Keep on Grindin': The Deluxe Coffeeworks Story

Tuesday, 7 February, 2017
Originally published in Issue 12 of The Coffee Magazine
Words by Melanie Winter
Photographs by Craig Kolesky

“You’ve got to be kidding me?!”

The US of A has fairly strict rules on letting people into nightclubs. But who carries their passport with them on a night when there are sure to be a few alcoholic beverages consumed? I have a less than stellar record with important documents (at my most sober) and from this experience I guard them closely. So it came to be that I had no form of identification at the party of the year in the coffee world and was on the verge of a bust up with a bouncer twice my size.

Enter Judd and Carl. My heroes.

I knew them by reputation and recognized them, but had never met them properly before that dodgy Seattle sidewalk. In no time they organized me an Uber and I was back at the party in less than 20 minutes. Whisky’s and stories were shared and halfway across the world I discovered a lot more about a local coffee company right on my doorstep.

The boys, Judd Francis and Carl Wessel, who started Deluxe Coffeeworks were in Seattle to see what’s going in the wider world and keep up to date, which is a little ironic because they’ve made a name for themselves by playing by their own rules. Their experience of Seattle and New York was true to how they do life in general; with a large pinch of salt and an amazing amount of fun! As Judd says, “We take our coffee pretty seriously, but don’t take ourselves seriously at all!” Only these two dudes could have found the oldest Dive Bar in Seattle with the tagline, “Alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1926.” Only these guys after a day spent exploring Seattle, could end up in the dodgy end of town with no hope of a bus or a taxi. Well, not a conventional taxi anyway. They had just bought a six-pack of beers while they had been aimlessly wandering when they caught sight of a bicycle taxi, they asked the driver, “Can we drink in the back?” To which the highly professional driver responded: “If you can drink in a limo, you can drink in here.” Classic. Only these rock and rollers could get tossed out the same party they got me into. Back in Cape Town a couple of weeks later, I asked their team if they had brought any wisdom back with them, “They brought back t-shirts for us and sheriff badges.” Worn proudly by all, I might add.

Don’t let their antics mislead you though, they may not take themselves very seriously, but they know how to get things done. In the years since they opened their doors in a tiny spot on Church Street, they’ve built their business up to a healthy amount of tonnage per month, with no signs of slowing down.

They met at the Cape Town institution that is Rafiki’s. Carl was feeling the malaise of the film industry and the Kiwi, Judd was trying to get his dream of a good coffee in his adoptive city off the ground. There was a connection between this unlikely duo. All it took was a few beer-fuelled nights waxing lyrical about a coffee company and their shared love of two-wheeled vehicles, a stapled-together business plan, a handshake, a gargantuan effort to raise the 30K for the roaster they needed to start and away they went. Deluxe Coffeeworks is now a Cape Town institution of its own.

“So did you ever think it would get to this point?”
“Oh ja, this was all part of the plan, we’ve still got a way to go.”

Judd had always been in hospitality and coffee in his homeland of New Zealand and had already made inroads into the burgeoning coffee scene in Cape Town, where he had joined and subsequently left the original crew of Origin Coffee Roasting. Those walls were perhaps never intended to hold so many coffee visionaries in one space. Carl knew precious little about coffee, but was eager to learn and he quickly mastered the roasting ropes in his backyard. Through personal connections their beans began to spread. The original Superette in Woodstock was one of the first cafes to take their beans way back when they were still backyard roasters.

They had their eye on the Church Street premises for a while before it became a reality. It had long been Judd’s favourite space in Cape Town. If you have never visited, it is about 60m squared (basically a large single garage) and originally it housed not only the espresso bar, but the roaster as well. This little space pumps!

“When we first opened – those were crazy days! We were serving around 400 cups of coffee a day and going through 2 tons of beans a month. We did shift roasting until like 1am in the morning. I used to bribe Grant and Wentzel with sushi from across the road for company” reminisces Carl.

It was standing room only. People would walk in, lay their money on the counter, not even a word would pass between customer and the baristas manning that machine, but they churned out coffees non-stop and the customer left not only with a delicious caffeine hit but with a heart pumping enthusiasm for the day after being in that heaving machine. It was a sight to behold and a memorable experience. As we’re sitting there talking, Costa walks in. Who is Costa? Oh he’s just one of the hundreds of regulars that call one or another of the Deluxe branches home. “I don’t know what we did before this place? It’s like our own version of Cheers, everybody here knows your name.”

