Seeing that we've only heard from roasters so far, I thought it was also important to hear the perspectives from cafe owners as well. Thom Bargen has quickly become an iconic name in Winnipeg, especially in the coffee industry. These two best friends decided to open their first cafe in 2012, and haven't looked back since. Thom Bargen does an excellent job bridging the gap between roaster and cafe and you'll find out why below.
BCB: Can you briefly introduce yourself to us?
Graham: My name is Graham Bargen. Co owner/operator of Thom Bargen coffee (now, coffee roasters ;)
BCB: What did you do before you decided to get into specialty coffee?
Graham: I was climbing a corporate ladder and finding little meaning or fulfilment in my work. Meeting Teej at the perfect time in my life changed everything.
BCB: Can you describe your role at Thom Bargen and what that involves?
Graham: We have never given ourselves distinct roles. We tend to naturally balance each other.. I’m part barista, cafe manager, QC, green buyer, roaster, ext.. We are very involved operationally. I really love working in this industry and a lot of what drives us is learning. I never liked the idea of not being involved or understanding an aspect of our business. Continuing to grow and discover is a huge motivator. Plus, we are lucky to have incredible staff that can do most jobs better than me.
BCB: What influenced you to open a cafe?
Graham: 8 years ago Winnipeg had a huge lack of specialty coffee. Teej and I set out with the idea that good coffee should be within walking distance. So we looked to build a community hub in our favourite neighbourhood of West Broadway. We wanted a place that was friendly and served excellent drinks. A large part of opening TB was simply because we wanted a place we could go to daily. It very quickly out grew us and has become its own thing.
I took a trip to Germany before we opened and toured Bonanza Coffee Hero’s original spot. It was a major influence on us from a design and environmental perspective.
BCB: For those that may be unaware, where did the name ‘Thom Bargen’ come from?
Graham: Thom Jon Hiebert (THOM) and Graham Bargen (BARGEN) are our names. We couldn’t land on a name for months. At the end of the day we figured we would just toss our names up on the window.
BCB: How did you decide on the location for the three different Thom Bargen cafes?
Graham: Our first location was based on being close to home and affordability. 8 years ago Sherbrook wasn’t exactly a bustling neighbourhood. It did have charm and character. It still does! It's a very unique spot. Our second shop is on the corner of Kennedy and Graham downtown. We opened directly across the street from a Starbucks (now closed). We thought people would like more options downtown and it turned out quite well for us. That location quickly became one of our busiest by the hour shops (pre covid). Our third location is a small pocket shop in Winnipeg Square (underground). It is grab and go only, no seating, no door. It is a super fun shop to work at as it’s totally driven by regulars.
BCB: Were there any challenges you faced when opening a cafe across the street from Starbucks?
Graham: Umm, yes. Starbucks is kinda a big deal. It took a long time for us to build credibility with the Starbucks crowd. Consistently I feel like smaller independent cafes let down the Starbucks drinker. We can be too focused on what we are about and forget that consistency and solid customer service is what they are used to at the larger chains. We were challenged to up our game and win over customers slowly. It was a fun challenge and very rewarding.
BCB: What is one of your favourite things about running a cafe?
Graham: The people. Our staff consistently exceed my expectations and go the extra mile for people. Our customers are also amazing, running a cafe is all about the regulars and enjoying making their day a bit better. It’s fun! There is a lot of reasons we can complain in life. Going to work and making coffee is such a positive escape. Chatting with people and making coffee, what could be better!?
BCB: What is one of the biggest challenges that people might not realize about running/opening a specialty coffee shop?
Graham: Opening a shop is fun and exciting, running a cafe for 8 years is very difficult. It’s a lot of work especially in Winnipeg. We have really cold winters and the service industry consistently takes a hit for half the year.
BCB: Is there someone in the specialty coffee industry that inspires you?
Graham: I get a lot of inspiration from Colin Harmon at 3FE on customer service. Phil & Seb are constantly pushing the quality of Green sourcing. There are some new importers like Semilla Coffee that are bringing awareness to the inequity of the coffee trade that are also very inspiring.
BCB: What is one of your favorite hobbies to take part in while not in the cafe?
Graham: Tennis, it’s a huge part of my life. I have kids and have tried to find more balance so I can be present with them too.
BCB: What is one thing that you would like to see change in the specialty coffee industry?
Graham: I think it would be very cool if there was a heightened understanding around farmers and green coffee. A lot of marketing is about glorifying flavour profiles and falsely creating the impression that these coffees just fall from the sky. If we can help close the loop and bring awareness to the work that is done at origin I'd be pumped. I’ve always appreciated how the beer industry shares information freely. Coffee roasting has typically been a bit more secretive. We hope to bring some fun transparency to the industry. I mean, what do we have to lose? Is it a big secret that direct trade is never as simple as it’s marketed? If we post our roast curve will that demystify how roasting works? I think people want to see behind the curtain.
BCB: Exactly! Half the reason that I'm loving these conversations is because they give readers a look behind the curtain.
BCB: How can we as consumers contribute to see change happen within the specialty coffee industry?
Graham: Support your local shop! Ask questions about the farms on the bags!
BCB: Let’s chat about the new project that you recently started up. With the fresh announcement of Thom Bargen jumping into the coffee roasting side of things (TBCR), what was the most difficult thing when starting up the roastery?
Graham: Where to start.. It’s a huge undertaking and responsibility. We knew it would be hard and we held off on opening our roastery for a long time because of this. Covid was a real push for us to increase our value along the chain from farm to cup. We also knew we needed to get more online to survive. The hardest part was making that decision. Once we did we were all in.
BCB: Is there another roaster that you are taking inspiration from for TBCR?
Graham: Stylistically we are into nordic coffees. Phil & Seb provide consistency that is remarkable. A coffee company that I’m really loving is Calendar Coffee out of Ireland. They are celebrating coffee in a really fun way.
BCB: How do you/will you decide what coffees you are going to roast and introduce to your menu?
Graham: Great question! It would take a long time to fully explain how we do this. On a surface level, we sample roast our coffees on an Ikawa and cup them. But quality is only a starting point. Finding out as much info on the region and the farmers as possible to try and figure out if we will be a good fit is the next step. I often think we need to elevate our Exporters who are often in the countries and doing work alongside the farms every year. We do need to put a lot of trust in them and partner with good people. We will only be purchasing coffee when a transparency report is available. We need to see where the money is going.
BCB: What are some things that you are hopeful of with starting up TBCR?
Graham: Our hope is to honour the farmers. Bring their story a bit closer to home. I’m always excited to bring in dynamic complex coffees that surprise people. There is so much going on in the world of coffee processing and I can’t wait to bring in some fun coffees from some amazing farms. We just ordered our first natural Ethiopian coffee and it’s a wild blueberry ride!
BCB: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
Graham: I mean, we couldn’t have done this without the local support of Winnipeg. Thank you! Our new website will be live very soon for more info on what we are up to!
I want to say a big thank you to Graham for taking time out of his busy schedule, especially while establishing a roaster, to have this conversation with us! Be sure to check out Thom Bargen on Instagram and in person if you've got the chance!
Stay tuned for our next interview!