For this Paris specialty coffee feature, I sat down with Thomas, the co-founder of La Fontaine de Belleville to discuss his mission to bridge the gap between “café” and specialty coffee.
In Paris, picturesque neighborhood cafés can be found around every corner. Locals crowd the stand-up bar, socializing as they knock-back their morning espresso, and they adorn the terrace, people-watching with their post-lunch coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. As the hours shift, so too do the beverages, and as early evening hits, coffee is replaced with wine. There is never any sign to indicate what is consumed and when. You either know, or you’re labeled as a hopeless outsider. Trust me, I know from having experienced French friends laugh in my face at my scandal of ordering wine when it was clearly still coffee time. Évidemment.
As a French native, Thomas, the co-founder of La Fontaine de Belleville, seems to know by heart the unspoken laws of coffee culture in France. Thus, when he saw so many specialty coffee shop owners committing countless faux-pas, he had to intervene with his own entry into the coffee business. Thomas may have been one of the first to act on the epiphany that to do business in France, it’s far more sustainable to cater to the French than Australian and English coffee nerds.
Yet this epiphany wasn’t born until after put in his time learning about specialty coffee from its origin. Coffee fell under his radar while working in cocktails, first as a bartender in England and next in Melbourne. After returning to France, he was inspired to open his own coffee shop, but cost and lack of experience prohibited his dream from becoming a reality. So he did the next best thing, and became a barista at La Caféothèque, which was the original café to journey into specialty coffee in Paris. At La Caféothèque, Thomas met his current business partner in coffee. He recalls, “We were frustrated by the idea of seeing the whole world getting better at coffee and France being a few steps back. We wanted places to go to drink good coffee, but we couldn’t find any. So we started an association whose purpose was to do events about coffee and to bring people from all over Europe to do master’s classes.”
This original association was so successful, that it led to the birth of Thomas’s first specialty coffee shop, Ten Belles. After Ten Belles came the roastery, Belleville Brûlerie, which quickly evolved into one of the forefront coffee roasters in Paris. Today, Thomas’s roastery supplies nearly 130 clients, including specialty coffeeshops like Ten Belles and Holybelly. Yet Thomas does not restrict his business to only those who have reached “specialty” status. He explains, “We have some clients that want to get into coffee, and they’re not as good as coffeeshops yet, but in 5 years, maybe they will be. We (also) work with places like Wild and the Moon, which is more of a vegan place. They do juices and vegan food and so their main focus is not coffee, but they can have good coffee on the side that they can be proud of…”
Even after making it as one of the best-known roasters in Paris, something still felt missing from Thomas’s business achievements. Eventually, he realized that that gap was France. Serving a nearly 80% foreign clientele at Ten Belles made him nostalgic for his own cultural traditions. Gradually, Thomas began to realize that he could fuse niche specialty culture with traditional French café culture to create a coffee movement that is more inclusive to French tastes. He explains, “English coffeeshops are not the ultimate way of selling coffee in France. (Coffee lovers) need to change their way of thinking only, ‘Oh, it’s cool in Copenhagen, let’s do the same here!’ Yeah, but no. (The French) don’t drink the same way. Yes, we have tourists, but tourists don’t make what is true to coffee here.” Thus, Thomas sold Ten Belles to start again from scratch and began searching for a new spot to set up shop.
As soon as he saw the layout of La Fontaine, it was love at first sight. He recounts, “Many coffeeshops in the US or elsewhere in the world don’t really have a counter… There’s no stand-up coffee like you have in France or Italy. When we visited this place, we were like, ‘This is exactly what we want!’ We wanted to create a place where you can have good coffee products that are not only for nerds of coffee but for everyone.”
In La Fontaine de Belleville, the counter forms the centerpiece of social interaction, creating a space that facilitates conversation among its regulars. Thomas expounds, “Early in the morning if you come in here at 9, you can see workers, business people, people who are gonna drop their kids at school, and everybody just talks to everybody. It doesn’t really matter where you came from, who you are, what color you are. It’s a mix of everything at the counter.”
The social element of La Fontaine de Belleville’s setup is the key element in welcoming locals to try specialty coffee. Thomas explains, “France has a very strong culture of coffee, but more than the product itself, it’s about a social moment.” For this reason, Thomas says that the greatest challenge in bringing specialty coffee to a neighborhood-style café can be the price. He continues, “When you say a cup of coffee is 2.50, they don’t understand because they used to have it at 1.50. So you have to explain, and some of the clients don’t get it, but in general, we’ve been growing very well.”
For some locals, exposure to specialty coffee at the café may be enough for them to gradually warm up to prefer it over their traditionally burnt espresso. For others who truly “don’t get it”, La Fontaine de Belleville can cater to their taste in traditional French cuisine, offering croque monsieur, ham-and-cheese baguette sandwiches, and fromage plates, among other food choices. And like any true French café, there is plenty of wine that can be consumed as a post-work treat with friends or with live jazz on weekend afternoons.
La Fontaine de Belleville’s magnificent fusion of French culture with specialty coffee makes specialty coffee more accessible to locals, and it makes the movement toward high-quality coffee much more powerful in France. According to Thomas, the future is bright for France as a country and as a leader in specialty coffee. He predicts, “I’m very optimistic, we are always optimistic, even at the beginning when people were like ‘Oh, it’s a niche, it’s a bubble. It’s going to blow at some point. People are gonna get tired of it.’ But we’re still going… And we’re gonna win the World Cup so it’s gonna bring more luck!”
Thomas’s vision has of creating a space reminiscent of traditional French neighborhood cafés – with noticeably better coffee, of course – has come to life just as vividly as his dream of France as champions of the World Cup. Voilà, as luck would have it, specialty coffee is here to stay.