O Coffeeshop

“I just want a place where you can spend a nice evening, eat something good, something fresh. I’m not trying to showcase something. I just want people to have a good time. That’s all the matters to me. It’s the same for a coffee shop. It’s not the quality of the coffee, the quality of the food, the quality of the place. It’s everything.”

I sat down with Tim Teyssier last Wednesday at the Beans on Fire, where he runs O Coffeeshop, a pop-up café in the 11th. While I consumed espresso and one of Boneshaker Sweet Rolls' beautiful rhubarb and orange doughnuts, Tim talked to me about his past ten years learning hospitality in all its various forms, the influence he gained from his travels outside of Paris, and the future beyond O Coffeeshop, a future beyond a focus on coffee alone.

Tim began working behind the bar when he was 18, just after leaving high school. “I worked for five years in a lot of different places, with many different styles. They were high-class bars, restaurants, brasseries. I was just trying to learn as much as possible.”

After gaining experience in hospitality in Paris, Tim decided to move to Australia to explore its coffee culture, seeking to understand a sector he was still unfamiliar with. It was at that time, in  2010, that KB CaféShop opened, where before leaving, Tim met Chris Nielson, the now-owner of Fondation Café. “I didn’t know much about coffee at the time, so Chris and I talked a lot, and he gave me a list of places to go in Sydney when I arrived. It was over there that I learned. I went to all the places he suggested; I saw the coffee culture at work.”

Tim came back to Paris after a year in Australia, beginning to work as a barista at KB. “I was supposed to stay only three months, but I ended up staying three years. I got along with the owner, Nicolas Piégay really well. We worked to make KB organized and to increase the quality of the coffee. In return, he paid for my training. I learned everything from roasting to extraction to latté art. I took everything from KB, and I can’t be more thankful. I’ve learned so much, so much about coffee, what constitutes as bad coffee. I’ve learned about management too; I’ve learned about human relationships and myself as well. Who I am and how to deal with everything. Coffee is interesting, it connects to everything.”

After completing his own training, Tim began instructing others who came to KB in hopes of learning coffee themselves, but as he describes to me, the turnover was huge, “We had a completely new team every six months. Most of the time, people went back home to Australia, England, Sweden. They were only here for a few months, maybe a year, trying to experience something in the same way I did when I was in Australia. They came for the image of Paris, and they were looking for a job that would let them have that.”

He then talks me through the psychology of training. Tim explains that though you may be communicating the same idea, you must adapt your method of teaching it to each person. “Everyone has a specific way to showcase and to introduce a craft, and that’s what coffee is. When you train someone, you’re always looking for the right words for the given situation, for the specific person. You have to adjust everything to everyone, trying to get everyone to the same level in terms of understanding what coffee is.”

In addition to training at KB, Tim and Nico were looking for ways to improve the coffee shop itself, developing the menu, the recipes, and their roasters. To expose themselves to different ways of approaching these elements of their business, travel was necessary. “We went to Berlin, London, Sweden, and Norway, meeting with baristas and owners of coffee shops. We were trying new coffee, playing around with different origins, and trying to understand a different philosophy of running a café.”

“I took what I liked from different coffee shops, piecing these together to create a really strong signature which allowed us to develop our own identity. A friendly, good neighbourhood coffee shop. That’s what KB is.”

I think about all the times I’ve been into KB, seeing families gathering for brunch or friends meeting for an afternoon coffee, couples huddled together on the corner bench, waiting until a coveted stool at the window opens up. I’m often sharing the communal table with several other strangers, separating myself with a book or work, but nonetheless feeling a part of something. A part of exactly what Tim describes.

Tim is passionate about coffee but he remains analytical, tempering this dedication to his craft with a business-driven sense, motivated by a love for what he does and a profound interest in it. This gets displayed in his breakdown of pricing, which leads to talk of expectations and of what people anticipate upon entering different businesses. Tim relates this to cultural habit, “In a brasserie, French people don’t look at the menu. They never look at the prices, they just pay in the end. They sit on the terrace, not looking at the menu for food or for wine, they’ll just immediately order a café. But if they walk into a place where they specialise in something, like a coffee shop, they’ll look at the menu, and if they look at the menu, they look at the price. It’s because they don’t know what’s there and they don’t know what to expect.”

“It’s like burgers for you.” I laugh at this obvious illustration of American culture. “You go to McDonald’s and you expect a certain price. You go to a new burger place and look at the prices because you don’t know what to expect. In brasseries, coffee for the French is the same thing. Unless you’re someone who works in coffee, who knows coffee, you’re not going to be ready to spend three euros on it because that price doesn’t match your expectations.”

