Pulling coffee can be an entrepreneurial art
By Deb Cummings
Housed in a funky, former 1919 mattress factory, we find people oohing over their cups, swirling around phrases like “velvety,” “soft acidity” and “low notes of chocolate.” You’d be forgiven if you thought we had catapulted into a snooty wine tasting session — your clue, my friends, is that it’s only 10 a.m. Actually, the liquid we’re swooning over is a puddle of espresso at Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters in the Simmons Building in Calgary’s East Village. Geeking out over a new roasting machine and bearded baristas who know how to pull the perfect brew, we spot the shop’s namesakes — Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb, two UCalgary engineering grads-cum-coffee entrepreneurs.
After meeting each other in a second-year digital circuits lab, the two graduated from the UCalgary in 2000, going on to work in the high-tech sector for six years. Meanwhile, or so the story goes, the duo turned their home kitchens into mini-labs where they began pursuing a highly specific goal — how to create the perfect brew.
“It was weird,” confesses Sebastian. “We were both falling in love with the process of making really good coffee and, I guess, at some point we realized we wanted to do this for a long time. Then the question became, ‘How do you earn a decent living by making a career in coffee?"
Getting scholarships at university … told us that someone out there believed in us, appreciated us.
Sebastian Sztabzyb - Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters
Java was no joke
Leaving well-paying engineering jobs for a risky future left the boys’ parents shaking their heads, but the emerging coffee craze was taking off and Phil and Sebastian were bound to be part of it. From their first operation, a stand at the Calgary Farmers' Market, to today’s little empire of five boutique coffee shops, the two entrepreneurs stress that confidence has been key to their success.
“Getting scholarships at university gave us a huge boost of confidence,” says Sebastian. “A scholarship told us that someone out there believed in us, appreciated us. The more scholarships we won, the better students we became.”
The ability to focus exclusively on their studies and not on part-time jobs, “allowed us to be fully engaged at school,” Sebastian adds.
Sebastian admits, matter-of-factly, that he still misses UCalgary.
“Honestly, I actually miss tests,” says the dad of three, who spends a lot of time these days doing another form of exam; he has been known to test (read: sip) 30 to 100 cups of coffee in a day. “In working life, you don’t have such concrete, measurable tests. When you get an A on an exam, you can have a mental party in your head. The last thing I think about now is how to celebrate . . . you just think about what you have to do next.”
While Phil is busy writing code for their new high-tech roaster, Sebastian elaborates on the direct and indirect skills they got from engineering school: problem-solving (i.e. Phil's current coding issue), efficiencies and processes. “School, and our work in the field, taught us exactly those skills,” he says.
As for the mindset Sebastian has had to adopt in order to be entrepreneurial, he says, “I really think that, in order to be entrepreneur, you have to be a warrior. The battlefield isn’t with our competitors . . . but starting and running a business requires huge personal and family sacrifices. I have been challenged in so many ways that I didn’t think were possible. You have to relish that environment, an environment that shifts constantly, to be an entrepreneur.”
When it comes to philanthropic initiatives such as UCalgary’s first Giving Day, Sebastian says, “Philanthropy plays a huge role in our community, any community. At some point, people with great ideas or talent will probably need help or financial support. I really believe that, without philanthropy, we would work in a society that would be a lot less innovative.”
See other ways scholarships can shape your world
His science background and the scholarships he received helped Aviv Fried, BSc’04, MEng’08, on his journey towards opening one of Calgary's most successful bakeries.