David Lalonde Falls Down the Rabbit Hole

The co-founder of Rabbit Hole Roasters talks about buying coffee differently, putting taste second, and how we need to—literally—pay more for beans.

  
0:00
-49:51

Happy 2022! I’m thrilled to welcome the year with a new lineup of podcast episodes. It’s my hope that the guests we have slated will challenge your ideas and perceptions of coffee, service work, and what it means to build equity—and I can’t wait to share our conversations with you. If you haven’t subscribed, please do below:

Kicking things off, today’s guest is David Lalonde, co-founder of Rabbit Hole Roasters based just outside of Montreal, Quebec. A lot of businesses say things like, “We do things differently,” but David really means it. Together with his business partner, Sophie, he aims to bring coffees from emerging and re-emerging origins to the forefront, and talk very frankly about coffee’s history of colonialism and exploitation.

David started a roasting company because he had a lot of questions. Why do most roasters buy Brazilian coffees solely to put into espresso blends? Why are coffees from one country fetching higher prices than others, even though they have similar taste profiles? Through Rabbit Hole, David attempts to chase down those answers—and in turn, has provided an authentic and sincere approach to buying coffee differently. Here’s David.


Ashley: David, I was wondering if you could start by introducing yourself.

David: Absolutely. My name is David Lalonde and I'm the co-founder and roaster and various other roles for Rabbit Hole Roasters in Canada. We’re in a small city that's called Delson, right next to Montreal.

Ashley: How did you get into coffee?

David: I got into coffee about seven years ago. I wish I had a better story to tell. But it's one that I've heard a million times before.

Specialty coffee was not really present in Montreal and then I left for a three-year trip—it was supposed to be one year but stuff happened. When I came back, the scene was booming.

I had a coffee aficionado friend that brought me to this coffee bar and I had an espresso and all I could taste was blueberries. Nothing else. The classic, “Oh what's in this cup of coffee?”

I was working in a restaurant at that time. So I was used to tasting recipes and wine and cocktails, so tasting was always a huge part of my life. But this coffee thing was so crazy to me—that it was not flavored.

Three months after, I dropped my very secure, high-paying job in the restaurant world and I decided to be a part-time, minimum-salary barista in a cafe, and that's how I got here. That's I got started in coffee.

Ashley: What made you want to start a roastery specifically?

David: I wanted to start a roastery because I've worked for other roasters before. I also did a little bit of consulting, helping—by the way I hate that word “consulting.” But anyway…

Ashley: I hate it too. Thank you for pointing that out! (Laughs)

David: It’s a word that I really hate. But anyway, I was working for myself for a brief period of time and I was helping some roasteries buy their green coffees by either tasting, helping them develop profiles, etc…

Even if I couldn't roast coffee at that time, I could taste really well. But all my ideas that were beyond tasting, beyond taste profiles, or beyond coffee brewing were all met with some [form of], “Oh yeah, that sounds interesting. We can do this later,” or, “This is really complicated for…” insert whatever random reason that cafe owner or roastery owner will throw your way to make sure that they can keep you a bit longer without actually doing what you want to do.

I'm a terrible employee by the way…

Ashley: Right, I mean, so am I.

David: So I just had to do things my way, and this is where the idea of doing Rabbit Hole emerged, because I could see that—just for the record, I don't think that the companies I work for did anything bad in terms of buying the coffee and roasting the coffee and running their wholesale program. But it's just not the way that I wanted to do it, and I'm pretty stubborn when it comes to that.

So I was briefly employed by those people and then I was like, “It's just time to go into the world and try to start this coffee company, this dream that I have of buying from emerging origins and really forming relationships that are gonna make sense for the farmers and not just make sense on Instagram.” This is really where I wanted to go with with Rabbit Hole—do things a little bit differently and do things my way.

Ashley: I was wondering—you mentioned that one of the things that you wanted to do was highlight emerging coffee regions. Was that something that you were trying to push when you were working for these other coffee companies, and it just was met with—not necessarily resistance, because you mentioned it's not like they were doing anything wrong—it just wasn't the way that you wanted to do it? What was that moment for you where you realized, “This is important to me. This is something I want to pursue”?

