21 January 2015

A Discussion With. Andre Chanco of Yardstick

Through social media mostly, specifically Instagram, we have seen the rise of the (Specialty) Coffee Culture take shape. It was already at a high in other countries even before 2014, but here in our country it just made its entrance by then. Synonymous with the "Third Wave" movement or the "Specialty Coffee" culture in the Philippines, Yardstick is known to be one of its pioneers beside a few other coffee groups. We're sure a lot of you have read a few articles about them already, how they are pursuing to bring higher quality coffees, not only through their shop but also directly in homes and offices around the Philippines. We are as curious as everyone of you, so we met up with one of the owners and Yardstick's Coffee director, Andre Chanco to talk about their brand, his personal engagement with coffee and a few more about him. Get to know how Andre got to build his life around coffee through this "A Discussion With." feature. It's enlightening and inspiring how a sudden spark in curiosity can lead to a more fulfilling life. 

Hi Andre, can you give us a brief background about yourself?

I currently run a coffee company called Yardstick with two other friends. I was born in the Philippines but spent the past 14 years of my life in Singapore. Coffee was not my first job but now it’s my lifelong vocation.

Before your journey to coffee, what were you doing?

I was an IT consultant for an international firm working on system integration. I was working with clients from the telecommunications and the high technology industries. Most days were spent dealing with clients, troubleshooting business and technology issues, creating presentations and drawing up proposals.

IT is great and I still love it. I just had to get out of that cubicle to do something that allows for more learning and creativity.

Can you walk us through your journey to your coffee career, working for a cafe and running your own cafe?

During that later part of my IT career, I was part timing as a barista on weekends for Singapore’s pioneering specialty coffee roaster, Papa Palheta. I then decided to take a leave of absence to travel and see what the specialty coffee market is like in the US and in Europe.

When I got back to Singapore, I asked Papa Palheta for a job to learn how to roast coffee. It was only supposed to be a 3 month stint but it became close to 3 years. During my stay there, my main responsibility was to roast coffee for Papa Palheta’s own cafes and wholesale clients. This involved many hours in the roasting facility and visiting clients. Later on, my work started to involve buying green coffee. This was a new role dealing with green importers and visiting origin when the opportunity arises.

My secondary role was marketing. That was fun as I’ve always enjoyed design and communications. This allowed me to understand the product and the customer better over the years.

Sometime in 2013, my eventual partners who already came back to Manila found the space in Legaspi Village and then a few months later, Yardstick was born.

How did Yardstick come about?

Yardstick came about out of the desire to run a cafe with my partners. This was way back during our university days and early corporate stints.

As we continued to learn coffee and observe what was going on in Singapore, we saw that it was bound to hit Manila in a few years. We saw many friends and some of the current specialty coffee shops and roasters visit the cafes in Singapore before opening here. Therefore, instead of running a full blown retail cafe as what we initially planned, we structured Yardstick to be more of a B2B company. We wanted to support the new and upcoming cafes and restaurants with specialty coffee supply, the best machines in the industry and relevant education.

What was your initial purpose for putting up Yardstick? Has the purpose changed over time?

Yardstick’s main purpose is to bring better coffee here in the Philippines. We structured that through several businesses - coffee wholesale, machine distribution and education. It hasn’t changed since day one. There were distractions of opening up new retail concepts or expanding our retail offerings. But we had to stay on course.

Specialty coffee will always remain a niche but it’s our responsibility to keep on sharing, innovating and educating.

How much of your day goes to working on Yardstick?

A lot. Most people just see and know the facade of Yardstick which is our retail space. But there’s so much hands on time that roasting, teaching and client servicing demands. I’m not complaining by the way. I expected it to be like this given that I am operating in a new market, and given that I’ve been away from Manila for so long. Add in the fact that my partners and I are learning the ropes of running a company and building a brand.

Having said that, this year I plan to have a more balanced lifestyle by making time for people that matter.

What part of the things you are doing for Yardstick, do you like the most?

This is a tough one. It’s between roasting coffee and teaching coffee.

If I had to choose, I really enjoy teaching a lot. I say that because I lose track of time when I teach. I find it difficult not to share. Teaching is fulfilling because I know Yardstick is making an impact, one student at a time. It’s a slow process but seeing how people perceive coffee differently after a workshop or a certification course makes it worthwhile.

What's the most memorable moment in your coffee career?

Visiting Ethiopia - the birthplace of coffee. It was definitely unknown territory. We were there during the early part of the harvest season and it was an experience being around industry folks, visiting farms, learning more about coffee processing and absorbing and enjoying local Ethiopian culture. I will never trade that experience for anything else.

Can you put into words your love for the coffee culture? And what do you want to say to those just starting to be passionate about it?

To me, coffee is unique because it’s something that I can enjoy in solitude and in a social setting. I love the isolation and focus that roasting allows for me. I can also sit alone, disconnect from the world and truly enjoy a good cup of coffee. Coffee is also magical by how it connects people. Professionally or personally, a lot of relationships are formed because of coffee and it’s not necessarily due to the beverage itself. For example, new friends can be made in a classroom setting or through visiting origin.

To everyone who’s starting to get passionate about coffee, search for and consume variety — drink coffees from different origins and roasters. Don’t stick to what’s familiar. Also, talk to your local baristas more. It’s amazing how much you can learn just by asking a barista or a roaster a thing or two about coffee.

Other than coffee, what are you passionate about?

I’ve always enjoyed basketball. Being part of the school varsity from grade school until the last couple of years of university, has taught me a lot of things that can be applied on and off the court.

Recently, I haven’t really had the chance to sweat it out on the court. I just keep myself updated by watching the sport. One day, I’d wish to coach a pee wee team.

How can you describe the coffee culture here in the Philippines, and how do you see it changing this year (2015)?

The coffee culture here in the Philippines has been around for a quite a while given that the Philippines is a coffee producing country. However, the specialty coffee culture is in its infancy stages. We’re probably 5-8 years behind some of the developed regional markets like the Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. From the consumers’ perspective, it’s in that early phase of trying to understand what ‘specialty coffee’ is. Most are aware, some are confused, some don’t care and only a handful truly understand what’s going on. At the industry level, foreign brands are starting to make their presence felt. The local independent small coffee roasters are finding and developing their identities and philosophies. The specialty-driven cafes are slowly popping up with various models and concepts.

2015 will be about 3 things:

1. Education - given the market awareness and skill level, education will play a more significant role this year to be able to push the specialty market forward. Education will be relevant for both the industry and the consumer.

2. More Independent Cafes - foreign brands will always exist and they will come and go. last year we saw a few, but this year more independent cafes will sprout up in the metro. if you look at markets like Malaysia and Singapore; some of the younger entrepreneurs will give specially coffee a go through running small independent cafes. Each will have its own style, identity and concept with specialty coffee being the forefront.

3. Restaurant Adoption - existing restaurants who have been buying low cost, dark-roasted coffee will explore the idea of serving specialty coffee in their establishment. most will not push through with it, but those that care about quality and want to be more relevant to what customers are looking for, will slowly adopt a new coffee program.

Lastly, how do you personally enjoy your coffee?

I personally enjoy African coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya. Their distinct sweetness and acidity are truly one of a kind. The coffees are best when roasted light to highlight all their respective origin intricacies. A straightforward Aeropress or a pour over works for me as I get to enjoy the coffees without all the fuss of an espresso machine. Once in a while, these coffees are tasty with some ice and milk.

Photos and words by Marvin Conanan


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