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Café William on its mission to make the most sustainable coffee

Cafe William CEO Rémi Tremblay

Café William President and CEO Rémi Tremblay on its goal to produce the most sustainable coffee, and why installing an industrial-scale electric roaster is essential to helping achieve its mission.

There are some companies that talk about sustainability like a checklist and others that turn words into action. For Canadian coffee roaster Café William, the term is far from a greenwashing ploy or company value. It’s a way of life.

When, back in 2000, the company reflected on the type of business it wanted to become, it was determined to have a place in the global coffee market, but was adamant it didn’t want to increase its impact on the environment in order to get there.

“We felt that we needed to do something. Over the past couple of years in Canada, we’ve had extreme weather conditions, very high temperatures, and lots of forest fires. Last year in Quebec, the fires burned an area 10 times greater than the average number of hectares burned over the past decade,” Tremblay tells Global Coffee Report.

“We felt a moral obligation [to act], not just because we’re a company that wants to grow. We decided we wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of our operations. We also wanted to have a broader positive impact on our people and improve their [living] conditions. By growing the company, we knew we could have a better impact and involvement in our community, and the countries we buy our coffee from.”

Its first commitment came in the sustainable sourcing of its coffee. Ninety per cent of branded Café William coffee sold is Fairtrade and organic certified. Tremblay cites the roaster as one of “the most important importers of Fairtrade coffee in Canada” thanks to more than two million kilograms of certified roasted coffee sold in Canada and the United States in 2022.

Cafe William roastery
Image: Café William

Since joining Fairtrade in 2000, Café William’s own brand and private label business has generated more than US$7.7 million in Fairtrade Premiums for investment in co-operative operations, services to farmers, and community projects.

Next came a commitment to greener transportation. On 15 December 2023, Café William transported its coffee via a zero-emissions sailboat from Santa Marta in Colombia to Quebec in Canada.

Tremblay admits it was a “crazy idea”, but four containers holding approximately 160,000 pounds or 72,000 kilograms of green coffee was a way to prove wind-powered sea transportation is a viable method. The journey took about a month, which Tremblay says is no longer than some traditional cargo shipments that make multiple port stops and spend valuable time loading and offloading containers. He notes it is more expensive than regular container shipment, however, is a price he believes businesses can absorb and should be willing to pay.

This trip “tested the waters”, reducing approximately 50 per cent or one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions compared to Café William’s current cargo shipments. But something “much bigger” is in the works. In addition to having invested in the construction of a cargo sailboat in Costa Rica, Café William will partner with Towt, a French sail cargo company to transport one million kilograms (or 50 containers) of green coffee from Colombia and Central America to Quebec City in the second half of 2024. Tremblay says this mission will see Café William become the first roaster to transport coffee from port to factory, roastery to customer, using practically no fossil fuels.

From this endeavour, Tremblay hopes to make one, if not two, annual sailboat shipments of coffee to demonstrate “this legitimate business model”.

To accompany its sustainable ethos, Café William has invested in green packaging that diverts 8.5 tonnes of plastic from landfill annually. It invested US$47 million in a new facility in Sherbrooke, Quebec, with US$20 million of the total plant dedicated to technologies to improve energy efficiency and eliminate the use of fossil energies. One hundred per cent of the plant itself is powered by renewable energy. And two Tesla Semi electric trucks, due for delivery this year, will also encourage greener ground transport, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Given that coffee has one of the most important ecological footprints, Tremblay says the next logical step for Café William was to commit to hydroelectricity roasting.

“Our choice to partner with Neuhaus Neotec was made with the confidence that the company wanted to invest and take on the crazy project with us. They convinced us, and they delivered on their promise,” Tremblay says. “We’re blessed to have found the right partner in Neuhaus Neotec. They did an amazing job.”

After initial trials in December 2023, the Neuhaus Neotec RFB 300 industrial-scale electric roaster, which Tremblay calls “the big monster” due to its size and capacity, was running seamlessly at full capacity from the end of January. After initial hesitation on how the company would monitor roasting curves, times, and handle heat modulation, his mind was soon put at ease.