David: That's a good question. At first I didn't know what was bugging me about any of the roasters that I would see, but after a couple of years in coffee I think I just realized that the origins [people picked to offer] were pretty much all the same. People wouldn't dare deviate from that.

So you had to have a Brazilian coffee or darker coffees for blends, you had to have coffee from Ethiopia, you had to have coffee from Colombia—these were the main origins—and then you would have to sneak a Kenyan or a coffee from Guatemala in there.

Because I was a baby barista, I didn't know much in the beginning. I did my own research and I started to get interested in the world of coffee at large and then once you realize that coffee is produced in more than 30 countries, you're just like, “Why do we keep buying from the same three or four countries all the time?”

It really intrigued me, and I was like, “Is it because the coffee is not good?” But it wasn’t that. It was just, “This is how we've been doing things for a while and this is how we're going to keep doing things.”

But I was sure that there was a whole world out there of different farmers’ stories, different tasting notes, different everything. So that's how I really got intrigued—once I realized that you could really seek those coffees out.

I started to taste everything that I could from any origin in the world and it kind of just stuck with me when I was a barista and when I was working with other roasters. This is something that I knew immediately that I wanted to incorporate at Rabbit Hole, but we didn't start like that. Starting a business in itself was pretty crazy and so we had Brazilian coffees for blends in the beginning, and then we experimented with small quantities of emerging origins.

After only six months, Sophie and I sat down and we were just like, “Yeah we wanted to be different, but we're not that different after all.” So we had a big, big shift, maybe six months into the business, where we literally stop buying from most [popular coffee] origins to just really focus on the emerging—which is an interesting term because…

Ashley: I was about to ask you about that, because I would say that, as I look at some of the origins that you buy from, it's not necessarily emerging—but I'd say maybe ignored?

David: Re-emerging?

Ashley: Or something that specialty coffee has just decided to not pay attention to.

David: Yeah, exactly. I like to think of those lesser-known origins in different terms, right? So for example, we're still the only coffee roaster in Canada with coffees from Yunnan in China.

For me, this is really an emerging origin. They've been producing commercial coffee only since the late ’80s on any sort of large scale—they had coffee trees way before that. But specialty coffee is [new] only within the past decade or something, or even a bit newer than that. So this, for me, is the definition of emerging: it's kind of new right?

Then we have some other origins that I would qualify as maybe re-emerging. We have coffee from Yemen on our menu, but Yemen is the first country in the world to produce coffee, so to label them “emerging” I don't think is right. I don't think it's fair, because they've been doing this for literally centuries. But it's hard to find Yemeni coffee on most roasters’ menus, right?

So either it's emerging, re-emerging, or sometimes just lesser-known origins. I don't know how to label those things, but basically if it's a coffee that you've rarely seen, there's a good chance that we'll be interested in learning more about those coffees and maybe incorporating them on the menu.

Ashley: I feel like when I was first getting into coffee, there was this idea of coffee origins that I just never knew how to ask questions about.

Like you said, coffee grows in 30 different countries, and I maybe knew about 10 of them—and I had no language to say, “Why are we not buying coffee from these other regions?” Now, more people are talking about it which is great. So, I've had Sahra Nguyen from Nguyen Coffee Supply [on the show], and she buys exclusively from Vietnam, which is awesome.

Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world, and when I talk about Sahra and the episode that she was on, I had people on my Instagram account say, “No, we don't care about robusta. No, that's gross,” and I was really intrigued by that idea that we have such ingrained ideas about coffee quality from particular countries that we've never learned to challenge.

David: Yeah, that's a really good point. First of all, I've had a couple of coffees from Vietnam, including robustas from Nguyen Coffee Supply. I had one coffee from Sahra, a robusta, it was delicious and I truly enjoyed it.

I didn't enjoy it more or less than any other coffee that I was having at that time. It was just a different experience—some days you want to drink beer and some days you want to drink wine. That's perfectly fine, but you're not going to compare one to the other. [I try to] always go back to—if you buy robusta or if you buy arabica or if you buy from Vietnam or from Colombia or from wherever—who is this going to benefit?

There are a lot of farmers that are farming robusta and with climate change, there's going to be even more robusta being produced because arabica trees are basically dying [and will continue to die] if we don't change anything with the way the world works and how we buy coffee.

