“It's one of those things that I've always dreamed about, a business which changes things around."
The space is an amalgam of different prints, tiles, colors, and designs. It’s a paradoxically dizzying tranquility which sets you at ease immediately upon entering. Loustic Café is a study in originality and evolution, decidedly Parisian but simultaneously working against the clichés the description carries, defining itself apart from the banality of the word. It’s lived-in, explored, fostering the education of coffee and the unexpected profundity it carries.
“I was ten when my mom got me to taste my first cup. It was at Bar Italia, the legendary Soho café in London. And then, well, I was hooked.”
Channa Galhenage, owner of Loustic, is originally from London, having come to Paris thirteen years ago on sabbatical as a student. After years of drinking coffee in the city with his nose pinched, he decided to be proactive. “I had been working for about six or seven years in an office job, then things started turning in my head. I wanted to do something that makes me happy. And it just all came together.” Channa searches for a word that completely encompasses the phenomenon. He dismisses its importance, enjoying the ambiguity of this undefined excitement and intrigue.
“It was at that point in 2009 that I read about Rob Berghmans, owner of Caffènation in Antwerp. The way he talked about coffee was relaxed and fun on one end, but then there was also something really strict about how he did his work. And it became one of those things where you read something and you get a feeling about it. I was on a train to Antwerp two days later to go and meet him, to taste his coffee. And it was heaven. It confirmed everything I had been reading. The coffee was beautiful, the city was beautiful. But Rob was on a trip somewhere. So I left my details, and he called two days later.”
Rob ended up coming to Paris, meeting Channa at Bob's Kitchen, the vegetarian restaurant a two-minute walk from where Loustic is today. Channa pauses and reflects upon the coincidence, “I had no idea I would be opening a café just a street over.”
“I explained to Rob what I was thinking. I wanted to do a coffee shop because it’s one of those things you start when you can’t get what you want. I’m not an entrepreneur, I come from an HR recruitment background. But this was something I needed to explore. Rob and Jeff Verellen, my roaster (and 2-time World Aeropress Champion), suggested Le Caféothèque, which was at the time one of the only places you could get decent coffee in Paris. That’s where a group of us met, Tom Clark and Antoine Nétien of Coutume, Chris Nielson of Fondation, Thomas LeHoux from Belleville Brûlerie, and Nicolas Clerc from Télescope. We were a group of like-minded people, all dreaming of starting our own coffee shops.” And then Channa laughs, “We were like the Freemasons of coffee.”
Channa began moonlighting at KB CaféShop (formerly Kooka Boora) in Pigalle. “I was working seven days a week, five at my desk job and as a barista at KB on the weekends. Of course it was hard, but it prepared me for entrepreneurial work. Everything prepared me for this.”
“It was at KB where I really learned everything about a coffee business in France. There’s this massive difference between doing it here and doing it anywhere else. The French public is completely different. People think France is just another western European country, but it’s not.” Channa understands this culture, and he’s adapted his mindset to it. It’s not conforming, but rather choosing to accommodate the French oddities, the quirks which result in a country entirely different from any possible comparison.
We continue with this discussion of identity, transferring it to Loustic's design and location. “People come in here, looking at my décor and immediately say ‘That’s so Brooklyn.’ This isn’t Brooklyn, this is the Sentier! It's interesting, because what we discovered is that the area is in between three quartiers. We’re zoned Marais, but that isn’t the profile at all. I picked it initially looking for low rent, but the location came with this mix of two publics, the French and the locals. It’s a diverse area and with so much potential. On a map of Paris, it’s completely dead-center, it’s up-and-coming, Haut Marais, near Pompidou. It has everything working for it.”
“The people living here are an older set than the Canal Saint-Martin profile. We don’t see them very often though because they’re the people with the dream jobs, always traveling and always working. I see my regular customers who live on the street once every three weeks. A lot of that can be attributed as well to the fact that this is medieval Paris, you can see it in all the details of the quartier. It’s very old, and because of that, a lot of these apartments are owned by families who have inherited them. They’re people who don’t even live in Paris, and so a lot of them get rented out as Airbnbs, bringing in travellers, diversifying the area.”
Channa takes a glance at the future, not only making predictions about the area surrounding Loustic, but determining the specific steps to getting there. “The streets right around here, Chapon, Gravilliers, Montmorency, there’s so much going on but there’s no connection among them, there’s no unity. It’s not the Canal Saint-Martin which is unified, it communicates a single idea. We need to establish an association, a trader’s group. It will take some time, but that will give us an identity.”
We then move specifically into coffee, and the way he talks about it, the way he talks about himself in relation to it, there’s obvious observance and analytics at play. Channa understands coffee in relation to culture, as both a determinant and result of the people it involves. He practices a dichotomy where he’s broken down coffee into a science and yet preserves the inherent joy and pleasure taken in the product, in its entire process. “There’s this young generation coming up now, and we’re seeing a shift because of it. It’s a reeducation of coffee. Before, the French didn’t know anything different, there was no information or literacy surrounding it. But when we criticise France for its bad coffee, that’s just unfair treatment.”
It’s true, we have specific expectations for the country because of their gastronomic identity, but Channa looks at the benefits of this reality: “The French appreciation and curiosity in food directly translates to coffee, they just have to be directed there. When they see what you’re doing, they respect it. It’s when you compare it to wine that they understand."
“I think France is among the countries to look out for right now in specialty coffee,” Channa says, adding Japan and Korea to the list. “We’re all artisanal countries, we’re all specialists. We do things slowly and we have this gastronomic tradition. I think we’ll be at the forefront of specialty coffee in 2020. In countries like England and America, there's still a large amount of the population which thinks that wine’s pretentious, that quality products are pretentious, but what we’re trying to transmit here is our artisanship. There’s a way of talking about coffee without this conceit.”
This directs us to the reimagining and rethinking of what a barista is, and what it means to work in coffee. “When you explain the profession of a barista, people look at you incredulously. They can’t understand why you need to be trained to be a barista. But coffee extraction is like baking a cake, there's a science to it. It’s cooking, it’s time, it’s measuring. We’ve had to learn these figurative ways of what coffee is, of how we do it and why we do it. And that’s to get the best flavour out of the beans."
Then we talk numbers, but with Channa, coffee is never just calculations. What is discussed quantitatively can never replace the qualitative discourse to which Channa gives voice. “It’s true that cafés in Paris can’t function and survive by their coffee alone. People come to Paris to eat. We sell about a third of the number of coffee that an equivalent-sized space would sell in London, New York, or Melbourne. It’s because less than ten-percent of our sales are takeaway, whereas in Anglo-Saxon countries, coffee sales are sixty to one-hundred-percent to-go. That’s the difference between France and Anglophone countries. It’s culture, and it won’t change. France will never become the Anglo-Saxon world.”
Channa relates these statistics to what he's observed of the habits of his clientele. “I ask my customers why I don’t see them every day, and the answer is that they only come when they have the time to. When they can spend one hour or more. They guard this tradition of the pause-café.”
I look down at my aeropress, considering this notion of habits, heritage, and established practices that Channa has just explained. Within an hour he’s walked me through coffee’s far-reaching profundity, all without the pretension others expect from someone who dedicates himself to the profession. I reflect upon coffee’s 12-step process that Channa described for me, all coming down to my cup which I understand now as only a façade of the unassuming. It’s a result of the beans, the roaster, the equipment, the barista, the café. Coffee is the product of it all.