Café William roastery
Image: Café William

The RFB 300 uses electricity from hydropower as its heat source instead of natural gas. It has an hourly output of three to 3.5 tonnes of green coffee, and requires a maximum power supply of one megawatt. Café William estimates the company will avoid about 730 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

“It is a great sense of pride to be roasting with hydroelectricity in Quebec, and producing coffee with a smaller carbon footprint. Nobody does that on a commercial scale,” Tremblay says.

Considered “the world’s first industrial-scale roaster”, Tremblay says being first is never easy, but in doing so, he hopes that Café William is setting a new standard for the global coffee industry.

“We invested more than US$2 million before knowing if it would actually work, but my partners and I were optimistic, and our roastery proves it does. It’s performing as well as natural gas. We’re really happy. We turned the gas source off two months ago,” he says.

“I think there’s a lot of big players out there that should be inspired to switch to electric roasting. It’s our duty to reduce the usage of fossil fuels, and we’re on our way.”

There’s no going back. Café William will now take the time to optimise cycle times and coffee batches to match recipe profiles. The new roaster, described as “solid, sophisticated, and very reliable”, is built to run. It has the potential to operate 24 hours, seven days a week, and given the brand’s growth trajectory and readiness for new business, this may happen sooner rather than later.

“We have room in our facility to add two more roasters. We can double the size of the plant if we want. We have the land. We have the capacity. We have room for growth,” Tremblay says. “We now have the potential to become the biggest roaster in Canada.”

Tremblay believes Café William is in the top five of the country’s largest roasters, with the brand experiencing the most growth in the retail market in 2023.

“We’re still far from the big players, but we’re working hard to get there. We more than doubled the business in five years. I think if we work well, we’ll do that even faster in the next couple of years. We’re exceeding 15 million pounds of roasted coffee on a yearly basis, so I think we can reach 30 to 40 million pounds in the next four to five years,” he says.

Café William, or Café William Spartivento as it was formerly known, was established as a retail brand under the banner of parent company Vittoria Coffee in 1988, before undergoing a name change and brand realignment in 1995, unveiling what Tremblay describes as “Café William 2.0”. For the past 30 years, Vittoria Coffee has held a stronghold in the Canadian foodservice industry.

Café William packaging
Image: Café William

Tremblay hopes Café William will one day experience the same growth. It aims to expand the brand throughout Canada, with distribution to 1500 stores already, including five major retailers in Quebec, and Costco outlets nationwide. Tremblay plans to take on the US in 2025, starting with the north-eastern region.

“[The US] is definitely a competitive market. There are many shelves in the grocery stores. Even in Canada, we’re fighting against big players, but we have a unique offering, especially with our Sustainable Series,” Tremblay says.

“From the start, we’ve said we want to create the best blends compared to any other coffee on the shelves in Canada, and I think we’ve been able to do that. We offer sustainable, high-quality coffee at a very competitive price that’s accessible to consumers.”

Tremblay says the majority of its Sustainable Series coffees have the potential to be transported via sailboat from South and Central America, becoming Café William’s most sustainable coffee on the shelf.

This is the ultimate company goal. While it’s not there yet, Tremblay says “we’re pretty close”. On the day of this interview with Global Coffee Report, Café William had just received notification it had become B Corp certified. Tremblay says this recognition for its high standards of social and environmental performance sets the foundation for the company’s future, and shows the world it is serious about its sustainable efforts.

“We want to build a company that is going to outlast us. Serge Picard, Jonathan Haley (Café William Owners), and I are part of a generation that’s getting older, and we really felt like we needed to do something that would make a positive impact. It’s a big motivator for why we’re in business. Making money is healthy, but it can’t be the only purpose. We’re not just thinking beyond the cup, we’re acting beyond the cup,” Tremblay says.

“If other roasters feel the appeal to follow our tracks and start roasting with electricity, and get rid of fossil fuel, we will be proud of our influence and accomplishment.”

Tremblay credits the initial success of the company to a collaborative effort of Café William’s partners, including Picard. He says respect and teamwork have been an integral part of the company’s growth, as has its agility and entrepreneurial spirit.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and the product we’ve created. I’m confident in the capacity of our team, and that we can deliver on the goals we set out to achieve,” Tremblay says. “This is just the start.”

For more information, visit cafewilliam.com

This article was first published in the May/June 2024 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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