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Vince Piccolo: Quality control

Coffee guru Vince Piccolo just wanted a day job; what he started was a coffee revolution
49th Parallel founder Vince Piccolo: “coffee really was in its infancy stage here; people were just pre-grinding coffee and pressing a button and letting the machine do everything”

It's a grey, damp Thursday morning, just minutes after 11 a.m. Vancouver's usually busy south Main area is near empty, the light rain keeping shoppers indoors.  

Despite the lack of foot traffic, the 49th Parallel café at Main Street and 13th Avenue is packed. And more than a dozen patrons wait to order, the line snaking its way around a black metal handrail, ending near the front door.

In the seating areas, cuff-linked, suit-and-tie businessmen talk shop and skinny hipsters stare into MacBooks. A group of ambulance drivers gathers at a long wooden table, flanked by hanging industrial lights and an exposed brick wall.

Business is good, but owner Vince Piccolo, stationed behind the espresso machine, doesn't seem to notice. Hunched over a series of small, turquoise-coloured cups, Piccolo is busy testing espresso.

Quality is what keeps customers coming back, he says.

Quality must be the focus.

"I'm only interested in what I'm doing and how to improve it," he said.

"For me, it's all about how to improve my product, how to make my espresso roast better."

Piccolo never intended to have a career in the coffee industry. All he wanted was a day job. After years of slogging seven-day workweeks on the city's fine dining circuit, Piccolo wanted a gig that would give him time to spend with family.

A coffee shop made sense. No dinner service, no late nights. And he saw a market for a new kind of coffee shop in the city – one that stressed quality above speed and taste above convenience.

"I had been in Rome, Naples, Florence. I was on vacation and couldn't understand why the coffee always tasted so much nicer than it did in Vancouver," he said.

"Coffee really was in its infancy stage here; people were just pre-grinding coffee and pressing a button and letting the machine do everything. So it was just something that I set forth to try and figure out on my own. And that process is a long-term process. It's a lot of give-and-take and you make mistakes. But you learn from it, that focus was the beginning of my businesses."

Piccolo launched Caffè Artigiano on West Pender Street downtown in the late 1990s, across the street from a busy Starbucks. But even with the coffee giant just paces away, Piccolo's shop proved a success. Lineups were soon spilling on to the sidewalk each morning. Waits of 20 to 30 minutes were the norm.

Piccolo had to expand.

Shops soon opened on Hornby and Hastings streets – and the lineups kept coming. By 2006, just seven years after he started, Piccolo had launched five stores, managed a staff of 140 people and had opened a roastery in Burnaby so he could roast his own beans.

And then he sold.

"People saw our success and people would ask weekly if I wanted to sell because they saw how successful the concept that I created was," he said.

"But it was bigger than I ever wanted."

Piccolo sold Artigiano to Willie Mounzer, the former vice-president of operations of Earls restaurants. Since taking the reins, Mounzer has rapidly expanded Caffè Artigiano, tripling its number of locations to 15 and moving into Alberta. Annual sales at Artigiano now top $10 million.

Piccolo, on the other hand, has taken a more low-key path. His roasting business has moved to the fore; Piccolo's 49th Parallel coffee beans are now available throughout North America and as far away as Japan.

He's even hired a full-time, two-person team that travels throughout the year to Central America and Africa to ensure his company secures the highest quality beans.

He opened one small shop, the first 49th Parallel café, on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano six years ago and didn't expand until last year when he opened the Main Street store.

He recently moved the Kits café to a new, larger location on Fourth Avenue.

Piccolo has added upscale doughnuts to his repertoire, launching Lucky's Doughnuts when he opened on Main. As he did with coffee more than a decade ago, Piccolo figured he could make better doughnuts than what was available in the marketplace.

But that's it, he said.

Piccolo isn't planning to open any more stores. Nor does he want to stroll down memory lane. He did what he did. Improving 49th Parallel is the only thing on his mind today.

"No. No plans to expand. You know, I've never had a next in my mind. Things progress when you get better at everything you do.

"If I keep talking about what I used to do, and people go into those cafés – it's not the same as it used to be. They don't roast the same way, they don't staff the same way, they don't train the same way. It's a different place."

If Piccolo isn't interested in celebrating the past, some in the Vancouver coffee scene are happy to do it for him.

Dejan Bozic, a former Piccolo's employee and now owner of Caffè Cittadella in Vancouver's Fairview Heights, told Business in Vancouver that Piccolo not only taught him about how to run a café, but also established Vancouver as a renowned coffee city.

"He is the guru for coffee," said Bozic.

"He is an inventor. He is responsible for the quality and coffee knowledge in Vancouver. Before him, you would order a double-double and go. Now, you see lattes and cappuccinos – but that wasn't really known here before him. Vancouver is now a leader in coffee."

Bozic added that dedication to quality is what sets Piccolo apart. When he first started working for Piccolo, Bozic knew nothing about coffee. His background was in interior design. So when Bozic began learning to make espresso, Piccolo would throw out every shot that wasn't perfect.

It was tough, admitted Bozic, but he learned.

Eventually, Bozic became general manager and started training other baristas. And now that he's a café owner, he said he's as tough on his new employees as Piccolo was on him.

Quality, after all, must be the focus.

"I learned everything from Vince," he said, smiling.

"Thanks to him, I'm like that as well. If you want success, you have to follow the rules."