We continue upon this comparison between France and the states. I’m looking for concrete ways to define the differences between the two cultures, but Tim sees the error in my oversimplifications, and begins to work through his own understanding of the phenomenon. “French people, because France has been involved in the coffee industry for a long time, tend to take pride in thinking they know what good coffee is. They’re less receptive of new information, and that’s why most of the coffee shops rely on foreign clientele. Most of the guys that sit in a coffee shop will be Anglophones.”

I consider this, thinking about the same practice being carried out in the United States, people using the idea of sitting at a café as an excuse for killing time, lingering for hours long after finishing their espresso. But didn’t this idea of hanging out at a coffee shop develop from a traditionally French practice? Tim challenges that, asking me to look around as he takes a count of the room. “One, two, three, four … there’s ten people here and there’s only one French guy. That’s always the case. Yes, we always get French people, a French mom coming in with her kids on a Wednesday, French guys having an espresso after lunch, but most of the clientele are foreigners.”

“And then the opposite is true as well. We took the take-away coffee practice from Americans. The French have taken so much from the states, that’s why Starbucks is working really well with young people. American culture is so widely-exposed in movies and teenagers want to be doing the same thing they see in these films. They order a macchiato with caramel and whipped topping because it’s been glorified. It’s your idea of the baguette or sitting on the terrace. You make the baguette something fancy, when really baguette is baguette. These are two cultures and two countries that have had a relationship for a long time, and the showcase of culture is so prevalent in both countries that the fact of not living there makes you want to adopt their practices. It’s a romanticisation of a culture that you don’t understand yourself. It’s curiosity that drives these misconceptions, when really no one knows the reality at all.”

I try to work through this explanation, suggesting that maybe French people do understand American culture, that travel and social media has produced an awareness consistent with how people actually live. Tim counters this, “The number of people who travel to the United States is much less in comparison to those who just go to the movies and think that that’s the reality of the United States. And even for those who do travel there, there’s a big difference between going to the states on holiday for ten days and actually living in another country.”

“And the same is true for Paris. You can’t call one arrondissement the entire city, and you can’t say it’s a complete representation of what’s happening in France. It changes with every area. People in the 11th and people in the 15th are completely different. Different experiences, different jobs. Different everything.”

With this more condensed comparison, Tim begins to talk about the future of his business, which now lies at 23 Rue de Lourmel in the 15th, a space he signed for two weeks ago. He’s partnered with Matthew Sloane, an Australian whom Tim trained and then hired to take his place at KB when he left. “We got along really well and stayed in contact. When I realized I wanted to expand, I knew he was looking to open a shop as well.”

“We were looking for a place for about nine months, focusing only on the Right Bank, and the 15th is perfect for us.” When Tim says this, I give him a confused look, thinking about the concentration of coffee shops around the 3rd, 11th, and 20th. Anywhere but the 15th. “But the Australian embassy is next door, there’s a lot of schools. It’s a cool street and there’s no competition.”

The vision again is that same neighbourhood shop, where weekly morning visits will be practiced and the idea of building a routine around the café is inevitable. “We’re not going for that specialty coffee shop. We’ll do tea, good food, good music, a good atmosphere. We’ll go for really simple food, cakes, cookies, everything homemade, specialising in breakfast, different cereals and toast. And there’s going to be the best banana bread you’ve ever tasted.” Tim says this without pretension or arrogance, but states it more simply as a matter of fact.

“We work really well together, because we have complementary skills. Matt’s really good with people, he has this chill vibe whereas I’m really good at organizing, making things happen fast and clean. But from time-to-time I tend to stress a bit too much and that’s why it’s cool to have someone who can balance that. Matt’s one of the rare guys who knows what’s happening behind the scenes. He’s not just a barista who wants to open a coffee shop because he likes making coffee. That’s really important, because if you don’t understand the fact that owning a coffee shop and being a barista is not the same job, you can’t make a business successful.”

Tim goes to help a customer and I begin eavesdropping on conversations that reflect his observations of the clientele. There’s discussions of the west coast of the states, trips to Portland, reflections on working at a start-up in San Francisco, even a comparison between The Beans on Fire and coffee shops in Brooklyn. But it’s a single comment which sits with me, which confirms that Tim has achieved a business consistent with how he perceives of the ideal coffee shop:

“We feel like we’re home.”

Isabelle EymanComment