Meet a Local: Jarda Tucek of doubleshot coffee roasters

If you’re drinking great coffee in a Prague cafe, the odds are that the beans were roasted by doubleshot coffee roasters. In about four years, they have managed to teach locals drink lighter roasts of high-quality coffee from selected farmers, and showed them how to brew great filter coffee at home, too. Their flagship cafe, Muj salek kavy, is one of the best in Prague, and we still insist that their paper cups are the only cups that are the right size. (Yes, we hate those humongous cups as much as you do.)

In this edition of our Meet a Local series, we have talked to Jarda Tucek, one of the three founders of doubleshot, and arguably the face of the company. You know he’s been around when Ralf, the owner of The Barn in Berlin, tells us to say hi to him, or when the barista at Joe Coffee HQ in New York City asks us whether we know him. We had a small chat at doubleshot’s new barista training centre right next door to Muj salek kavy in the Karlin district that has recently opened to the public, too, which means it is not only designed for doubleshot’s wholesale customers but also allows the public to learn how to prepare a great cup of coffee at home. 

How did you get to work with coffee to begin with?
Like anybody - by total coincidence. Kamila, my business and life partner, and I got a work-and-travel visa to the US and had a summer job in Monterey, California, in the Monterey Bay aquarium, and worked in Ms Packard’s cafe there. A quick training session, and I was a barista. I still have nightmares about what I did there. But I loved how busy the job was. My next barista gig was in Vancouver. My student visa allowed me to work only within the campus of the university where I worked on my thesis, and the only thing on the campus was a cafe. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. Then I found interest in coffee through latte art. I watched videos on YouTube. When I got back, I had a stint at Ebel coffee and then got to La Boheme coffee by mere coincidence, through a barista contest. I looked for some coffee and ended up working there. 

Can you describe what lead you to open doubleshot?
Well, Kamila and I wanted to get out of Prague. Jarda Hrstka (the third founder of doubleshot) left La Boheme to work with 49th Parallel Roasters but we were still here. We knew Graciano Cruz, the Panama-based specialty coffee icon, from some exhibitions, so I sent him an email whether he would have some work for us in a farm in Panama, and he said “Sure, come over!” So we went. We were supposed to meet at the Las Lajas beach, but he forgot about us and came three days late. We rented an apartment near the farm, and learnt about the work on the coffee farm in the Boquete village community. They did not pay us but invited us to cuppings, for instance. We worked with Maria Ruiz, the biggest Panama coffee exporter. She taught us everything. And the nice thing is that if you mean something in the world of coffee, you visit Boquete at least once a year, so we got to meet people, too, like the guys at Intelligentsia or Stumptown. That would never be possible here. 
So we stayed for a year...

And Muj salek kavy? Where did the opportunity to take it over come from?  
Roland, the previous owner, was one of our main clients. He had a great plan and contacted us a year before he opened. We bought the machine, found a barista and trained all the staff. He is from South Africa and had to go back to attend to some family matters, so he offered the place to us, and we were looking for a cafe anyway. Again, pure coincidence.
Roland changed the concept a bit from a cafe to a sort of a restaurant with lunch specials, but we virtually closed the kitchen down, and upset half the Karlin district. But we did not want to become a restaurant. Later we had to hire more baristas and staff, so we had to rebuild everything, except the bar. That is still something we need to do. That is why we later expanded next door to create the bakery and the pastry shop to separate this from the kitchen. 

Have you ever planned to work with coffee?
No, not really. I am an English and American Studies graduate at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University. I did some translations and gave private English lessons to corporate clients. The money was great, but I did not really enjoy teaching and I basically burnt out by the time I handed over the thesis paper. My parents only wanted me to finish school. I thought I would stay in Vancouver, work in the summer and just spend the winter skiing. I only came back because Kamila was here in Prague.

Is it hard to work with your life partner?
You have to be the type for it. We are always together. We share an office together, but we have never had any problems working together. But the truth is we cannot separate our business and private lives. We walk the dog and start talking about colleagues and so on. What is hard is planning vacations in these early stages of building the business, for instance.

And what was the story behind Alza cafe, your second location? 
Alza cafe was done in a month, maybe two if we include all the works. We had a customer who was high up at the Alza computer store hierarchy and told us they would expand the shop and maybe include a cafe. That was October, maybe November, and a month later we opened. We built the whole bar in 48 hours, and spent 10 kilos of coffee and served a thousand drinks the first day we opened. We did not even have a menu ready. But we had experienced baristas whom we could use to start the cafe. It was barista heaven in terms of volume. 
The clientele is specific and it will never be a cafe that people would write about. It’s an espresso bar in a computer store, but one that addresses huge masses of people who would not have tasted our coffee otherwise. There are not many places that would make money on coffee alone. I know only two in Prague, not considering the chains: EMA Espresso Bar and Alza Cafe. It is an easy concept and it works. We want to use it as a farm for our staff going forward because you will not serve that much coffee anywhere else. 

Listening to you, it seems like your business is one success after another. Did you experience any failures with doubleshot?
So far, we’ve been lucky. And we were always ready. No epic fails. We have some reserves in wholesale, though. We have so many customers now we find it difficult to visit them as often as we would want. Currently, that's our top priority. 
One steps in the wrong direction was retail sales of coffee. If we said yes to every retail offer from every shop we get, we would easily raise production by some 30%. But we said no. The only retail shop that sells our coffee is Sklizeno because they were the first one. The vendors do not know how to sell the coffee in time and to the right customer, and it ends up ruining the brand.
Controlling quality is easier in wholesale: our new wholesale customers have to go through our basic 5-hour training and send us their new hires for training, too. Although customers may not want to pay for the training, it’s necessary. You may have the best beans in the world but it means nothing without properly trained staff.

