For this Paris specialty coffee feature, I sat down with Nico, the Founder of Holybelly, to discuss his intention to bring a little taste of Melbourne to Paris.
Imagine a place where high quality coffee flows like water, where green coffee beans paint the counters and natural roasts color the air, where micro-roasting is the average hobby of choice, where baristas can make a living wage, where intricate latte art is a standard minimum, where syrupy additives are practically forbidden by law, where a curious tongue can easily taste a different specialty coffee shop for 100 days straight within the borders of a single city. This heaven on earth is not merely a fantasy. It’s Melbourne, or so I’ve heard.
Nico, the Founder of Holybelly in Paris, is French by birth. However, by visiting his Melbourne-style specialty coffeeshop, you would never guess it. Nico was first exposed to specialty coffee in Vancouver, but he became immersed in it in Melbourne after moving to the city 6 years ago. Although France had for centuries nurtured its café culture and burnt-espresso-drinking habit, the act of “hanging out” over laptops and a high-quality coffee was entirely foreign to Nico before moving from his country of origin. Specialty coffee can by no means be entirely credited to Australia. The country’s coffee craze was transported to the land by British convicts who arrived during their colonization, and its taste for espresso was established by post-World War II European immigrants, who made a living by opening cafes. Yet these seeds took root and blossomed into a national obsession that characterizes the country’s cultural fabric.
In Melbourne, Nico struck it lucky by becoming a barista. While some baristas in the states may be clumsy high schoolers stumbling through their first summer job or uninspired college students clocking hours for tuition, being a barista in Melbourne is a thing. Nico states, “Those were the days in Melbourne when they did not have a shortage of baristas, and no one was really training. No one needed baristas so I really had to hustle my way through the community and find someone to teach me.”
Nico hustled his way to the top, learning the lingo by being surrounded by coffee nerds and gaining muscle memory by hands-on work. He recalls, “I got a first shift somewhere and a second one, and I was put on the machine. I think that’s the best way to learn because I think most people can do one good espresso shot, but then doing 300-400 a day is where it gets really challenging. It’s the volume, it’s the consistency… and that was really rewarding.”
Not only was it rewarding, but the barista lifestyle was also livable. Nico says, “I thought for being a Frenchman and being used to our wages, the pay in Australia was really good, I feel like I was living really comfortably, going out, drinking, and enjoying the great food scene that Australia had to offer.”
Investing his barista earnings into Melbourne’s fabulous food scene paid off for Nico when he realized the market for Australianization was wide open in Paris. He recalls, “When (my partner and I) came back in 2013, there were a few coffeeshops, but the food offering that was paired with it was kind of lacking. Whereas in the Melbourne café scene you would have a full breakfast, food cooked by chefs and paired with coffee.”
There were plenty of internationals in Paris with a palate for the same foods that brought Nico nostalgia from his time abroad. He capitalized on these cravings, carving out a space for tourists, ex-pats, and curious locals alike by establishing Holybelly. He says, “There are a lot of tourists (at Holybelly) because they actually get good coffee, and that’s something that they crave. If they’re in Paris for a few weeks, they enjoy the French food, but after a while, they crave something that’s a bit more like home for breakfast.”
Nico and his business partner (the chef of the equation) serve a true soft spot for their clientele by providing breakfast and brunch comfort foods that pair with coffee. House special pancakes with filter coffee are the most popular menu item, which came as a surprise to Nico (but as an obvious first choice to me, given my weekend pancake obsession). He explains, “It’s kind of strange because Paris being Paris and all, but one of the most popular food items is the savory pancakes, something on the menu from the very early days. It was supposed to stay for a month or two, and we were going to have something else, but we couldn’t quite take it off. And now it’s been 5 years. It’s 2 pancakes, 2 fried eggs, some crispy bacon, bourbon butter, bacon salt, maple syrup, all on one plate. The flavors really work really well together and the coffee is so delicious.”
Holybelly’s breakfast offerings plays a large role in determining their coffee menu. Nico explains, “There are some natural coffees that we’d love to have on the menu, but we know they’re gonna clash with eggs, sides, and our foods. They’re too strong, too powerful, they might taste great if you have them on their own, but if you have a drip while you’re eating, they might be overpowering.”
So what is featured on their coffee menu? All sorts of specialty coffee, roasted by Café Belleville. Nico says, drooling, “Right now, we do this really good cold brew, and I’m really into that. We actually have a nice Ethiopian now that’s filter, and it’s so delicious. Lots of black currants, very fruity. I’m drinking a lot of that.”
Although the restaurant doesn’t offer a tailored food and coffee pairing menu (yet!), Nico and his baristas would all be happy to entertain curious customers’ questions on which coffee to select. This spirit of open education characterizes the specialty coffee niche of Paris. Nico states, “What I enjoy about our scene is that it’s very laid back in the sense that we offer very good produce, but it doesn’t come with all the attitude that specialty coffee can bring in places like New York. I feel really approachable in our engagement for good coffee, and I feel like baristas are happy to help. I’m really hoping that we’ll keep that good attitude of educating without making people feel like they don’t know enough.”
Paris is making leaps in mastering the art of coffee without snobbery, but what more can be done to morph into the next Melbourne? For Nico, innovation is the golden ticket. He says, “Melbourne is doing so well because they have some big names there that are doing big things. (Melbourne is) always looking forward, saying what we could do better, changing machines, changing workflows, always changing the way they’re doing things… they’re never quite satisfied with what they’re doing, and they’re always rethinking. Whereas we (in Paris) just follow what they’re doing. I’m hoping that (in Paris) we’ll see emerging some really smart, really adventurous people in coffee that can really push the boundaries of what can be done.”
Nico predicts, “There is really a lot of love for (the specialty coffee) type of space, that type of food, that ambiance, that coffee. I don’t see any reason why Paris shouldn’t be like Melbourne in the next 5 years. That wouldn’t surprise me.” The trick, it seems, is not to emulate, but to lead, not to be the next Melbourne, but to put Paris on the map by setting the coffee scene aflame with distinctive quality.