Words by Christine Dionese | Photos by Cris Van Grol
THINK YOU’D BE MORE EXCITED TO GO TO WORK IF YOU COULD REFRESH YOUR SCENERY THROUGHOUT THE WEEK?
That’s exactly what Rory Van Grol does. Last year, the former punk and hardcore vocalist traded the mic-in-hand for Ugly Duck Coffee, a roving, pop-up coffee bar that calls a different Rochester business home each day.
We recently caught up with Van Grol to get the scoop on the upcoming opening of Ugly Duck’s brick and mortar shop, coffee traditions and what it means to grow a family-shared business in the Rochester community.
BTT: My great-grandmother passed her espresso pot along to me that she brought from Sicily - it represents a tradition and taste I’ve come to love. Any coffee traditions in your family?
RVG: It’s amazing how personal coffee is to people - the stories, associations and rituals we all have for a drink. [When I was] growing up, my mom and dad always drank coffee in the morning. My mom still drinks pot after pot of 8 O’Clock coffee brewed in what was then Mr. Coffee Pot, now a Bunn Brew set-up. Personally I didn’t like coffee until my mid-20s because of the kind of coffee I was surrounded by.
Since finding my way into specialty coffee, I obviously love it now and it has formed what we enjoy in our home. We have multiple hand-brew methods that we change depending on the coffee we are trying out, but since becoming parents we’ve relied heavily on our Bona Vita coffee maker. Cris insisted that we get a coffee maker about a month after our son Wren was born. The Bona Vita makes a great quick cup and that's what Wren will probably grow up seeing at home - pot after pot of coffee with a few hand brew methods when we are enjoying a slower morning together.
BTT: What coffee do you love making that might still be new to people?
RVG: Discovering new coffees, brewing methods and presentations is what keeps me excited about this industry. Right now I love making anyone I can a cappuccino. It's familiar, and when prepared with care it’s the perfect espresso beverage to highlight a particular coffee with a great balance of flavors between the milk and coffee. For Ugly Duck, I like to have a more “traditional” coffee present - something familiar that is more nutty, with a nice chocolate mouthfeel - this way it appeals to everyone. Then I like to have a nontraditional espresso to show that it can be fruity, floral, acidic - and expose people to something they may not expect out of an espresso.
BTT: Seems really awesome to change up your scenery and have the opportunity to collaborate with other local entrepreneurs. Was it intuitive for you to open a pop-up? What’s the story behind that?
RVG: Ugly Duck Coffee was originally planned to be a brick and mortar coffee shop. We always had a pop-up bar in mind, but planned to wait until after our retail location opened to start it as phase two of the business. In February 2014 we went on our honeymoon out west and visited so many coffee shops - from Seattle down to San Francisco, they all had their own story. We came back to Rochester and felt it was time to make a move. The dream was to have a micro shop tucked away in a neighborhood and we found what we thought was the perfect space.
By the summer, we had everything planned out and were ready to build - and that’s when the delays started. Issue after issue popped up and in December we turned in our keys and walked away from the space. We just knew it wasn’t meant to be. Only a few hours after turning in our keys and being bummed, we started planning the mobile espresso bar. Including the nine months of focus on the retail space and then switching to our current model, it took about 14 months for us to begin operating the pop-up (in June 2015).
BTT: You traded touring as a musician for touring around Rochester with an espresso bar?
RVG: I went from touring in punk and hardcore bands loading and unloading gear every day to touring around Rochester with the espresso bar and loading and unloading that. It has always been about people and community, whether with music or coffee. This is what drives me. We couldn't exist without the support of our fellow business owners and are grateful for everyone who has welcomed us into their spaces and helped us along the way.
BTT: I was so happy to meet your wife, Cris, and baby, Wren, at Upstate Social in late 2015 - how have you three made this biz become the family affair it’s evolved into? Pop-up must translate into a ton of freedom for flexible lifestyle design while still working your tails off.
RVG: The pop-up model has given us a lot of flexibility, but it comes with its unique challenges like any business. Currently, I’m working two other jobs and opposite of that focusing the pop-ups from Thursday through Sunday weekly.
Cris has been pushing me to follow my passion and dream since we started dating. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her support and energy behind all of this. I’m speaking for myself, but it seemed natural for both of us to be involved with the business. We have both worked in food service and have an understanding of what’s reasonable and how operations should be handled. Taking this on, I know my skill set and I know at the end of the day, certain aspects of business I don’t enjoy. Turns out Cris likes some of those aspects more than I do, so we compliment each other well in that regard. Cris is a great photographer, has an eye for design and doesn’t mind paperwork, so she handles most of that end of the business. I love everything about making a coffee beverage and sharing that with people.
[Cris says with a smile: “I actually don't like paperwork (who does?) but I do it because I love Rory.”]
BTT: Weirdest or coolest off-the-wall pop-up event or location so far?
RVG: An event that sticks out to me was with Neighborworks Rochester for National Parking Day. We set up in the empty parking lot of the last standing cobblestone house in the city of Rochester. Sadly, the cobblestone is not currently in use, but it gave the building new life on that day. Reconnect Rochester set up a miniature golf course and we teamed up with the ladies of Eat Me Ice Cream to serve affogatos. An added bonus was that it was down the street from our house and we met so many amazing neighbors that day.
BTT: How do you decide which coffees to offer? Do you choose by fair trade, location, taste, all of the above? Are you offering locally roasted blends? How do you choose a blend to brew?
RVG: Choosing roasters to source from has been a really fun part of having a multi-roaster business model. We get to expose people to coffees and roasters they may have never heard of or just don't have access to. I balance the offerings by serving two choices - a regional roaster and a national roaster. Some of the regional roasters I have used are Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, Fuego Coffee Roasters, Public Espresso + Coffee Roasters and GIMME! Coffee Roasters. I have served MadCap Coffee from Grand Rapids, MI and Dogwood Coffee from Minneapolis, MN. I choose roasters I personally enjoy so I can share my excitement for these coffees with the people who come to the pop-up. We are such a new (and small) business and have yet to scratch the surface of what we hope to bring to Rochester.
BTT: Along the lines of what you bring to Rochester, what efforts does Ugly Duck take to promote sustainable coffee growers and producers? Any give-back/charity plans for the Rochester community?
RVG: Having a specialty coffee focused business means that we are stewards of the industry. We treat the product we receive from our roasters with the utmost respect by making tasty drinks and passing along any information people might want to know about the coffees we use. We only work with roasters who ethically source green coffee and have either Fair Trade or Direct Trade relationships with farmers and cooperatives. The plan is to always buy from and be a part of the specialty coffee value chain. Since Ugly Duck is currently a very small operation, we try our best to do what we can to support the community. We source our chocolate sauce for hot chocolate and mochas from Hedonist Chocolates and look forward to supporting more local businesses and causes as we grow.
One specific project we are excited to be a part of is The Chain Collaborative. Wade Reed from Joe Bean Coffee Roasters is spearheading this effort to pool our regional resources to build lasting partnerships in coffee-dependent communities.
BTT: New plans coming soon?
RVG: We are currently focusing most of our energy on our new retail location at 89 Charlotte St. (the former 1975 Gallery). It's a great area with some well-known landmarks and new growth happening all around it. We are about to start the build out and are very excited to see tangible progress. Everything takes longer than you would expect, so we have no word on opening dates yet. Once we open we will continue with our mobile bar and focus on special events and catering. With the retail location we will be able to add more offerings in addition to espresso beverages. So, that’ll be very exciting to roll out and show everyone our vision!