Life on the 49th Parallel

49th Parallel Cafe on West 4thLife for Mike Piccolo, of 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters in Vancouver must seem idyllic. Having been a chef for over 20 years in the Vancouver food community, his departure from that World into the World of specialty coffee must have come with some surprises.

Food World, it would appear, is all about the hours. A short day in Chef-land is about 10 to 14 hours… a day… sometimes everyday… for weeks. Heck, I have a hard enough time focusing for 7 hours on anything. I did write for 7 hours once… but not in a row.

Mike Piccolo, on the other hand, is a study of youth and patience. In a business that seems to gain more energy everyday – it’s a wonder that he can find solace in this choice of career. But he does.

Specialty coffee is the rising star in North America right now – as it has been for the last 10 years or more. The kind of energy that fuels the likes of 49th Parallel Coffee roasters, Ethical Bean in Vancouver, Hines Coffee (and others) knows no bounds. And yet family run companies like Murchie’s fail to harness this phenomenon – and ultimately fail.

So what does Mike Piccolo and his family have that the others do not? Simple; Generosity, family values and a scalpel sharp business acumen to boot.

Mike is part of a family circle that includes Vincent Piccolo, the elder brother and Sammy Piccolo, the younger. They are the creators of Cafe Artigiano – a family success story. And although these Boys are all different and talented in their own special way, their assorted gifts compliment each other in such a way as to give them the Midas touch.

Mike Piccolo’s day job is attending to the coffee roasting facility. At the heart of this operation is a coffee roaster that can roast about 160 pounds of coffee at a time – in a rough measure, that is a burlap bag of green coffee every 25 minutes or so. The facility is a blend of the old and the new. A conveyor system loads the roasters hopper in about 6 minutes or so. The load of coffee can be manually or automatically dropped into the roaster by a proprietary computer system. The roasted coffee is quickly cooled and collected through a column of air through a device called a de-stoner. Believe it or not, despite the rigorous inspections that green coffee goes through, there still is the odd rock, twig or bottle cap that gets in the mix – and you do not want to run a bottle cap through your burr grinder, trust me!

The roaster is gas fired – which in itself is a fairly clean process. But roast coffee is a very aromatic thing and even small amounts of the smoke can carry in the wind a long way. As a result, 49th Parallel run an afterburner that incinerates a lot of the particulates in the exhaust gas that would, well, make the neighborhood smell like coffee – all of the time. It is also more eco-friendly to do this – and it contributes greatly to the overall cost of the product.

But that is what you do when you want to be the best.

So, Mike Piccolo takes all this in his stride. One gets the impression walking around the facility that this is a totally family oriented operation. Everyone seems happy and busy.

For Mike Piccolo, his World begins after 7 in the morning and he may start to wind down later in the afternoon. A far cry from the World of Chef-land by a long shot. He has a young family to think about and life is more about Dolce Vita that making a killing overnight.

I think his brothers might agree. I sampled several coffee at the 49th Parallel Cafe on West 4th in Vancouver while Vince Piccolo looked on. If it is possible for Vince to be interested in something other than his satisfied customers, it could well be his staff and the environment in which he works.

The staff at 49th Parallel represent the ideal in coffee World. Beyond the basics of good pay and some benefits (oh yeah, and a great work environment) they are the messengers of the specialty coffee medium. They are fully engaged, informed and 100% dedicated to customer satisfaction and customer education.

As I sipped their single origin espresso, an Australian called Mountain-Top, I could not help but be somewhat skeptical and sardonic. I reminded Vince Piccolo that Australia is not the ideal growing environment for coffee. Needless to say he was quick to shut me down – and rightfully so. Open up your mind Colin, he was saying symbolically… Open up your mind.

In over 30 years of playing with and writing about specialty coffee, I think what I do know could fill an 8 ounce Euro Cappuccino cup at the 49th Parallel Cafe… and what I do not know could fill a 70kg Bag roaster.

But this is what the Piccolo family are all about – Customer Satisfaction and Education.