What I love about the specialty coffee community are the great people I get to meet and the stories their lives tell. There are so many incredible coffee roasters doing such great work.
And every now and then I hear about a roaster that is not only roasting great coffee, but they’re involved in changing people’s lives through a way that just needs to shared here on this page. This is why I am thrilled to share the story of The Artery Community Roasters, and why I am thrilled to have selected them as our Coffee Roaster of the Month for March!
They have quite the story to tell, so that’s all you’ll get for an intro from me this month. Let me turn it over to William and give him the chance to tell you more about The Artery Community Roasters!
Q: So who is the team behind The Artery Community Roasters?
I’m Will Wells and I’m originally from Ottawa’s east-end, and while I have since moved across the river to Quebec, I opened the roastery back in the east-end of Ottawa. Most of my staff (Shelly, Mireille, and Brandon) are from the Ottawa area, but our Social Media manager Erin (who really at this point is more of a manager than just social media, she’s awesome and really helps run the show), works remotely from Halifax.
Q: So how did you end up in Ottawa?
My plan for the last few years was actually to start the roastery from my house in Gatineau, Quebec (right across the river from Ottawa), as I have a side building on my property. But then my good friend Ian Fraser, who is the Executive Director of Run Ottawa (a local not-for-profit) offered me a space in their HQ that was a lot more suited to roasting and storing coffee greens, so it was an offer I could not refuse!
Q: What’s your backstory in specialty coffee?
I actually consider myself a bit of an outsider to the specialty coffee scene, which I think has actually served our roastery well! That’s not to say I don’t know my coffee or haven’t worked behind a bar. I worked as a barista during college at a local, independent coffee shop. But after leaving that job I sort of left the scene and did my own thing.
Then shortly after graduating from University, I was working a graveyard shift for the Public Health Agency of Canada during H1N1. I would take the same cab home every night, and got to know the driver very well. He was originally from Ethiopia and we would spend our drives talking coffee. He got me into roasting coffee on a frying pan, like his family had done back home. I found a small corner store that would sell my really well-priced Gr. 1 and 2 Yirgacheffe as long as I didn’t tell any of my friends about it. To this day I still don’t give friends the address! It was really great coffee.
I would also do my best to find unique varieties to roast, but it was usually easier to buy them already roasted from third wave roasters, as opposed to trying to source them in such small quantities myself (I’d say one of the the biggest challenge of any garage roaster is sourcing truly ethical and unique varieties). But I was hooked on roasting my own. Eventually I upgraded from the frying pan to a Behmor 1600 in the garage, and would roast for friends and charity events.
It was at a charity event in 2019 where I really decided to get the roastery in motion. I had started a charity basketball tournament called Jessied Jam, in honour of my friend Jessie (we are looking forward to hosting another one in our parking lot when safe to do so). And I had made a pile of auction gift baskets with coffees and biscottis and they were selling like hot cakes. And I knew right then and there that my idea for a social enterprise roastery could work! Because everyone (except my wife, who doesn’t touch the stuff) loves coffee, especially when it’s for a good cause!
Q: Who were some of your early influences?
While I of course have the utmost respect for the Tim Wendelboe’s of the world, and read Scott Rao articles every night before bed like he’s Mother Goose, my early influences for starting all of this really fall more on the disability advocacy side of things, and other social enterprises.
One in particular stuck with me. It must have been some 6 years ago, reading about the Coffee Shed, a coffee shop in Toronto that hires people with developmental disabilities. And while my college years of barista-ing made sure that I would not put others through the riggers of slanging ‘spro on weekends for the masses, the light bulb went off in terms of the roastery. I figured it was something I was more into, and also the pace and pressure would be different (while we are of course busy, there isn’t someone standing there waiting for their cortado!).
Other influences included disability advocates I worked closely with, who would listen to me wax poetic about this dream, while also providing me with insights into how to make it a reality within the community. One name in particular is Brian Tardif, the former Executive Director of ABLE2 (the not for profit organization that we give a portion of our proceeds to, and who some of our staff are referred to us from). He really is a mentor to me, when it comes to advocacy work, and had appointed me to the Board of Directors of ABLE2 and still supports The Artery with guidance and connections, from the comfort of his retirement.