In fact rolling with Judd on his daily round of deliveries makes Cape Town seem like a tiny village. The Deluxe delivery van is hailed around town with whistles from dashing gentlemen on bicycles and bearded grizzly types in 4x4’s. These guys are local celebrities, in the least pretentious sense of the word. Deluxe now supplies some of the who’s who of cafes and eateries in the CBD. They recently went into a joint venture with Liam Tomlin next door to Chef’s Warehouse called Street Food. They built this family mostly on word of mouth, having never employed a sales person and family was Judd’s word, not mine.

That consulting side of the business has taken them to Switzerland, Turkey and now into the Tropics. Carl, who can most days be found helming the Stellenbosch branch (I’m certain The Black Ram misses his presence!), had just returned from Mauritius training up baristas at the newly launched Café Lux, a business offshoot of the Lux* Hotel Group.

The business came their way through a regular customer with friends in the right places. At their first major meeting, they had prepared a whole Powerpoint presentation for these businessmen.
“About 5 slides in, we just stopped, it was not fun! So we cut the slide show short and just started making coffees on the La Marzocco GS3 we had brought with for all these guys in suits.”
“I did espresso shots and Judd did milk. My milk sucks.”
“We basically said this is what we do and this is what we can do for you. We thought it went well, but we didn’t hear from them for a couple months, then suddenly one day we got a call and it was on!”

Since then they have set up roasteries and café at the various Lux* Hotels around the world. Dubai is the next destination in the group’s sights, which Judd and Carl are very excited about. They also have big plans of their own.

“As our quantities pick up, the obvious goal is to get more into the green bean buying side, so we can responsibly source and have relationships with the farmers” Judd tells me. “And also because we get to travel to origin!” They have already begun this process and brought in their first container from Guatemala. “It was wild! I can’t wait to do more travelling. These guys are in a whole different world, the farmers and the systems are hardcore.”

Through all the expansion and new business, the attitude is to maintain a hands-on approach. At every stop on his daily round of deliveries he has a story of the wonderful people who run the stores and a personal anecdote to share. It’s messy; there are constantly people who forgot to order or staff who didn’t show up for work. Training and re-training baristas is constant. One thing is certain this team does their level best to handle it, in their typical laid-back, yet effective way and they always have time to talk to you. During the time I spent with them they were approached often and always patiently and enthusiastically dealt with the situation.

“We said we won’t open anymore Deluxe cafes, we’ll work on increasing supplying and consulting, but you know opportunities for new stores keep popping up!” They now have five Deluxe cafes, we’ll see if they can hold out on opening more. I have a sneaking suspicion that that will be very difficult.

There’s one other thing that sets them apart from many other roasteries; from the beginning and to this day, the Deluxe Blend has remained the same, a satisfying mix of Brazil, Guatemala and Ethiopia and it is still one of the most affordable coffees in town.

“We don’t call our coffee speciality, we never have, we aim to provide good, delicious and affordable coffee consistently.”

They have certainly achieved their mandate. In a time where the landscape of coffee is evolving and prices are increasing substantially they are servicing the consumer that appreciates freshly roasted beans and very realistically has a budget.

Perhaps counter to first impressions, they pay a surprising amount of attention to detail. Their aesthetic is distinct and distinctly cool. In each of their stores, they have the wall-mounted life size model kits of real vehicles. They work on them with a welder friend of theirs. The one on the cover from Church Street is a Vespa scooter; they’re working on a tractor next. It seems that a lot in the Deluxe world is getting bigger.

They’re not trying to please everyone. Judd and Carl have stuck to their guns and maybe that has rubbed some people up the wrong way now and again. Maybe their baristas can come across as being part of an exclusive bike riding, tattooed gang. Maybe their particular brand of coffee and culture is not for everyone, but they certainly have a loyal following and they are having an amazing amount of fun building that community on their own terms

“So how did you come up with the name?” Craig Kolesky, our photographer asks while he tries to get Carl to relax in front of the camera.

“One of the craziest guys I have ever met owns Havana Coffeeworks in Wellington, New Zealand my hometown” Judd tells us, “He was in Cape Town hanging out after buying a roaster here and we were just getting started. Rocket City Roasters was my original coffee company, but it never quite stuck. He suggested that we name it Deluxe after one of the oldest and most famous cafes in Wellington, that was the beginning of him starting to build the Havana empire. So the name has a lot of heritage.”

And the Deluxe empire is growing everyday.

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