So sometimes I feel the coffee industry is just stuck in this thing where we’ve been doing this thing for a long time so we have to keep doing it that way—but no, because let's not forget that coffee is a colonial product. If you've been doing this a certain way since the days of colonization, then we for sure need to change the way we approach certain aspects of the coffee industry. 100%.

Ashley: That's a really good point and that's something that Rabbit Hole is really open about: that coffee is a colonial product, and that you're attempting to really face that head-on.

Was that an intentional decision that you made when you first started Rabbit Hole, or was it something that developed over time as you learned more and more about where your coffee was coming from?

David: It certainly was not in any business plan before we started Rabbit Hole, to focus on the colonial aspect of coffee. The first goal was to start this business and not go broke, then learn how to roast tasty coffees, and learn more about the details of coffee-roasting and learning how Cropster works and the roast curves and the theory—and tasting a lot of coffee.

I'd say the first six months of Rabbit Hole were really about learning the business, learning about buying coffee, and learning how to roast coffee and assess roast defects. But after that, this is when we wanted it to be different and this is where we realized like, “Wait a minute! We paid $1.75 for the first Brazilian lot that we bought.” I would say it was a really decent coffee, it was definitely specialty, definitely had multiple tasting notes. It was a good coffee.

Now, why is our Mexican coffee that's really similar to that one Brazilian coffee—why was the Mexican coffee $3.50 and the Brazilian $1.75? Literally half-price for a coffee that had almost the same profile.

This is what got us started into digging more into things. It’s almost three years later since we had this realization, and once we started to learn more about the colonial past of coffee, there was basically no turning back. This is something that's becoming really important to Rabbit Hole as a whole—is to focus on highlighting those issues that are directly linked to colonization and slave labor.

Ashley: What was that like, when you first started incorporating that sort of dialogue into the way that you talked about coffee? Because when I go to your website now, I mean, it's mentioned everywhere.

David: Pretty much.

Ashley: You guys have a blog where you talk a lot about the different coffee origins that you're buying coffee from and the way that colonization has affected the way that coffee is traded, especially Haiti. Those are the articles I was reading recently, especially because I just bought one of your coffees from Haiti.

I had never had a coffee from Haiti before. I've been in coffee 11 years and I've never heard anybody really talk about it until you folks, and I think the folks at Dávila Kafe Coffee really highlight this origin. I wonder: What did it feel like when you first started presenting this information to people? Were they excited to learn more? Were they not interested? What was that like?

David: At first it was mostly just for us. We really wanted to learn more, making sure that we were not crazy before we would talk about this more publicly, but it was clear that it was all over coffee. Any origin, basically.

We just decided to just start doing research. It was almost a natural transition to be like, “Oh they're the roasters who are focusing on those crazy origins, those lesser-known origins.”

We kind of had this feeling that, even if it was just because of taste profiles and roast profiles, that we were a little bit different from other roasters just in the origins that we would feature, so it almost felt like a natural transition to start talking about more important stuff, because we're already different. So might as well go all in here—it's hard sometimes to do a pun, but go down the rabbit hole. (Laughs)

I'm not doing this on purpose, but that's also why we chose that name, by the way. It's really hard to talk about coffee without saying “rabbit hole” at some point.

I wish we would have more engagement on those posts, on those articles, but I’ve got to say that we've attracted like-minded people, whether it be other coffee shop owners or baristas or importers or home consumers—they’ve really identified, not identified, but they’ve really engaged well with those posts, and with this type of content. Because sometimes we have people that are completely ignoring us when we do posts that are about colonialism or the fact that we should pay farmers more, and they just disappear.

When we start talking about brew methods, then they come back, but for the other people I feel we've reached that kind of niche—maybe niche is not the right word—but the people that are engaged with us now like us because we've been doing this for a long time. They're really all in with us and expect this from us, and they like this from us and they want to really participate. Most of them are cafe owners or home baristas and they now see their roles because of those articles and how they could impact coffee in their own small way just like we're doing in our own small ways with those articles, right?

It's really just about sharing information because we have access to that information, but we also really invest money in researching. We pay one of our—actually, our only—employee, Roxanne, who's got a degree in Latin American and Caribbean History, so she was perfect to do this research on Haiti.