Would you ever stop supplying your coffee to a cafe because of bad quality?
That has happened already. We had a few clients who liked to hire students and temps and would not send anyone for training. We now are in a position where I can turn down a customer, although it’s not something I would like to do often. But it is hard to say no to customers. As a roaster, you have to go for volume because that’s when you can buy great coffee beans, but the Czech market is fairly small. We cannot just roast for a few cafes. 

Have you been seeing some trends on the Czech coffee scene though?
I’ve been working with coffee for seven year. The first two years were dreadful. “You don’t have Italian coffee? We’re not interested.” We literally begged customers to try our coffee when I worked at La Boheme. It was all about who knows whom and free support and free coffee machines. This has changed a lot in the past years. And then the boom happened. People started to think about what coffee and wine they drink and what food they eat. Our timing was spot on. And what made things much easier are the social media. Today you post some information about your new coffee on Facebook, send a newsletter to 10,000 people and five percent of the audience will eventually visit your website and buy the product. Coffee is fashionable now. Wine before that, and craft beers are happening now. But coffee is really social and a cheap hobby. Becoming a great barista is much cheaper than becoming a great sommelier. 
But sometimes you tend to see only the good coffee because you meet people within the coffee scene and ignore the rest. If you looked at the entire market, you might be in for a reality check. We have a few fantastic clients in smaller cities and life is hard for them. Some have shut down. 

Do you still enjoy working with coffee?
Yes. It is an interesting business. There’s lots of complexity: you deal with farmers, hire employees, talk to the customers, attend interesting events and catering projects. And coffee is a great substance: many people see it as part of their every day live. We make people feel better, especially the addicts [laughs].
The one thing I am proud of is that we taught people to drink filter coffee. We saw from abroad that roasters really try to teach their customers brew coffee at home, and that’s what we have focused on at doubleshot from the very beginning. And I think we succeeded. Today it’s quite normal. Now our numbers show that the accessories market is saturated, and now we can finally sell coffee. 

Do you make coffee at home yourself?
Never. I have the accessories but no coffee at home. We drink tea. When I visit my parents, I used to have to prepare the coffee. But now I actually bought them a coffee maker so that they can make coffee for me when I am there. I drink a lot of coffee on my inspections. And I never drink any coffee with milk, maybe one cappuccino a month. I do crave coffee sometimes but can go a week without it. It has to be great coffee for me to drink it.

The best coffee you have ever had?
I may have had a few “breaking-point” cups of coffee in my life, the eye-openers. For instance the first natural Ethiopian coffees some six years ago. Our jaws dropped. It was by Counter Culture. What is really important is the context: where, when and with whom are you drinking the coffee. The Los Lajones coffee Graciano made for us in a one-liter French press at the beach in Panama probably broke all the rules of preparation but I still remember it today. 

Do you have any inspirations, role models?
US roasters have always been an inspiration. For instance Verve Coffee Roasters in California started around the same time we did but they are a bit farther than we are. But we’re talking about an entirely different market. We do look around and taste a lot of coffee. We try to learn from the best and buy tons of different coffees. And in terms of business, Tomas Karpisek of the Ambiente group is probably a role model for everyone. His management skills and his nose for opportunity are outstanding. He was also the first guy from the culinary scene to contact us and show interest in specialty coffee. We could not believe it when Cafe Savoy wrote us. It has been a marathon but I think they made a huge leap forward. They are a humongous operation. I also have a lot of respect for La Degustation and their courage to stop serving espresso altogether and offer single origin filter coffee instead. No sugar, no milk.
I must also say that the Australian coffee scene is a big inspiration. Before we wanted to follow the US model of an espresso bar: a great cup of coffee to go. But our visit to Australia, Melbourne especially, opened my eyes to a different experience. That is what we want to do in the new Bubenec location. If you think about it, many cafes serve great coffee, and the differences are small or negligible for the ordinary customer. You have to add something extra to be different, better than the others. And we think a great cafe with really delicious yet simple food is still missing on the Prague coffee scene.

Any other plans for the future? Is there any more space to grow for you in Prague?
I think the Bubenec location will be our last cafe in Prague. We want to raise the standard in wholesale. We looked at Bratislava but the rents are too high. We will stop expanding for a while after we open in Bubenec. But never say never. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Where did you have your last great meal?
We always enjoy Paul’s food at Maso a kobliha. We like to go out for breakfast but have a hard time choosing the right place: we’ve been everywhere. I like Riccardo Lucque’s places, Gastronomica and so on. And I always come back to the steak tartare at Na kopci. The last time I had it I though: “OK, everything’s fine with the world.” I also like to eat at Cestr.

Your ideal morning?
On the way to work, I turn the wheel sharply and head over to Jizerske hory mountains for our 8am skiing session with our dog Mantissa. We ski for 20 kilometers and drive back to Prague. That’s my ideal morning. We leave at 6 or 7am, and we’re back at work for cupping at noon. Kamila and I will be moving out of Prague soon. I need some forests around me. We’re not really the urban types, although we do like the ample opportunities the city offers. 

Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Oh, wait a minute… OK, the licorice wheels by Haribo. Big time. Kamila and I are also suckers for marzipan from time to time. Also, having your own cafe has its perks: when we make dinner, we never have bottled beer. We just stop over at Muj salek kavy with a jug and pour three, four liters of beer in it. People look at us strange when we do that.

What do people not know about you?
I was very close to becoming a professional ski bum in Whistler, Canada. Shreding powder in British Colombia for 100 days per year and living out of virtually nothing was very tempting. (Un)fortunately, I decided to take the more conforming way. I finished my final thesis on Canadian First Nation literature and returned back home to Czech Republic.

[Photos by Couple of Prague.]