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Lack of beans for espresso machine turns into opportunity

The espresso machine gift sat collecting dust until he left journalism and had time on his hands
Algonquin Coffee owner Rob Lean outside Corner Wines in South River which is one of several area businesses that carry his various blends of locally made coffee flavours.

Several years ago little did Rob Learn of Sundridge know that a friend giving him an espresso machine would eventually lead to him opening and owning his own coffee business in the Village.

But that's exactly what happened to the former journalist of North Bay Nipissing News and a former trustee with the Near North District School Board.

Learn says the espresso machine gift sat collecting dust until he left journalism and had time on his hands.

“I had a moment to enjoy it but found I couldn't find decent beans to turn into coffee,” Learn said. “There was nothing local to fill this niche.”

Rather than dwell on the negative, Learn turned circumstances into an opportunity to create something new for the area.

“With help from friends and a lot of engineering from my brother we built a coffee roaster,” Learn said.

With the roaster built, Learn next contacted a warehouse in Mississauga that roasts coffee beans for well-known businesses like Tim Hortons, McDonald's and Mother Parkers to supply him with beans.

The warehouse imports coffee beans from around the world which gave Learn a wide open field to choose from when deciding what type of coffee beans he wanted.

“We were very fortunate to get beans from Asia, Africa and South America which gave us a nice round profile for a little company like us,” he said.

It didn't take the coffee entrepreneur long to learn that the two most popular coffee beans in the world are Brazilian and Colombian.

However, he learned something else.

“A good coffee bean is a blend of flavours,” Learn said.

The blending of flavours is one Learn worked on for three years to create “flavours that come together and build a profile that people will sip every day”.

His work resulted in three general flavours he provides to area businesses that he also sells from his shop at 100 Main Street in Sundridge.

“Algonquin Dark is our best seller and it's featured in six area restaurants and businesses,” Learn said. “That includes our more recent addition The Block Public House in North Bay.  It was an honour for us to be chosen as their coffee.”

Learn says Algonquin Dark has a chocolate flavour and has no bitterness as long as it hasn't sat too long. Learn says another favourite coffee Algonquin Coffee provides is the Full Body Lager which is a blend of Columbian and African beans. Medium Roast is another of Learn's coffees and he may change the name to Algonquin Smooth to better reflect the geographic region.

“This is a very smooth coffee and if you add cream and sugar to it, it's almost like a candy treat,” he said.

Algonquin Coffee supplies the region with a fourth coffee that is decaffeinated and Learn adds his company is about to introduce an Espresso blend it now provides at The Block Public House.

Learn's home-engineered roaster is wood-fired which he says produces a gentler heat and adds a small element of smokiness to the coffee beans.

“Most coffee roasters run on natural gas but with ours being coal-based, we believe it creates a nicer flavour profile,” he said.

Geographically, Algonquin Coffee covers a large footprint from Callander to Magnetawan to Burk's Falls and now North Bay.

While the restaurants sell his blends of coffee as a beverage to their customers, the various varieties are also available for home consumption at Krause Farms Food and Feed in Powassan and Corner Wines in South River.

“We were able to find independent businesses and they have been champions of ours,” Learn said of the merchants who buy from him. “And we've been thrilled to be able to offer our flavours that are unique to the area and locally produced.  We also have a nice following in Sundridge at our store.”

Learn said like many businesses during COVID, Algonquin Coffee saw a slowdown in sales but the suffering wasn't too great because he had the home retail component in Sundridge to fall back on plus a handful of the other outlets he supplied were able to continue selling.

Although the business is still relatively new, Learn says public feedback “has been wonderful.”

He attributes his success to being different.

“We aren't doing what other coffee places do and don't follow trends,” he said.

“We're making coffee for our friends and neighbours.  We have taken feedback to heart and made sure we shaped the coffee to what they wanted and it's been very rewarding.”

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.