I'd say that overall, the reception is really good and I don't think people have any bad intentions, but just people don't know, so we've taken it upon ourselves to put this information out there, whether it's fun and well-known or whether it's uncomfortable and less-known. We just want people to have access to as much information as possible, because we think that this is how coffee will change in the long run.

Ashley: Yeah, that's a really good point. Number one: Making information accessible means that there's potential for people to change, and that people can't make changes unless they know what is actually happening around them.

But something else that you mentioned—that I wrote down—is that when you're really clear with your intentions, which it feels like you are with what you want to do with Rabbit Hole, the people who are like-minded are going to come find you. They're going to buy in, and I think that that's a really salient point to make.

When I talk to some other cafe owners, sometimes it feels like they don't really know what their intention is, like “Why am I here? What am I doing? What is my mission?” It becomes almost a race to the bottom, and I think that has a lot to do with this singular pursuit of quality.

Like you were mentioning earlier, that everyone buys the same coffees—everybody’s roasting them the same ways. Cafes look the same, and I think it's this insecurity about, “What is my intention, and what do I want to do with this cafe space or this roastery or this brand?” that almost makes it a funnel towards this very singular, very specific pursuit of quality. It seems like you saw that.

David: Yeah, absolutely, and it's really hard in life in general if you don't know why you're doing something, or why you're in business, or why you go to that—I don't know, that grocery store. In any aspect of your life, if you don't really know why you're doing something, I feel it's almost impossible to do it and have fun or do it well.

This is an interesting question, in a different type of angle that I've always been playing with in my own head every time we're about to do something with Rabbit Hole—whether it's my idea or Sophie's idea—like, does it matter, right?

This is a very interesting question especially in the coffee industry because, like you said and like I said, everything feels the same in most cafes or roasteries or whatever. But the question is, “Why do I deserve to do this in the coffee industry? Why do we deserve to take space in this industry?”

This is a question that I've been asking myself mostly in the last couple of months, because sometimes people think that I don't like coffee from Colombia, for example, because we don't have any except for decaf—but I adore coffees from Colombia! I think they're delicious and if I would have to drink one coffee origin for the rest of my life, and I cannot drink anything else, I would choose Colombia in a heartbeat, even if we don't have any on our menu right now.

But why would I bring Colombian coffees in when everybody in my city has coffees from Colombia? So we always try to find this approach where we're going to take a different type of space because it's going to attract a different type of coffee consumer, and then we can buy from different origins—and this is how to broaden your horizons, right?

I just thought I'd share this because it's a very interesting concept to me. Whatever you do in life, maybe always ask yourself—why do you do this? If it works out and you like it, why do you deserve to be doing what you're doing in the context of your own industry? This is something that's been driving me for the past couple of months.

Ashley: I like the question of, “Why do you deserve to take up the space that you do?” because I think that's a question—especially now with COVID and with people leaving cafe jobs or not wanting to work at cafes anymore, and business owners kind of being like, “What do I do?”—but the question is, “Why do you deserve to own a business? Why do you deserve to have employees who break their backs working for you while you're paying the minimum wage?” I don't think people ask themselves that question a lot. Especially when it comes to business ownership—why do you deserve to be here?

David: Exactly. We're a very small business. So it's Sophie and I, and we own Rabbit Hole, and we have one employee, but not one time do I think, “Why does Roxanne deserve to work with Rabbit Hole?”

It's the other way around. I'm just like, “Why do we deserve to have her on board with us in this crazy project?” When I learned about her background, about the studies that she did, I'm just like—I wanted to write this article about Haiti and Haitian coffee before we had any on the menu, and obviously I'm gonna ask Roxanne to do it. I'm not qualified to do all that research, this is what she studied—literally.

So it's just about always, whatever you do as a business owner, why do I deserve to do this? Why do I deserve this employee?

It’s a different outlook. It just puts things in perspective, and in my opinion, this is how you build an ethical business, because most of Roxanne’s job is bagging coffee and roasting coffee with us and doing logistics. And sometimes it's not the most fulfilling job.

I think we pay her well for this. But then we also need to—not keep her, but help her feel fulfilled in other aspects, and that she can use her background and the thing that she really, truly loves and try to incorporate this in Rabbit Hole.

