Democratic Coffee Bar in Copenhagen: a story about great luck and hard work
Oliver Oxfeld told us his unlikely story of coming into coffee bar business. Now his Democratic is widely respected in Copenhagen and abroad. His pastries are well-accepted by the best chefs, his coffee is approved by the best roasters and baristas.
The back story
I can tell you a little bit about my journey with this place and what have I been through. Actually I come from a totally different background. I have no real background in coffee. I have a commercial degree from business school. And then I was working in advertising. And I was working with video games.It was my last job before I started this place. My time at the video games company came to an end because we’ve published the game that I was working on and my contract expired. And that was like the biggest player for video games in Copenhagen, they do Hitman and it was a really interesting process.
I didn’t have any work afterwards. So I realized that I didn’t really want to have a boss anymore. I was looking around for opportunities and thought that the coffee-shop would be really nice. Like so many people do, right? You don’t realize how hard work it is, you just like “Oh I wanna have a coffee shop”. So I did it, it was foolish.
I got a coffee machine from a friend, bought a grinder, really nice grinder and I set up shop in a shared office space with around 300 people. It was totally illegal, we didn’t have any permits so we were closed after 3 months, it was very depressing.
I spent the next few months afterwards looking for a new opportunity and I actually stumbled upon this place. This is a public library and they refurbished the entire library in 2011. And then there was a new cafe and they were looking for someone to take it over and rent the space. And I went to them and said that I had a lot of experience. Basically lied a lot and they gave me the place. I was really lucky because I had a good chemistry with the director of the library and very good personal relationship. And then I had the tools that I needed from business school to put together convincing business plan and, you know, I was lucky.
So I got this place I didn’t know anything.I thought I wanted to do coffee, I wanted to do really nice croissant. So I tried to find places where I could source good croissants but there weren’t really any places. So I thought: Okay, I’ll make them myself.
I learned how to do it myself. I bought the equipment, I took a small business loan that was like a quarter a million Krona (~$40.000) and I bought the machines that I needed and then I started. And it was terrible. It was absolutely terrible in the beginning. I was learning from YouTube basically, how to make pastries. It was like "oh my God".
If you saw the products that we had in the beginning it was total nightmare. Turnover was low. I didn’t have very good staff. But over time I learned how to get better. I kindof learned how to run kitchen professionally. I just worked. Like constantly. I was working like 12-13 hour-days 7 days a week. We had a small baby at the time, myself and my wife. I never saw her. It was ridiculous.
The great luck
But things started to get better and better. I found that I had certain milestones, certain realizations throughout the process that were helped on by my staff basically. I had a Japanese guy come to work with me called Nuguaki Matsui, he still works here and he has a lot of experience working in hospitality. And he just lifted this place to the next level with regard of service and turnover started to go up again.
I was super lucky. Always luck. But I think my real lessons throughout this entire journey have been that if you put yourself out there even if there was nothing really then things are going to fall into your lap, things are going to start happening. And you just have to be positive and optimistic and take those opportunities and if you are lucky in the end of the day it’s going to work out.
For example the rent on this place is reasonable, for the location it’s quite good, it’s a cheap rent, but they actually forgot to charge me. The library forgot to charge my for two years. So was having big cash flow problems in the beginning because of a low turnover but they weren’t charging the rent. So I was lucky again, right? I was able to struggle through and after two years the turnover had grow to such an amount that I could pay all the back rent. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if they had charged rent throughout the entire time. So it’s again, luck.
We’ve always had strong quality focus. Everything that we make has been homemade. We’ve integrated as many processes as we’ve been able to into our production. A lot of people buy croissants from a baker, we didn’t do that. People a little bit more ambitious buy frozen croissants so they can heat them in their own oven. Didn’t want to do that either. We make our own pastries from scratch. Everything that we get in the door: floor, dairy products, yeast, green beans, because we’ve also started roasting ourselves. So we’ve integrated as much as possible.
And we haven’t been telling the story, we haven’t been creating like a narrative. I don’t believe in that kind of marketing really, but as soon as people see it, and they taste it, and start asking questions and of course we tell them what we are about and then things grow organically.