And I also had a lot of help in the first few months of opening the roastery from Brendan Adams, owner of Semilla Coffee, who really helped introduce me to the right way of sourcing greens. We have some exciting things we are working on in the coming months, like working with producers to find more ways to support the hiring of pickers and processors with disabilities. I really want to weave our mission and ethics throughout the entire value chain of our coffees.
Tell us a bit more about the history of The Artery Community Roasters!
As I already said, I would tell many of my friends and contacts about this idea of opening a social enterprise that employed people living with disabilities, and paid them a fair wage. And thankfully for me, one of those people was my buddy Ian Frasier, who I mentioned earlier. I really didn’t make a final decision until this past September, and then just skipped sleep so we could be up and running by December 2020!
Q: Why the name The Artery Roasters?
A few reasons actually! The simple answer is my dog’s name is Artie! The longer answer is 3 or 4 years ago, I got my cousin who is our graphic designer to design the logo I had in mind, which was a photo realistic picture of a heart pouring coffee! So Artie, arteries, it all kinda worked. And thankfully, my graphic designer was like, “nobody wants to drink coffee from a realistic heart” (guess she never watched Silence of the Lambs), and she made the cuter version of the logo that people seem to really love! We have a few different clients that all work at the Ottawa Heart Institute. The logo is clearly a draw!
Q: When did your roastery open?
We opened our roastery December 10, 2020 which feels like an eternity ago now as it’s been a whirlwind! We’re really optimistic about the future and looking forward to seeing how we can grow this business and provide as many jobs to people with disabilities as we can!
Q: What equipment do you roast on?
We currently roast on a fluid bed roaster, as we weren’t able to instal a gas line in our current location. Also the fluid bed gave us a bit more flexibility and ease of use for some staff members to learn roasting on! We use a Coffee Crafter Artisan X, made in Idaho. Their customer service is top-notch and compared to other Sivetz style roasters I’ve played with in the past, the roasts are a lot more consistent. It’s also really responsive which I was actually surprised with when we first started testing it.
We have modded the fluid bed so we can still data log and do all that stuff, and while there was a bit of a learning curve for me as I adjusted to a new roasting style, I’m really getting the hang of it and love the clean roasts it can produce! I was frankly worried at first that there would be consistency issues with a fluid bed, as there are certain variables to them that don’t exist in drum roasters (like air loft of the beans), but we have found ways to mitigate them and produce profiles and production roasts that we are really proud of and do justice to the incredible coffees we are sourcing. That being said, we do have plans to expand to a larger, drum roaster whenever we expand in phase 2 of our plans (dreaming of a Loring), but for now we are really happy with our setup.
Q: Tell our readers more about your mission to help support people living with disabilities. What was the driving force behind this? How has this impacted their lives? Your life?
When you buy our coffee, you are not only supporting true direct trade support to producers (and farmgate and FOB prices that we are really proud of and are happy to share), you are supporting the hiring of people with disabilities. Salaries start at $16 an hour and we are committed to transitioning some of our staff to full time work, paid at a living wage, and full benefits within two years (hopefully faster!). On top of that, a portion of our proceeds are also donated to ABLE2, a local not-for-profit organization that is very close to my heart, for many reasons! Not to mention that some of our employees are connected to us by way of ABLE2, and also receive support during the hiring process from the organization’s incredible social workers.
ABLE2 seeks to promote and help build an inclusive community that welcomes, values and supports the diversity, participation and contribution of its citizens, including those who live with disabilities, and their families. They also do extensive work in delivering support and advocacy that enhances quality of life, socially-valued roles and choice for people living with disabilities, and their families.
I sit on the Board of Directors at ABLE2, and also have been a volunteer with their one-on-one matching program for six or so years now, which is how I met my first match Jessie, and my current match, Jorge.
