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Entrepreneurship in Belgium: Brussels' coffee connoisseur
Name: François Lafontaine
The World Economic Forum recently reported that Belgians are less interested in entrepreneurship these days. François Lafontaine is certainly not among this crowd. Although you probably won’t recognise his name, chances are you have visited his uber-popular coffee houses in Brussels. Café de la Presse on Avenue Louise has queues out of the door of caffeine-seeking millennials. His latest creation, Café du Sablon, has added a youthful buzz to one of Brussels’ most iconic squares. His entrepreneurial journey began with the Coffee Company near Dansaert, and it continues to expand.
Lafontaine’s cafes are not a novel concept. He has jumped on the cool coffee bandwagon that has brought companies like Starbucks record-breaking success. But his cafes are a fresh concept in Belgium… and locals and expats alike love them. Lafontaine spoke with communications specialist, Meg Stringer about his experience as the coffee connoisseur of Brussels.
What makes your cafes so attractive? Why are they different?
It’s the whole package of premium coffee and other speciality drinks, tasty food and a comfortable atmosphere with a cool vibe. I designed the cafes as destinations for people to work, play and socialise… not just eat.
It’s a completely different experience to a traditional Belgian coffee house. We sell American cupcakes alongside croissants and bagels with hummus in addition to standard lunch fare. Our recipes are inspired from around the world and everything we offer is available to take away. Our cafes have a definite hipster vibe with a mix of vintage furniture in spaces with lots of light and high ceilings. We are completely wired with free WiFi so people can easily stay for hours – and we welcome them.
What makes your coffee different?
We think about coffee holistically from the beans to the cup. We buy premium coffee that is verified and tested by independent experts. We actually go to countries in Central America and East Africa to buy high-quality beans and then roast and grind them ourselves. Who else does this in Brussels? Water quality is notoriously poor here so we exclusively use water treated in a reverse osmosis process. Costumers rave about our cappuccinos because we only use the best bio milk. You taste the difference with our coffee immediately because we use a €16,000 manual machine from Italy, unlike the €2,000 electronic ones most cafes have.
How did you come into this business?
I was born and raised in Brussels and studied journalism at the ULB. Instead of working at a newspaper, I made my career in marketing and communications in the entertainment sector. For years I was part of some of the biggest and most successful social events in the city. Aperos Urbains, the roving Friday night party around Brussels, is my best-known production. My work took me all over Europe, where I was exposed to hipster coffee houses in cities like Berlin and London. I knew the concept would be unique in Brussels and appreciated by our many international residents. My instincts were obviously good.
What’s up with the Japanese-style slow-drip coffee you are selling?
Although it looks like a science experiment, we use this method because it produces more subtle and aromatic flavours. The Japanese have popularised slow-drip coffee and we have enjoyed introducing it to Brussels. Our customers like it so much that we now sell these brewing systems direct from Japan at our cafes.
Tell us about your latest creation, The Lab near the Sablon.
I saw a need in the market for people to learn about premium coffee just like they do with fine wine. I am developing workshops for coffee lovers to learn how to appreciate and distinguish coffee flavours and identify quality tastes. Since making great coffee is truly a form of art, I plan to offer trainings for baristas too. I hope this has the added benefit of improving the service culture in cafes in the city… it needs an upgrade.
Speaking of the service culture, you have a great reputation for coffee, but not really for service (like so many Belgian cafés). The long lines out the door turn customers away and baristas often look frenzied.
Yes, I know. It’s my biggest challenge. I started my cafes with a Belgian approach to delivery where employees played multiple roles, mostly because I couldn’t afford to pay for more help. Now, I’ve switched to the Starbucks assembly line model with each person playing just one, specialised role without compromising our quality standards. It should save time and help our baristas deliver coffee with a smile.
All the entrepreneurs in this series have complained about the cost of labour in Belgium. Base pay at Starbucks in the US for baristas is about €8 per hour, which is actually a little more than the minimum wage. How many employees do you have and how are you managing?
Like most business owners, I have to constantly balance my human resources in response to demand. Today, I have 44 employees and I hope that number will grow as we continue to expand. As you pointed out yourself, I have had problems determining the right number of baristas for each cafe. If I didn’t have to pay baristas on average €12 an hour, I could have hired more earlier and avoided this problem with the queues. I’ve just hired a bunch of new staff to fill these gaps, which is stressful but necessary.
Your business has steadily grown, even during the financial crisis. Why do you think that is?
Coffee is a relatively inexpensive pleasure that people still want - and crave - no matter what the economic conditions. And we offer more than just a great cup of coffee. Our customers can spend the entire afternoon with us in a warm and wired environment, so there is a lot of value for money in your coffee and bagel.
You’re an introvert, but run a very social business that involves a lot of customer interaction and managing people. How do you reconcile this?
When I first started out, I was doing everything from accounting to serving. It wasn’t an ideal position for me. The success of the business has enabled me to surround myself with a great team that I can depend on to manage day-to-day operations. Now, I focus on big-picture management issues and expanding our brand. I am leaving soon to meet coffee producers on a whirlwind trip that starts in New York City and then brings me through Central America and the Pacific. I get my inspiration for the business from these trips. I truly feel grateful that I have a job that I love and get to come home to the city I’ve always called home.