When you ask a question like this—why do you deserve this—it makes everything more holistic in a sense, and everything makes more sense because—it just does make more sense.

Ashley: It feels silly to try to explain it. But you're absolutely right. It just makes sense.

It's like, “Why wouldn't I ask my employees what makes them happy?” or, “How can I be of better service to you?” because it is a privilege to employ people. It's a privilege and an honor when people want to work for you and do work for you, and it's interesting how often the narrative is the other way around.

I think I get what you’re saying, that we would engage the employees that we have, the people surrounding us, and ask them, “What makes you happy? How can we help you get to the point that you want to get to? Maybe you don't want to work here forever. That's totally fine. How can we help and support you to get to the next place?”

Because I think for a lot of business owners, the question is often in reverse. It's like, “What will you do for me? How will you give me your labor in a way that is beneficial to me?” Often the narrative is framed around employees being lazy or being not committed to work. Especially that's happening a lot now, because of COVID. But at the same time, there's a proven way to do this better. It's just about flipping the question around.

David: I agree with that 100%, because if I look at myself before I had a business, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would not stay with those companies for more than two, three, even four years—even if everything was great. I just knew that I would need new challenges and I would want to do my own thing or explore different aspects of the coffee business.

But the best way to keep employees longer is to really focus on them, and not just literally extracting everything you can from them, making them miserable, and then you repeat this cycle.

If you just make sure that they're as happy as they can be with whatever they want to do in the future—this is how maybe they're gonna see like, “Wow this is actually pretty dope. Maybe I'm going to stay here for a year or two longer.”

For a small company like us, if we were to lose 100% of our employees—which is one person—of course it's going to impact Rabbit Hole. But it’s our job as business owners to make sure that [our employees] feel fulfilled, that they want to stay here as long as they can, but it's also our job to make sure that we're going to support whatever it is that they want to do deep down.

If it's compatible with our business, that's great. In the case of Roxanne doing research, that's amazing, but sometimes it doesn't work that way. If she wanted to be like, a professional volleyball player, I can't help her with that. But I'm going to support her any way I can.

It's a stupid example, but you know what I mean.

Ashley: No, I totally know what you mean.

It's funny—I'm going backwards a little bit—but it's funny that you mentioned the pun of Rabbit Hole, because when I was Googling before we hopped on this call, I was like, “Let me see if I can find some articles about Rabbit Hole.” I couldn't find very many but everybody mentions the phrase “rabbit hole” when they talk about coffee, which was really funny to me that you mentioned that.

Something else I want to talk about—something I've been talking about a lot on this podcast, and it's something that I still feel we don't explore enough—is the idea of risk when it comes to the coffee supply stream, and how roasters are often the people that are asked to take the least amount of risk on.

It seems like, with the way that you buy and sell coffee, you're assuming some of that risk—by working with coffees that maybe nobody has ever seen before, or being really upfront about the cost it actually takes to get these coffees here.

I was wondering if that's something that you think about—how risk is spread out throughout the supply stream, and what you can do to assume some of that risk and take it away from farmers, take it away from baristas.

David: Oh, 100%. I think about this all the time, and this is mostly my main job at Rabbit Hole.

I'm the one buying all of the coffee—mostly because of my background, because of my tasting abilities—and I think about this literally every day. I'm just like, “How can we make sure that the chain, across the board, is going to be more ethical?”—or the word that people will employ pretty loosely here is “sustainable.”

I think about this pretty much every time I think about green coffee. I'm going to think about, “How can we make sure that there's going to be the least amount of risk, not just for us, but for the farmer, for literally everyone?”

So one of the easiest things is to commit to buying coffee for multiple years with a farmer. Regardless of—not regardless of taste, because specialty coffee needs to be in a certain quality range—but if a coffee, for example, is an 85-point coffee one year and it's 84 points the next year, some buyers will just drop the relationship with the farmer and they’ll go see their neighbors. But that's devastating for the farmer that you just ditched.

And let's be honest: After roasting, if you do pre-ground coffee, coffee with milk, an espresso machine that's poorly dialed-in—the difference between an 83-point and an 87-point coffee, for most people, is going to be almost negligible. Maybe not for the black filter coffee drinker that knows more about coffee, but it's always about mitigating the risk for the farmers—at least that's what I focus on.

