Just to drink coffee and stick around for an hour or two.”