The organization supports all types of disability: those with physical, intellectual, developmental, age-related disabilities or mental health challenges. People need people. ABLE2 recognizes the importance of friends and networks in our lives. Every day, we see evidence of how personal relationships and networks help support and resolve personal and professional matters. We use our networks to help others – whether it’s related to getting a job, finding a professional resource or for social and recreational purposes. We rely on these rich personal networks and relationships. Many people with disabilities don’t have the benefit of these relationships.
The ABLE2 matching program (which by the way has a waiting list of over 300 people) is a one-on-one match with a child, youth, adult or senior with a disability. The matching program contributes to profound differences in the lives of people with a disability. I was introduced to the matching program through my wife almost ten years ago, when she had just been matched with Shelly. I had so much fun hanging out with them, that I joined the program myself. I was matched with a hilarious and awesome guy named Jessie, who became a dear, dear friend.
Jessie had neurofibromatosis, which made him susceptible to tumours. Most of them were not harmful, but sometimes that wasn’t the case. When he was young, they removed a tumour and the surgery resulted in vision loss, cognitive challenges, and caused mobility issues that meant he mostly had to use a wheelchair. His mother had the same illness, and when she passed away from it, Jessie’s younger brother Corey, who was only 18 at the time, took on the responsibility of caring for Jessie, while also working six days a week.
I grew very close to Jessie and his brother, and believe that we all greatly benefited from the match; our lives were made better from it. Jessie sadly passed away in 2016 from cancer, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him. He is a large inspiration for The Artery Community Roasters, and also, was a giant personal inspiration for me.
I can’t tell you how much I have learned, laughed and loved, because of the matching program. It means a lot to my family and me, and being able to include this wonderful organization in our roastery means the world to me. I am committed to making sure that together we can play a small part supporting their meaningful work and much needed fundraising, as 2020 has been difficult on them and other NGOs like them.
Erin, our social media manager, is so engaged and leans on her personal contacts and off-hours to keep promoting the company, because she believes in it. Our bike coffee courier Brandon is delivering packages in -20 weather, with feet of snow surrounding him. Our packaging ninja Mireille brings a notepad on her walks so she can take notes of all the coffee shops and stores that we can pitch our coffee to. Our staff care, because frankly they don’t always get a fair shot at employment. So when they find employment, they are truly thankful for it. The reality for me is I have a day job that pays me fairly well. The investments of my savings and sweat equity in this business are really to try and build something that can do some good, and can provide stable and meaningful employment to people who society sometimes overlook or don’t take seriously. I didn’t start this business so I could earn a second income and buy myself a cottage. And I think my staff see that, and see that I really want to try and help them.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the specialty coffee community like in Ottawa? What do you love?
In a way the scene in Ottawa is kind of in its infancy! Compared to Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and so on, we really don’t have that established of a specialty scene in terms of third wave coffee. Which is actually great as it will hopefully help create a positive space among roasters where we can all kind of carve out a niche for ourselves and work together to prop each other up!
But there are some great roasters doing awesome things and many of us meet regularly, share info and are finding ways to work together, not against each other! I’d like to shout-out LuLo Coffee, Animated Coffee, Brown Bag Roasters and Mighty Valley roasters! Each are doing great things for the community and really they’re all trying to work together to create positive relationships and help educate the community about Third-Wave Coffee.
That being said, our work is cut out for us! Ottawans still are all about that dark roast coffee, which is why I think some of the early Ottawa roasters didn’t keep pushing when it came to roasts levels, better sourcing practices, and more unique varieties. Because the dark roasts sold, and sold well, so why fix what ain’t broken was the thinking.
But Ottawa is a small and big city in one, and people want to support good businesses doing good things. So it’s just a matter of showing them the merits of true direct trade coffee (and lighter roasts!), it will take time, but we are getting there! I’d like to think Ottawa is the little sibling of the specialty coffee scene in Canada.
Q: So speaking of coffee, what are you drinking/enjoying right now?
I of course drink our coffees all day long, for quality control, for profiling new roasts, and because I really like our incredible coffees! As someone who has previously had to seek medical attention because of drinking too much, these are the sacrifices I have to make!
