"By accident." That's the answer provided by Tracey Clark, President & CEO of Bridgehead Coffee, when I asked how she found herself in the business of coffee. Yet, looking back at her journey, it may have been more serendipitous than accidental.
"I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur"
The seed was first planted on a backpacking trip Tracey took through Nicaragua in 1987. She noticed the cafes served tourists Nescafe instead of local, fresh grown coffee beans, despite the cost and lower quality. This “economics of coffee” was a disparity she noticed throughout her travels.
Upon her return she volunteered with Bridgehead, which was Canada’s first fair trade coffee company, founded in 1981 by social activists to assist struggling Nicaraguan coffee farmers who were suffering from a US ban on Nicaraguan imports.
"I love promoting young people into careers"
A decade later, Tracey returned to Bridgehead as a volunteer director while manager of MEC in Ottawa. This is where the accident part comes in. Bridgehead was struggling and had been through a voluntary proposal to creditors and an assignment in bankruptcy. Tracey’s passion for fair trade coffee inspired her to make an offer to purchase Bridgehead. Her offer was accepted and the first Bridgehead coffee shop in Ottawa opened in Westboro.
"Business is never done; you have to constantly re-invent, listen to staff and customers."
Today, Bridgehead has 16 locations across Ottawa employing 325 people with their flagship location being the Roastery on Anderson at Preston which acts as the nerve centre of the company. It houses a coffeehouse, roastery, bread lab and distribution.
A separate location houses the kitchen where 40+ people work together daily to create whole, fresh food like raw juices and quinoa cakes. "Healthy food is very important to us," explains Tracey. Bridgehead has partnered with local farmers to provide the ingredients for their kitchen and menu items.
The quality of the coffee cannot be overstated; that is the most important."
"There are 14 countries that we purchase our coffee from," informs Tracey. "There are over 25 million farmers cultivating Arabica coffee worldwide. We are doing our part to make sure the farmers are getting their share of the coffee revenues." In some cases, Bridgehead will purchase a farmer's entire micro lot.
With big retailers like McDonalds, Starbucks and Tim Hortons in the coffee market, Tracey knows she can't compete on just brewed coffee anymore. "Consumers want quality; they are becoming more sophisticated with their tastes and expectations. We recognized that very early on," Tracey explains. "We believe quality and differentiation is what will sustain small scale farmers in the long run and we focus our efforts on that at origin”.
Bridgehead offers a fundraising blend each year to support a quality initiative at origin, such as the purchase of a sample roaster to Bukonzo Joint Cooperative in Uganda. Bukonzo Joint is a cooperative made up of 85% women who have been increasing quality over increasing volumes, engaging men in their communities and raising household incomes.
"There is no substitute for hard work."
Having her home and business in Ottawa is a source of pride for Tracey. "We love Ottawa," she enthuses. "We recently launched a line of Ottawa-branded coffee, with titles including "Log Driver", "Bytown Boom" and "Full Steam" to show our history and love of this city along with our commitment to being an anchor in this community."
"You can't ignore Starbucks; but the market is shifting."
Outside of work Tracey is a busy mom who loves to be in motion. She loves to cycle, bike, run and play tennis. In fact she bikes to work many days. She also loves to cook. "Cooking is therapeutic for me," she laughs, and cooks a meal from scratch every night. Additionally Tracey is a peony fanatic.
"I feel like I can be me."
Her advice to budding entrepreneurs is simple and straightforward: "every business needs to solve a problem. Focus on the solution/problem issue and not the business model. This is what you need to start a business."