Coutume Cafe, Paris, France

I arrived at 47 rue de Babylone 7e in Paris fifteen minutes early, mostly because asking for directions in English whilst in Paris makes me feel stupid. 

The large glass facade of Coutume is dark and, except for a man cleaning inside, the cafe is empty. I tug on the door.It’s locked. The man inside indicates that it is closed. I’m not too worried since I could hear when speaking to Tom on the phone that he is not the kind of guy likely to forget a meeting. Besides, I was early.

There is only one other person in the street, talking on his mobile phone in English and I assumed it had to be Tom. He finishes his conversation politely at 14h15 on the dot (the time of our meeting) comes over and introduces himself with a broad smile. He opens the shop and, although it is closed for the week and the chairs are flipped upside down onto the tables, I can see that, if the space itself was anything to go by, the coffee had to be amazing. The parquet floor and the high ceilings had an atmosphere even without any patrons around (They close for a week each year in the summer) A pourover is prepared and three chairs are flipped off the closest table. Tom, myself and Lacy, Coutume’s production roaster, sit down with a cup each and a BlankBox in front of us.

Coutume Cafe, Paris (Photographe : Robin Delestrade)
Coutume Cafe, Paris (Photographe : Robin Delestrade)

Tom, you and Antoine managed to build one of the most well known  roasters in France over the last three years. Can you please tell us how it happened that the two of you joined forces to do so?

Initially, I met a girl and moved to Paris. However, I wanted to also bring with me a business plan. The plan was to start up with a coffee cart selling high quality coffee. But, the bureaucracy in Paris at the time was just too much to get this off the ground in a reasonable time in a location that was worthwhile. I think now it would have been easier as the current mayor is much more forward thinking and supports smaller projects.

Nonetheless I appreciated that there was a real niche for speciality coffee and switched to distributing to the restaurant & hotel sector as I tested the market.

Antoine went to Melbourne, originally to work in film production but became involved in roasting instead. He returned to Paris with 10 years roasting experience under his belt and distributed the Bacchi espresso machine and did consulting work with roasting companies.

I was interested in selling the Bacchi espresso machine and got in touch with Antoine who came to my office to do a presentation and tasting. We spent hours talking about our individual projects and how we saw the future of the specialty coffee market in Paris.

We both were convinced that we needed to start big, make lots of noise and get the public’s attention.  So we teamed up, brainstormed, business plan’ed and pitched for investment before opening up Coutume roastering in October 2010 and our flagship roastery and café in March 2011.

Many of your coffees are direct trade. How do you decide where to travel to, which one of you travel the most and how do you maintain your relationships with the farmers over such a distance?

Absolutely, we feel it is essential to travel to origin to secure amazing lots, found enduring relationships with farmers, share ideas and collaborate on processing techniques etc. and generally continue to increase our understanding about coffee farming and processsing.

We decide on our destinations through a number of ways:

  • on-going reading and research, sample roasting and cupping
  • relationships with importers, coffee professionals and farmers
  • through being curious and looking for individuals pushing the envelope

We divide travel fairly evenly as we are both passionate about origin trips.  Inevitably one has to stay in Paris to keep things rolling smoothly.

Our relationships are maintained through regular communication, collaborating on on-going projects (we’re currently helping conduct a natural process experiment in Burundi), inviting our farmers over to Paris to present seminars and present their coffees to our public.

Burundi, Mpanga (Photo: Antoine Nétien)
Burundi, Mpanga (Photo: Antoine Nétien)

What is the coffee culture in France like and what would you say are the main challenges for cafés and home brewing?

The French public has been drinking such badly prepared, under-extracted espressos, that the full experience of tasting a properly extracted espresso which has TASTE and body is very much a new thing for most coffee drinkers – Also, established roasters/drink distributors which control the vast majority of the wholesale market has meant that independent artisans have struggled to find their place and displace the main players.

All of the above is changing quickly – fortunately.  The French are incredibly curious and passionate about all things terroir-related as well as being educated about a product and its preparation.  This has meant that the up-take has been faster than most markets I’d say.  The future of specialty coffee in France is certainly positive.

This cafe is absolutely amazing. Can you tell us how you found it and about the restoration process?

Thanks a lot!

It was a long and educational process being our first retail project.

The space was in fact the first shop we visited amongst our 30-odd visits.  Its volume, chimney shaft and location in an authentic (if not a bit sleepy) arrondissement gave us lots of ideas about doing something a little out of the ordinary such that we would jump out at passer-byers.

We wanted to share the entire process in full visibility of our clients – green coffee, coffee trees, roasting machine and cupping area, diverse drink preparations up front – immersing our public in our coffee culture.

We contacted architect friends of ours in Melbourne who are very good at what they do and they put us in touch with their peers in Paris – CUT Architectures.

We spent hours discussing the specialty coffee culture with CUT and the design process was incredibly organic.

Looking to understand how the evacuation system worked for air flow (essential to roasting well), we ripped off a section of the plaster ceiling and discovered the original cachet of the space – ceiling moulding/cornices, an extra 3 feet of ceiling height, elaborate column-ends.

Although this meant adding on an extra 3 months of build-out, we couldn’t not incorporate the history of the space and its very Parisien feel into our concept which blends a Haussmanian Paris apartment with a laboratory.

The Coutume Cafe (Photographe : Robin Delestrade)
The Coutume Cafe (Photographe : Robin Delestrade)

You are also opening a new cafe in 60 rue des Écoles Paris 5th with a Finnish-inspired take on coffee and café culture. How will this be different from what you have achieved at Coutume?

We had an amazing opportunity from the Finnish Cultural Institute to create a Finnish-inspired café, showcasing their coffee culture and mixing it with our values and approach to speciality coffee.

We are creating a light foot print by designing with CUT a fully-autonomous, fairly large and elaborate, coffee cart which is water-independent (not having water lines accessible…and necessity being the mother of invention), which reflects Finnish architecture and their unique connection with nature.

It’s therefore an opportunity to create a new micro-universe, centered around coffee, and to learn about a new and fascinating culture at the same time.

We’ll also be doing light food with a definite Finnish flair.

Opening early October (give or take a few days) this year.

Would you say that your design approach captures what you are doing in the roastery then?

Yes I think that’s a fair point.  We’re detail-oriented and experimental when it comes to design and this reflects in our roasting philosophy.  Bonne dégustation!

We talk for easily an hour and a half until Tom excuses himself for another meeting. Lacy and I remain for a while longer. Her friendly demeanour and how she combined her Masters in International Affairs with her evident love for the industry by choosing to do her dissertation on the international coffee trade, made me reluctant to leave this gem of a coffee establishment in the 7th Arrondissement.

Like so many other parts of this city, Coutume stays with you once you leave. Make sure you drop in on your next visit to Paris.

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