An interview with Tim Wendelboe, the norwegian king of coffee

Tim Wendelboe is a name that might be familiar or not to you but if you are planning to go to Norway you will hear his name for sure when talking about coffee. His little coffee shop is considered the best in Oslo and himself was awarded as best barista in the world in 2004 after many second place prizes. Interviewed by the New York Times and other important newspapers in the world, he sells a cappuccino for 4,50 euros. I interviewed him about his emblematic world famous shop in Norway and his view for the coffee market in the next years.

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I can describe Tim as a self made business man with passion and love for his job, taking care of each single bean of coffee. He left university after his first year and went working as a barista in a little coffee shop in Oslo. There, he found his love for coffee and its culture. Started to study from online tutorials till travelling to find out more. Prize after prize he continued to do so and he is not stopping now, keeping travelling and meeting the producers of coffee till eventually becoming a owner of his own farm in Colombia.

Worth to see, and obviously to taste the coffee, in his cafe settled in the new youngster part of Oslo, next to Kuba park. His cafe is a very characteristic place: when he opened the shop, Tim didn’t have too much money and rents are very high, he explained in a meeting, hence he bought this old coiffure place transforming it with wooden second hand furniture and a big roasting machine in the middle of it. He doesn’t make only the final product, but he expanded himself from the farming till the end. He recently acquired a beans farm in Columbia such to have good employee that can produce the best coffee for him. He sells coffee internationally with high request from the other side of the ocean and obviously from all scandinavian countries as well. To learn more about his success and his view I asked him some questions that he rapidly answered with great self-confidence for his products.

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You started off without knowing not too much about coffee. When did this passion arrived and where from, that took you winning the world best coffee barista award in 2004?

It happened gradually when I started working with coffee in 1998. I took some classes but the biggest drive was that we didn’t know what we were doing and that was an awful feeling, so naturally we started seeking out knowledge in other places and countries. 

Coffee is very fascinating and has so many aspects so the more i learned the more interested I became.

Coffee is also quite new as a culinary product so there has not been that much knowledge available on how to perfect the flavor of coffee and that is what drives a lot of us in the coffee industry right now. We are thirsty to learn more about how our coffees can become better and we learn something new every day.

Little shop and one product but you have many norwegian and international customers. What does attract them to come to your shop?

I think the service and consistency of our quality is what attracts people. We are also famous for lighter roast style so people want to taste that.

An average italian student drinks from two to four coffees per day, sure of drinking a good quality coffee for low prices (a cappuccino costs 1,30 cents euro / 12 NOK). Why having your own roasting and not dedicate the work to a bigger importer with good quality such as Illy is in Italy and in the world?

Because the bigger importers are not interested or don’t have the infrastructure to roast and source the small amounts that we are interested in. So working with one of the biggest roasters in the world is not so interesting for me as we are focusing on the highest quality only. Also cheap coffee is not a goal for us. Imagine how much a coffee farmer is paid when the espresso costs EUR 1,30. I think it is a disgrace to the coffee producers in the world that the market price for coffee is literally unchanged for the last 30 years while all their costs have gone only one way and that is up. Imagine that you had the same salary today as your father had 30 years ago. You would not be able to survive with today’s prices for food, etc. yet this is the reality for most coffee farmers around the world, so if I want to secure my supply of great coffee in the future, it goes without saying that I have to make sure my suppliers (the coffee producers ) are paid a decent price for their coffee. That is why I have to work directly with the farmers.

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The decision of sticking with one shop, the original one little hairdresser shop. Why not expanding?

Because I used to manage 6 coffee shops for a chain in Norway and I hated that job in the end and wanted to quit, so why would I do that all over again.

There is also a lot of work to keep the quality level we are able to deliver in our store every day and it doesn’t pay off very well, so I prefer to focus on growing in other areas such as wholesale and also I bought my own coffee farm in Colombia which is another fun project for me that I will spend my focus on in the coming years. 

 

Shipping online is a big component for your sales.  What is the future for the beverage and food market, boutiques or e-commerce platforms?

I think a combination of the two. People like to visit us to get an experience but also there is a lot of demand for coffee to be prepared at home, and since people have less and less time on their hands, e-commerce is definitely filling the need for many coffee drinkers around the country when they don’t have time to visit our shop.

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Competition is huge in the coffee market in Norway, for sure your transparency helps but what does really differentiate your coffee from the competitors?

Transparency is for sure an advantage we use, but I think our coffees are differentiated by coffee lovers by the consistency of quality and also the lighter roasts and intense flavors. The advantage we have with working directly with farmers is that we can help them improve the quality and make the coffee stay fresher for longer as well as optimizing the flavor. It all comes down to a tasty cup of coffee and when you have great quality beans that are roasted carefully it is a lot easier to achieve this. I think also that people recognize my style / taste in coffee and some people love it others hate it, but for me that is for sure and advantage as I am always involved in product quality management.

Brando Gandolfi

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