So doing contracts in advance that are not just based purely on taste and on scoring points for coffee—that's number one to mitigate the risk.

Second of all, if you want to do anything that the farmer is not used to doing, or if they’re going to do something special for you, you need to pay for that coffee regardless of what happens. You need to assume that risk.

The stories that I've heard in the past of roasters asking for some experiments and then the coffee doesn't taste the way they want and then they just bail on the coffee because it doesn't fit their profile anymore, or they changed their mind because there was no contract…

And let's be honest: If there was a contract, what could the farmers do, really? If you buy coffee from Vietnam, and you're a roaster in Canada, like…

It's all about starting slowly and building those relationships so that everyone gains a little bit of trust in the process. Then it’s just about paying more for coffee—literally. We cannot be the ones making most of the profits. I don't care if it's the importer or the roaster or the cafe reselling bags—we make way too much money in consuming countries versus producing countries.

This is not breaking news. Maybe for some, but if you're in coffee a little bit, this is pretty common knowledge.

Ashley: Yeah, it's not breaking news. But I think to be able to say it so plainly is.

David: Yeah, and literally 90% of the money [that is made by selling coffee] doesn't stay in producing countries. So if that's not the definition of colonialism or extractivism or imperialism, I don't know what is.

This number, right there—that about 90% of the money from coffee doesn't stay or doesn't go back to producing countries—is just crazy. You know the system is broken 100% if this is the case. I guarantee you, right now, because it's produced by white people, if a winemaker in France only kept 5% of the money, and then I'm reselling wine in Canada and I'm making 95% of that money, this wouldn't go well. Because it's white people producing the wine in France mostly, it’s all about this colonial past, once again.

I keep coming back to this when we talk about risk and how you mitigate risk. And it’s because we just assume that coffee needs to be cheap because people don't really know where coffee comes from. [To some], coffee is an exotic product.

For most people, if it's produced in Papua New Guinea or Ethiopia or Colombia—it's just not produced at home, and it doesn't really matter in their minds where it's produced as long as they have tasty and affordable coffee at home. So it's just about paying more for coffee literally.

This is how we've tried to build our contracts with our importers, exporters, or directly with the farmers, and it's about open discussion. What are people willing to pay here? What can I pay you? I'm very honest about my margins and what can I afford for certain types of coffee.

To be honest, for most coffees, I can afford to pay way more than what they received in the past. There's just a couple of coffees where it's a bit more price-sensitive, for cafes or for office buildings and stuff like that, but even then we pay a lot of money for it. It all comes back to just paying more for coffee. If [farmers] have more money, then they assume less risk. It’s as simple as that.

Ashley: Yeah, it seems pretty simple and straightforward. You listed pretty basic things that people can do.

Number one: Pay more for coffee.

Number two: Promise to buy that coffee year in and year out.

Something I want to talk a little bit about—just because I wanted to use some of the things that you've talked about in this episode, and apply them specifically to coffee origins—I want to talk about Haiti because, like I mentioned earlier, I'd never had a Haitian coffee until I ordered it from you.

David: Yep.

Ashley: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Haiti as an example of some of the practices that you hope to embody. Why was it important for you to add a Haitian coffee to your menu?

David: First of all, Haiti used to be the world's number-one producer of coffee. This is something that I didn't know until a couple months ago. I've been in coffee for a long time, but if you would have asked me, “250 years ago, who was the biggest coffee producer?” I can guarantee you that Haiti would not be in my top 10. I just didn't know that at all.

So you can see from that—if they were, at some point, the biggest coffee producer, and now they're literally not known for producing coffee, and especially not specialty coffee, it just fits our mission so well of putting back some of those origins on the coffee map. Let’s try to build those relationships, because Haiti used to be such a huge producer of coffee.

It's very tasty coffee, and because of the way coffee was brought there, they still have very old trees and untouched varietals that are often linked to pure Ethiopian heirlooms. It's fascinating from a taste perspective, from a colonial past perspective, and we just really wanted to start building this [bridge].

It was really hard, to be honest, to find a coffee that was from Haiti that I felt comfortable selling on the menu, because there's not that much infrastructure for specialty coffee. It's mostly commodity coffee, and I've had some of the worst coffees that were labeled as specialty. I received some green coffee and I was like, “I really want to be involved there, but I still need to be able to sell that coffee.”