It’s just specialty coffee and handcrafted pastries. It’s super super simple. We’ve quadrupled our turnover during last 6 year. We’re always getting better. We have a quite seasonal business, so in spring we’ve busy, and in autumn and winter we’re busy. At the moment we are doing 20% more turnover than we did at the same time last year. And last year we were doing 15-20% more than we did in the year before. We’re always pushing pushing pushing. So the concept is just quality-driven specialty coffee and handcrafted pastries with no compromise.
You’ve got to be so passionate. You have to so passionate not only about the product but also about taking destiny into you own hands and being your own boss and you have to be so strong about that. It’s a real mental battle. And then people. I’m so fortunate in the people i’ve been working with all these years.
How to get amazing people
I’m no genius with regard of people but I’ve got a good feeling of recognizing passion when I see it. So Nuguaki, the Japanese guy, when he came in he had no English, but he was so passionate by telling me how much he wanted to work in quality-focused way and lift this place. He said we would do anything, and he was almost crying. I get a lot of job applications but I hires the Japanese guy with no English. It’s a bizarre decision but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Here is Croatian guy who moved to Copenhagen on a whim, just passionate about coffee, I mean he really wants to make it. I choose him over all these Danish spoiled middle-class… It’s definitely one of the things you have to be able to identify if you want to make a business like mine.
The key to succeeding in coffee is working with the right people of course. Because otherwise you are never going to grow. You can be super-passionate about your product, you can work in your own little coffee bar, super-uncompromising, and you never gonna be able to scale. You need people around you. And if you get mediocre people your business always gonna be mediocre, no matter how good you are.
I’m so weak on social media. I see coffee bars that open and after 6 months they have more followers than we are. And I really don’t care. I do not believe in that.
Because when I was working with the video games, for example, I was so on message all the time. All the assets that we were putting out during our marketing campaign, everything was finely tuned to adhere to one message: this is the story that we want to tell, and this asset is going to push that story. And it was just weak. That was always the feeling that I had. So I believe in growing organically.
On strong marketing
Copenhagen is now like a hotbed for gastronomy as we had a lot of influential chefs, and they come here because the product is good. And they will write about the product. And so we have Matt Orlando from Amass coming in and he’s like: “wow, that croissant is amazing”. And we have Rene Redzepi from Noma coming in and he’s like: “this is a nice croissant”. Then we have all these kingpins of fine dining and all of a sudden we were on eater.com. They came to Copenhagen and compiled a list of like 38 best places to eat in Copenhagen. And all of a sudden we’re on that list. It’s bizarre, we’re a coffee bar, right? The 38 best places to eat in the gastronomy center of Europe at the moment. It’s bizarre. What the fuck? So I think that works. We chefs come here and we are able to impress them, because they can see authenticity and they to the work for us.
Do you invite them to your place, do you pay them? – the blue-eyed barbarian
I don’t believe in influencers, I don’t believe in all that shit.
Do you give presents for any occasions?
No. They can fuck off. Seriously, I’m not interested.
I think I saw the hollowness of advertising through the work I’ve done before. It makes money for people - no doubt. But on this level it’s just a different story. Coffee bars in Copenhagen who have like ten thousand followers, their turnover is half of what we make here.
On being frugal
I’ve always been very disciplined about spending money. I mean I’m very very frugal. I don’t like spending money, that’s the philosophy, definitely. I want to spend money on the people for their skills, I don’t want to spend money on machinery but just for the machine sake, for example. If I have something I want to make in work. Our espresso machine. I bought it on day one. It’s called GB-5 and I know people in the business who killed GB-5 in two years, but I look after it. I make sure everyone looks after it and respects the machine so much. And I’ve made so much money on that single machine, it’s unreal. I make things work. When I buy something, I really really think about it. So when I bought a proofing cabinet for croissants, that was a big milestone as well. It meant that I didn’t have to come in at 4 o’clock in the morning to make croissants and proof them. I could make them during the day, I could put them in proofing cabinet and they will be ready, proofed the next morning, And so I could have someone else come and bake them. And that was a huge step because this is a big investment buying a proofing cabinet. But I went to a French company. They didn’t have an agent in Copenhagen so I bought it directly from the factory. It came disassembled. I assembled it myself and it works so well. So I got a high quality machine, I got a really really got deal on it, and I’m making a lot of money of it. I make it work for me. So if that is frugal, then that’s what I am.
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