Building an icon – An interview with Tim Wendelboe

Norwegian coffee legend Tim Wendelboe speaks to 5THWAVE about forging a global business icon in the pursuit of a better cup of coffee

Tim_Wendleboe_2017_155_RGB-(1).jpgTim Wendelboe | Photo credit: Jake Green



Scandinavia has long been a melting pot of coffee innovation and culture. Celebrated for its precision and delicate touch, and notable creations such as coffee and tonic, the region’s coffee culture has become a deep vein of inspiration for the global café community.
 
Among Scandinavia’s many distinguished coffee professionals, one man stands out for his contribution to the region’s ascendance on the world stage. Rising the ranks from humble barista, to barista champion, roaster, café entrepreneur, green coffee trader, and even coffee farmer, Tim Wendelboe has worn more hats that most in the business of coffee.
 
A central tenet of the Norwegian’s philosophy is that quality is seldom coincidence, and that a continual process of research, training and practiced application is required to achieve excellence.
 

A coffee calling

Oslo, 1998, and a 19-year-old Tim Wendelboe contemplated his place in the world. “I didn’t want to go into the military, and I didn’t want to study at university because I was tired of school,” he says.

With his supermarket job also providing insufficient inspiration, Wendelboe combed the streets of Oslo in search of a calling. There he found work at a fledgling café chain called Stockfleths, and after a three-hour training course took his first steps into a lifelong voyage of coffee discovery.
 

"If team members stagnate, they quickly get tired and leave the company"


After learning the basics of pulling espresso shots, Wendelboe recalls his curiosity piqued when a customer ordered an exotic beverage called a mochaccino not covered in his training. “It’s part of my personality that I really dislike not being able to do things,” he says.
 
“That’s what started my journey; I began asking questions to anyone who knew anything about coffee.”
 
After being encouraged by his manager to enter the World Barista Championship, Wendelboe was present when Robert Thoresen took the title in 2000 – an experience he describes as a “huge inspiration.”
 
With encouragement from the local coffee community, Wendelboe eventually took the World Barista Champion title himself in 2004.
 
“The motivation from the judges in that first competition was a seminal moment where I knew coffee was my career,” he says.

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The Tim Wendelboe roastery | Photo credit: Anders Valde



Fast-forward 23 years and Wendelboe’s unquenchable thirst for a better cup of coffee has blossomed into one of the world’s most influential coffee businesses. Opening its doors in 2007, the Tim Wendleboe roastery and espresso bar is a beacon of coffee expertise and emblematic of the profound influence Nordic coffee culture has garnered around the world.
 
“I spent a year developing a business plan, and even to this day it remains the core of what we do,” he says.

“We want to be a place where people come to learn about coffee, that’s our core purpose. Of course, the business has developed over the years – we’ve moved our roaster from the store and to a larger space where we can focus on production – but in many ways doing exactly what we have been doing since 2007.
 
That central mission statement, a passion for continual improvement, operational discipline and a rigorous approach to quality, means Tim Wendelboe continues to be a byword for quality among the global coffee community.
 
Wendelboe’s own ascent through the coffee ranks has profoundly influenced his approach to training and skills across his business, making him a strong advocate of coffee as a viable and attractive profession.
 
“I went from being a barista to a barista trainer and roaster, and from there to a business owner and green coffee buyer,” he says.
 

"People who are eager to learn and want to share knowledge have been the real game changers"

 
“It’s important to pay people well and treat them with respect. I’ve been an employee and I know how demotivating it can be if your salary is too low or the working environment is not great. We are trying to nourish that spirit, stimulate our people and help them to learn and progress. If team members stagnate, they quickly get tired and leave the company.”

Wendelboe explains that simple steps, such as having a coherent list of tasks to accomplish each day, are vital in enabling teams to achieve the very best collective outcomes from their roles – and leaving nothing to chance when it comes to serving the best coffee in town.
“It’s not very complicated, there just needs to be a system. It is easy for our staff to show up for work because they simply open a folder and know exactly what to do that day,” he explains.
 
“We provide a full day workshop on how we buy coffee, work with farmers and how we roast. Once team members have that knowledge, they can start making espresso supervised by senior staff until they feel comfortable being in the bar alone.”
 

Trade secrets

A quality cup of coffee is reliant on the skill of staff in-store, but it is also determined by the care and precision of those producing the product. That dynamic has made Wendelboe a staunch advocate of ethical and accountable trade with coffee farmers. Like many in the specialty world, he sees deep structural problems in the way coffee is traded that undermine the future viability of specialty coffee.

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Tim Wendelboe planting coffee at his Finca El Suelo coffee farm in Colombia | Photo credit: Tim Wendelboe



“Most farmers sell cheap coffee to commodity markets for less than the cost of production. Coffee just isn’t a viable career and many farmers would rather send their children to get educated and work elsewhere,” he says.

“It is absolutely crucial to visit the farm, meet the owner, and take time to think about how can we make the coffee even better. A small coffee sample doesn’t tell me enough. I can roast it and taste it in the cup, but that won’t tell the story of how the coffee was grown, the variety, how it was dried, processed and stored. I can’t trust that product to be high quality when it arrives in Norway three months after I purchased it. That’s what triggered my interest in working more closely with farmers,” he says.
 
Not satisfied with being a highly involved green coffee buyer, in 2015 Wendelboe completed the purchase of his own coffee farm in Colombia. Finca El Suelo, meaning ‘the soil’ in Spanish, takes an ardently organic approach to growing coffee. Inspired by the biodynamic movement in the wine industry, the long-term project is a further expression of Wendelboe’s
 


This article was first published in Issue 6 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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