That's the only part that sucks about the job sometimes. I would really love to be involved somewhere, but the quality is simply not there, and I would just be stuck with all that green coffee.

Ashley: Yeah, but it seems like you're challenging the way that quality is understood—which I also think is important. We were talking about this idea of the single pursuit of quality, and how everything is kind of going towards sameness, but it seems like with Rabbit Hole—and obviously this happens slowly—that you're challenging the way that people want to purchase coffee.

As a coffee person, as a person who's been in the industry for a while, I saw that there was a Haitian coffee and I immediately wanted to try it. That was completely true, irrelevant of terms of quality. I’m a different market. You know what I mean?

So it's interesting to hear people talk about different ways that people buy coffee, because I don't think that we really honor that. I just want to push on that a little bit, but continue on with what you were saying.

David: Yeah, for sure. That’s a good point, and we really try to change how people taste and perceive certain coffees because, like I said before, once it's roasted, once the coffee ages, once it's served in a cafe or in a kitchen or in a super automatic machine, the difference between an 83-point and an 86-point coffee is so small that most people won't taste the difference, right? Especially with milk and sugar.

Ashley: Right.

David: If taste is not the main driver, what should be the main driver? It should be building relationships and making sure that the people producing this coffee have a livable wage and that we’re paying more than the cost of production.

There’s something that you said earlier about how we approach those origins, but for us to buy a couple of bags of an emerging origin—we always sell out of that coffee. Super, super fast.

Every time we bring a new origin—so in the case of this Haitian coffee, we've never sold so much of a new coffee, of a new origin, in the first month of releasing a coffee. Haiti holds the record for the most amount of bags sold for a new origin that we released because people were curious.

We also had all of those articles educating about Haiti’s history and past. Not just about coffee but overall, and all of those things were not linked to taste.

I think that we've reached a point in the coffee industry where the narrative that Rabbit Hole has now would not be fit to be a roastery in 2006. It was so hard to find tasty coffees early in 2004, 2005. It was not that easy to build relationships remotely. Social media was not really where it is right now, and communication wasn't either.

I was traveling, just backpacking, and I remember a time in 2006 where there was no Skype, and if you had to chat you had to go to an internet cafe. The world evolved really quickly. So if I would have been a coffee buyer in those days, it would have been wildly different, and it was important to focus on quality first early in the 2000s because we were coming from commodity coffee. We had to show people that, “Look: specialty coffee is really special because it tastes different.”

But I think that nowadays, in 2021, if a roaster labels themselves as specialty roasters, you can assume a certain level of quality. You don't have to ask, “Oh is this going to be garbage?” or, “Is this going to be okay, or is this going to be exceptional?” I think it's always going to be tasty, right? As long as it's tasty—and for me, tasty is just clean and sweet with no defects—and then after we can discuss more specific tasting notes, like if it’s tropical or citrusy.

In my opinion, [those specific tasting notes] don’t matter at all. You can seek out those coffees if you like them. As a coffee buyer, I think that it's my job to buy coffees for other reasons beyond taste. As long as it's tasty—and specialty coffee now produces tasty coffee way more easily than 20 years ago.

So I just thought that this was worth mentioning. People stress about, “Oh, am I going to like this?” Most of the coffees that we buy are tasty, and I'm not saying you're going to like them all, but I think they all qualify as good and decent specialty coffees.

Ashley: Right, and like you were saying, you sold out of that coffee faster than you sold out of any other coffee that you've sold, which is really interesting because I think it proves that point, that people aren't necessarily just buying for quality.

I think what you were saying about, in 2006 where we didn't have social media, we didn't have ways to connect or engage on these issues, the only entry point that we had was quality and taste—that’s really key, because in 2021 we have so many other tools.

David: Exactly, and this is one of those instances where people in the coffee industry are going to get stuck on something.

It's like, “Oh but specialty coffee was born because, on an SCA scoring grid, every coffee that's scored above 80 points was labeled as specialty and this is how we can sell coffee to people for more money—because it is specialty coffee.”