I’m currently profiling a single producer Pink Bourbon from Augusto Ortega that we are launching very soon and are thrilled about. Minty, herbaceous, peach, and ripe mango for days! I also can’t stop drinking our Yellow Cat, a Colombian Yellow Caturra from our friend Esnaider Ortega. It’s really such a lovely and bright coffee, and Esnaider and his family are truly remarkable people who care deeply about their coffee and their staff.
I also am slowly working my way through both a washed and natural Alasitas Geisha from Monogram. Sadly almost done. Really both great coffees, though the nod goes to the natural. Woe is me, I know! Getting to drink all these amazing coffees all day long.
Q: Looking forward beyond COVID-19 what do you see as some of the emerging trends or new initiatives that will shape the future of specialty coffee?
I really think, or hope, that we start seeing the world more globally and interconnected after being in lockdown for so long. And I hope that translates to an industry that is less concerned with cup scores and profit margins, and more with building strong relationships with producers and within our own communities.
Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t serving junk, and have several coffees that are high scoring. All our coffees are single origin, and most are single producers. But we have come into those coffees because of strong relationships. If a producer we have worked with has an off year, we will still support them. And find a way to take a lower scoring coffee and turn it into a delicious blend or darker roast. We can’t just abandon producers in pursuit of cup scores. I’m lucky in that a lot of our customers aren’t necessarily specialty die hards, so even a solid 84-85 will be the best coffee they’ve had! But I still believe that roasters and consumers alike need to come together to better support producers and stop this trivial pursuit of only drinking the perfect cup. What that cup represents is a lot more valuable than a bunch of tasting notes and score cards!
Tell the readers of Commonly Coffee about some of your recent accomplishments. Or any upcoming announcements?
Even though we’ve only been open about three months, we have lots of exciting things on the go!
I was awarded a CBC Trailblazer Award at the beginning of February, which was a very humbling experience to share a (virtual) stage with so many incredible people doing incredible things in the community. And it also meant a lot of new business that we were really overwhelmed by (in the best way possible of course!)
We also launched a line of coffee with Run Ottawa, the Tempo Blend, that we have a lot of big plans for! That was our first large B2B line of coffee, and it’s great to work with a Not for Profit that is more interested in doing good things in the community and producing quality products, than simply making money.
And we just started a very exciting initiative, as we have joined a Social Entrepreneurs Program in Ottawa schools, where we provide mentoring to various classes (kindergarten through grade 12) who have all started their own social enterprises in support of a specific charity or cause. And many of them have chosen The Artery Community Roasters as the product they want to sell (and we’ve also allowed the classes who want to, to create their own brand and packaging). It’s really a great way to teach the future entrepreneurs of the city that there is much more to margins when it comes to business. And that the community wants to support businesses that are giving back and not just taking! And the kids are really into our mission of hiring people with disabilities and supporting ethical sourcing. And we are planning some video chats with the kids and the producers that we are really excited about.
And this month Brendan from Semilla Coffee and me will be doing some guest lectures at George Brown College’s Culinary Arts program on the ethics and corporate social Responsibility of the coffee industry.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
On top of the efforts we have made to have extremely ethical sourcing, and ethical hiring practices, we also have put a lot of work and investments into trying to really limit our environmental impact. We use our bike courier Brandon for deliveries in the core (even in the dead of winter! his choice i swear!). We have vermi-composting, and the worms eat all our coffee chaff, and coffee grinds. Our bags are oxo-degradable and the rest of our packaging is compostable or recyclable. We still have areas where we need to do better in this regard, but I think that’s true for every business. We can always keep doing better and pushing the boundaries of what we consider acceptable.
Find their beans:
If you’re looking to get your hands on some beans then definitely check out their web-store for what they’re currently roasting!
I just want to say a huge thank you to Will and the entire team for sharing about The Artery Community Roasters and for being such a huge contributor to the coffee culture in Ottawa and across Canada. Keep up the great work!