You could say that Flat Earth Coffee was born of necessity. Curtis and Kay Burns began coming to Newfoundland 16 years ago from Calgary and bemoaned the lack of coffee shops offering specialty coffee.
“We would always have to bring our own coffee gear with us,” Curtis said, “so there was always this recognition that there was a missing element to central or outport Newfoundland.”
One summer, the couple came to Newfoundland for a visit — neither is originally from the province — intending to stay for about two weeks. The Burns rented a car in St. John’s and planned to travel across the province and then fly home from the airport in Deer Lake.
“We got as far as Lewisporte and never went any further. We just fell in love with the Bay of Exploits,” Curtis recalls.
About five years ago, the couple purchased a cabin in Little Burnt Bay and kept returning every summer. They thought of buying a cabin on Sampson’s Island to be as close to the water as possible, but didn’t know how they would travel to and from the island. They eventually purchased a home in Lewisporte.
They didn’t make it to Fogo Island on that first trip to Newfoundland, and Curtis is convinced if they did they would have settled there immediately.
Owning a coffee shop was a dramatic change from their previous careers. Curtis was an information technology manager/networker at the University of Calgary and Kay is an artist.
“We always had this thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a coffee shop? And it grew from there,” said Curtis.
Once he realized that jobs in his field were scarce in central Newfoundland, the idea of a café began to evolve into a business plan. He just had to decide on where.
“My wife is a professional artist, and ever since the Fogo Island Arts Corporation opened Long Studio, we have been visiting friends that have been doing residencies,” said Curtis.
“If you want the best of both worlds — the art community and a place to do business — Fogo Island is the place to be.”
How did Flat Earth Coffee get its name? The Flat Earth Society considers Fogo Island one of the four corners of the flat earth. It was when Kay heard about the society through her work that the couple latched onto the quirky fact about Fogo Island. Curtis knew if he ever opened a venture on Fogo Island that Flat Earth was going to be in the name.
Kay echoes her husband’s sentiments about Fogo Island, saying they’d rather be there than in a city.
“Fogo Island is a place that is stunningly beautiful, remote and peaceful, with a quality of life/character that can’t begin to compare to urban settings,” said Kay.
The arts scene on Fogo Island played a key role in their decision to move there and start a business. Kay spent time on Fogo Island 10 or 11 years ago researching an art project and the connection stuck with her.
“One of the challenges of leaving Calgary was the absence of a larger art community to engage with about ideas and processes and for conversation and dialogue within the context of contemporary art,” Kay said.
But Fogo Island Arts regularly welcomes accomplished artists, both national and international. Kay says it’s wonderful to have so many artists coming and going who can interact.
Curtis knows there are many hospitality ventures in central Newfoundland, but says what sets Fogo Island apart is the cultural aspect combined with economic development.
Curtis says the business climate on Fogo Island is interesting, though he admits he doesn’t have much to compare it to, saying he grew up in post-secondary institutions and “trained and cut his teeth on bureaucratic systems.”
“I think there is a certain amount of skepticism involved. People say to you, ‘You’re going to make a go out of it?’ They have nothing to compare it with. In Alberta or Saskatchewan there are coffee shops on every street,” he said.
Curtis points out that Newfoundland doesn’t have a history of people running hospitality ventures, raising a family and retiring happily on that business. He knows people can feel isolated when the ferry is not running and agrees it can be tricky when you want to go somewhere but the only source of travel is not an option.
But he’s optimistic. In the nearly three months he’s been open there have been a large number of people come to Flat Earth Coffee who aren’t from the island — even in the dead of winter.
“There’s a greater degree of travelling to Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook, St. John’s, etc., than people give credit for,” said Curtis, adding he doesn’t buy into the notion that Fogo Island residents are not “worldly.” He said half of Newfoundland travels throughout Canada for employment and they know what’s going on in the world.
He seriously considered opening his business in Gander or Grand Falls-Windsor, but it would have taken him away from the water and there wouldn’t have been the same “bay culture,” he said.
“The possibilities of economic opportunities should be a gold mine, but it’s not. People just don’t see it, and even I was unprepared,” he said.
“I started in a slow time — January, but I needed time to figure out how to run this thing before the busy tourist season, and get a system in place before it gets too busy, and the local people are sympathetic with me.”
The ferry system, which is the only regular means of travel to and from Fogo Island, causes the most frustration in the summer for Flat Earth Coffee.
“In the summer when there is a breakdown it’s very frustrating. Breakdowns are a provincial infrastructure problem that is not being maintained properly, it has nothing to do with the weather, and it’s irritating,” said Curtis.
Curtis thinks the ferry service is actually a deterrent for tourists. They hear, see and read so many wonderful things about Fogo Island, but when their time is limited on vacation, many people don’t want to risk the ferry breaking down and being stranded on Fogo Island, so they skip a trip to the island all together.
He’s anxious for the new ferry destined for the Fogo Island run.
Flat Earth Coffee is more than just a coffee shop. Curtis orders coffee beans from his supplier in Toronto, which imports them from Ethiopia, Sumatra, Bolivia, Honduras and Peru.
Once he receives the beans, he roasts, packages and exports his products throughout the province to places like Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook, and to New Brunswick and online.
He offers one form of specialty coffee from Fogo Island, but not the place you might think. Off the coast of Africa, there’s a small volcanic island called Fogo Island. It took Curtis almost three months to acquire coffee from there, but he couldn’t resist the story behind it.
The coffee sold at Flat Earth Coffee is a specialty coffee and the beans are usually a little more expensive than the ones you’d find on grocery store shelves. Curtis only sells coffee in whole-bean form, because once coffee beans are ground, the clock starts to tick on freshness and the beans begin to lose their flavour.
Curtis explains the role of cuppers in the coffee business.
“Cuppers are people who travel around the world and sample the coffee bean crops. They decide which ones are noteworthy, really good, or ‘the best coffee ever,’” he said.
Cuppers identify batches of beans that are special and work with farmers to develop their growing practices.
“Any tropical country can grow coffee, but some do it better than others and some have been doing it longer,” noted Curtis.
In the winter, he runs the coffee shop — Flat Earth Outpost — alone with a few casual, part-time employees he calls in to help when he’s busy, but he anticipates that during the summer he will need four full-time employees.
The menu includes “urban food,” like date squares and cinnamon rolls, and “local favourites” such as split pea soup and lassie tarts. But perhaps the most popular item is turkey neck soup.
“Someone dropped by one day and asked for turkey soup, and I discovered that once you put turkey neck soup on the menu, everybody will tell you their turkey neck soup story. It’s usually about how much they love it or how much they hate hearing people suck on the bones in the turkey neck,” Curtis says with a laugh.
Flat Earth Coffee has only been open about three months but Curtis has the big picture in view and is tweaking the business in preparation for his first tourist season.
“To say where I want to be in five or six years is hard to say,” he said.
“I think it depends on whether the business goes more as a coffee shop or a retail venue. There are other food products available that could be packaged and shipped off the island. There’s a lot of different ways the business can grow.”
After all, it’s Fogo Island, and the possibilities are wide open.