But I think the definition of specialty coffee now, maybe I'm mistaken, I don't know exactly in terms of taste, but a coffee can be labeled as specialty coffee if it's above 80 points on a scoring grid. So I think we need to expand that definition, because it's so easy to find coffees above 80 points right now, it's ridiculously easy.

Anyone can start a roastery, call one importer, and they're gonna have a bunch of coffees above 80 points—it's super easy. So if this is becoming the standard and it's really easy to find, we need to expand that definition of specialty coffee, and it cannot be only about taste.

I would argue that taste now, for me specifically, because it's so easy to find those above-80-point coffees, we need to switch and put taste second, because they're everywhere, and put relationship coffee—or whatever other word that you want to call this, as long as you think about the farmers—first, put origin first, and you work with that, with the coffee that's tasty already.

Ashley: David, I could talk to you forever, but we’re towards the end of our time here.

I was wondering if there was anything that you wanted people to know about Rabbit Hole that maybe isn't obvious, or something that you maybe don't get to talk about as much?

David: I'm gonna need a minute to think about that.

Ashley: We could probably do a whole second episode.

David: Yeah, probably about social media and coffee accessibility and all of that, right?

But I think I've covered, in this last bit, about expanding the definition of specialty coffee. I just think it's time to rethink how we buy coffee, how we develop relationships at origin, but also how we engage with consumers and home baristas, because sometimes the people think the work stops in the cafe with the baristas, and then once people pick up a bag of coffee then the job is over.

But those consumers, if they can get as engaged with coffee as they are with craft beer, craft cocktails, wine, or new restaurants, and any other fine and tasty products—people love to drink, people love to eat, enjoy alcohol, coffee, whatever, you name it and it's booming.

I feel that one aspect where the consumer is completely left out, and there's no background stories or—I’ll try to gather my thoughts, because I don't want to say there's no good information, but like maybe true information, or different types of information.

Like you said, the Haitian coffee is a good example of a coffee that's tasty, but it's not a Gesha. It’s just clean and sweet with a couple of nice notes. But people got so engaged with it because of the articles that we did, because it's a lesser-known origin, and you can clearly see that coffee consumers want to know more—but we’ve got to give them more if we want to keep them in.

We have to include customers if we want to sell coffee for more money, because if we pay more for coffee, we have to sell it for more. It's pretty basic business. I think that we need to have more people doing research or writing articles or sharing information that's aimed at true development at origin, and not just for marketing purposes.

Did I make any sense now?

Ashley: No, you made so much sense.

David: Sometimes I feel like my brain is going and it takes me about 30 minutes to really focus on a subject. Now we've been talking for 40, 45 minutes, and I feel like I'm just hitting my rhythm.

I just wish that there was more information that could be for educating the consumer and not just for roasters or a coffee company's marketing. This could be a whole other episode, and you’ve probably talked about on your podcast before, if I remember correctly.

I'm going to end with this: We have to start doing things for real change. Not just for marketing purposes. You have to do things holistically so that it makes sense, not just in coffee but also beyond coffee. We need to think about livable wages, no matter how [a farmer] spends that money at origin.

We have to step out of this idea of using information only if it benefits the roaster. We have to think about how to use that information—if it makes sense and if people are gonna be able to engage with it. That was pretty hectic, but I hope that people will get what I'm trying to say.

Ashley: I think they'll get what you're trying to say. I feel like I get it.

I really appreciate you coming on the show and being so passionate about the way that you buy coffee, in the way that you roast coffee, and I just really appreciate your time. Thank you for joining me.

David: No, thank you so much, and just a quick ending note: I had some goals that I wanted to achieve when I started Rabbit Hole, and being interviewed on the Boss Barista Podcast was one of them, because this is a different type of podcast. It really is about bringing something else to the coffee industry. I really appreciate having a moment to chat on the Boss Barista Podcast because I've been a huge fan for a long time, so I can check that off the list of things that I wanted to do.

Ashley: (Laughs) That's what I'm here for: Checking things off your bucket list.


That was David Lalonde, co-founder of Rabbit Hole Roasters. Check out the Rabbit Hole website, where you’ll likely see a rotating selection of coffees not being offered by any other roasters in North America, and if you really want to learn more, check out their Instagram page at @rabbitholeroasters.

Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll see you in two weeks.

Share