Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we spoke with Yardstick Coffee, the roasters setting a new standard for specialty coffee in Southeast Asia and beyond.
When Andre Chanco decided he was going to open a specialty coffee shop, it could easily have been in Singapore. He’d lived there for 13 years, working alongside the country’s leading specialty roasters – PPP – so he knew the market well.
But he also knew that if he did choose Singapore, it would face stiff competition from established brands, thus limiting its impact on the sector.
The Philippines, on the other hand, presented an opportunity.
“We felt we could make more of a dent compared to Singapore, where the market is quite saturated, quite mature,” Andre says. “In Manila, we could create what we thought specialty coffee could be.”
Having gathered as much information as possible during a tour around Europe and the United States, Andre opened Yardstick along with two friends from university in 2013.
The name drew on their desire to set a new standard for the industry, whether sourcing, marketing, or retail experiences. This idea of setting a “yardstick” for what coffee could be is what Andre says drives him everyday.
“Because we all subscribe to the same set of values, most roasteries tend to sound the same,” he says. “But for me, it’s refreshing to turn right or turn left, and see things differently. We don’t look at what other people are doing, we look at how we can make things better.”
Yet Andre is keen to remind me that this approach doesn’t come without its challenges. For example, in the weeks following the opening of their first store, they were mistaken for a furniture shop more times than they could count.
There were also issues around where they sourced their coffee. As a producing country, The Philippines imposes local duties on the import of coffees from overseas. But Andre and his team wanted Yardstick to offer a wider selection.
“We got in trouble for not roasting local coffee, but we were never saying that Ethiopian or Colombian coffees are better than local coffees,” he explains. “Our role is to show customers what’s available and let them choose their favourite. It’s about sharing what’s out there.”
Although the quality of local coffee was not quite what Andre was looking for back in 2013, recent improvements to infrastructure have elevated it sufficiently enough to be included in Yardstick’s offerings. This is something they feel is important for The Philippines as a coffee origin.
“We pay high prices that are sometimes difficult to justify on the cupping table,” Andre says. “But if we don’t do it and our peers don’t do it, the local quality won’t improve. It’s definitely a balance.”
As well as offering coffee from a variety of origins, Yardstick also offers it in various different formats, from whole bean to drip coffee bags to Nespresso-compatible capsules.
This diversity is also expressed in their brew guides: instructions on how to prepare their coffee with an Aeropress and a V60 can be found right next to instructions on using a Nanofoamer and a SteepShot.
Naturally, the question is how they maintain consistency across all their products.
“Roasters around the world have been adopting these formats without compromising quality – and we’re doing the same,” Andre tells me. “The drip coffee bags, for example, are nitrogen flushed to maximise freshness and minimise oxidation.
“We see these formats as a brand extension for existing customers or to attract new customers with the idea that they will eventually find themselves moving onto whole bean.”
But it’s not just about maintaining quality across products: by delivering their coffee in a variety of formats, Yardstick is able to maximise the customer experience for each coffee.
“You might source an expensive SL 28 or geisha, but the chances of someone dialling that coffee correctly might be low to medium,” Andre explains.
“If we control all those variables right the way down to brewing, whether it’s a capsule or a freeze dried coffee, it reassures me that the customer is tasting the coffee the way we think it should be tasted.
Bringing home the coffee shop experience
When Covid-19 forced coffee businesses around the world to shutter their doors, many began looking at ways in which they could continue serving their customers.
Some launched subscription services and created instructional videos; others expanded their menus and provided in-depth information on everything from growing techniques to processing methods.
Yardstick’s Digital Barista service, however, is virtually unrivalled in the extent to which it brings home the coffee shop experience.
By simply scanning a QR code on their coffee bag, customers can schedule a one-on-one video call with a Yardstick barista, where they will have the opportunity to ask questions about their coffee, including how to grind and brew it.
The free service is open to all customers, with slots of 15 or 30 minutes available depending on the nature of the enquiry.
“It’s almost the same as walking up to a barista in a coffee shop and asking a question,” Andre tells me. “When Covid happened, we asked ourselves how we could continue to provide hospitality without a physical shop. I think the digital barista service allows us to do that.”
While costly from a time perspective, it creates a personalised experience for each customer in a way a video or article can’t.
“Videos are great because they’re scalable, repeatable and people can play the video over and over again,” Andre says. “But our general recipe guide will not apply to everyone because people do things differently.”
In addition to the digital barista service, Yardstick has also launched its Ikagi Care Pack: eight nitrogen-flushed coffee bags that people can send to their friends or family complete with a handwritten note.
The idea is to recreate the sharing aspect of coffee at a time when face-to-face contact is limited.
“I think not having the chance to share a coffee with other people is bad,” Andre says. “With the care packs, we offer free shipping and a handwritten note.
“The reason we use drip coffee bags is that it means everyone can use them. You don’t need all the equipment for whole bean, you can just pour on the hot water.”
This all plays into Yardstick’s central philosophy to take coffee to new levels and set greater standards in the sector. Drip coffee bags may not be anything new, but the way they’ve packaged them up and marketed them during some of the most testing times in people’s lives is pioneering.
It’s an attitude that’s infectious and, in a market where everyone is making the same noise, something that all specialty coffee businesses should strive for. Even if it means that, from time to time, people will mistake you for a furniture store.
Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? Next time, we’ll be speaking to Latvia’s most innovative specialty coffee company, Rocket Bean Roastery.
Photo credits: Yardstick Coffee