How the pandemic compelled Kafka’s to count its beans and roast them, too

The Vancouver company recently announced the pivot to roasting its own coffee beans after years of importing.

Credit: Kafka’s

Kafkas general manager Paul Rose (left) and owner Aaron Kafka made the move to roasting their own beans

The Vancouver company recently announced a pivot to roasting its own coffee beans after years of importing 

It probably all seemed a little too perfect for Aaron Kafka. A few years ago, the Vancouver entrepreneur got an email from office space giant Regus about opening a third café in Gastown. Kafka was already operating two eponymous locations—on Main Street and Great Northern Way—but he wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity.  

“I got a really cryptic email asking if I was interested in a Gastown location,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I wrote back, ‘Yes.'” 

Kafka met with the owners and hit it off. Two years later, in early 2020, his third location served as the front that welcomed in customers to a four-floor, state-of-the-art coworking outfit called Spaces 

Of course, it would promptly close thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, thus beginning a year-and-a-half nightmare for Kafka. Though he credits both his landlords (“They gave us some free rent and were really nice about it”) and the government (“The subsidies helped a lot”), it was still very difficult.  

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“I think we [the food service industry] put on brave faces,” Kafka says. “But we all lost a lot of money. What are you going to do? You have to just roll with it; you can’t do anything.” 

The initial shutdown gave Kafka some time to think about how to better his company’s operations. And to think back to his roots. The Richmond native launched Kafka’s because he was studying for his LSATs in cafés and fell in love with them.

“I just thought, If I open a café and lose everything, I can figure it out,” he remembers. “But if I go to law school, I’ll never open a café. I got a job making coffee, made sure I liked it and started building a business plan with locations.”  

Having grown the food program to his satisfaction (including the introduction of Little Bird Sandwich Co.—a takeout operation built during the pandemic to bring his employees back into work that is still a staple of the company’s Main Street location), Kafka turned his attention back to coffee.  

“I opened Kafka’s because I love coffee—the stories behind it, the interactions with people, the traceability,” he says.  

So Kafka applied for funds under the provincial Business Recovery Grant to roast his own coffee instead of importing in from Seattle-based Herkimer Coffee as he had for the previous 11 years. Once that went through, he skipped the enormous cost of buying his own roaster and signed up to roast once a week at a shared facility.  

“The Recovery Grant allowed us to hire a consultant who taught us how to roast, and we worked on design, rebranding, packaging,” Kafka says. The result, he argues, is a collection fit for coffee aficionados and newbies alike. For the former, Kafka offers up his Ethiopian and Guatemalan coffees. “They’ll satisfy any coffee drinker—super delicious, light, complex.” 

For the latter, he turns to his Simpler Times blend. “If you wanted to buy some coffee for your aunt, that’s Simpler Times,” he maintains. “We also want to sell our coffee to restaurants, and this goes so well with food.” 

Spaces is still operating somewhere close to 50 percent, so Kafka’s Gastown location hasn’t returned to its early numbers. The Great Northern Way location is still finding its feet, too.

But Kafka has no doubt that his company is trending up. When asked if he’s worried about the long-term viability of the Gastown outlet, given the stiff competition in the area, he bristles.  

“No, not at all,” Kafka says. “All we can focus on is giving good service, good product. We’re all a little different.”