This Father’s Day, we’re paying homage to Cam Prefontaine, founder of Fratello Coffee, and pioneer of the burgeoning Calgary coffee scene. From his humble beginnings selling coffee to offices and restaurants and later roasting his own fresh coffee (long before it was cool), he’s seen the industry evolve over the years from the generic, ho-hum offerings of the mid ‘70s to the third-wave specialty coffee movement of today.
It started out as a possible alternative to a dreary mechanic job, and it turned into a passion that his whole family grew to embrace. In running his coffee business, Cam unwittingly sparked an entrepreneurial streak in his three sons, Jason, Chris and Russ. Watching their dad sell and roast coffee had a profound impact on the three sons, who went on to pursue various business ventures together. The businesses ranged from flavour syrups/smoothies, to distributing and installing espresso machines, launching a world renowned espresso machine brand Slayer Espresso, to opening up a chain of cafes called Analog Coffee.
We sat down with Cam and his son Chris to hear about the inspiration behind jumping into the coffee industry, the evolution of the cup of joe, and lessons learned from dad.
Fratello Coffee: Cam, can you describe the coffee scene when you started out in the business in the ‘70s?
Cam Prefontaine: In the early days, it was, “coffee is coffee.” Only generic brands were available. It had little fresh flavour, and was anywhere from 1 to 4 months old, and always ground coarse.
FC: What drew you to coffee?
Cam: The opportunity was presented to me as an alternative to working as an aircraft mechanic for Air Canada. So I took on the product line and worked the midnight shift until we could replace our income. Barb, my bride, took care of the kids and managed the household and the books for this new small business.
Like typical new entrepreneurs, we thought it looked easy.
FC: Was there a moment that made you want to pursue a career in the coffee industry?
Cam: I loved the smell of mom’s percolating coffee each morning with breakfast. As a child, I never liked the taste of milk, so she put some coffee in my milk with a bit of sugar, and boom… I loved the aroma and taste, and its association with many pleasant memories.
So in 1974, we started selling coffee to businesses. After 3 months, I went full-time. Our parents thought we were nuts, but we made a nice living.
FC: Did you ever think that coffee would blow up in popularity the way it has today?
Cam: Never entered my mind.
Around 1984, I was looking for the freshest roasted coffee to source for my customers. We found a local coffee roaster, who would roast small batches of coffee for us to spoil our clients, and keep them from wanting that cheap taste for a cheaper price. It worked!
FC: Did you realize you were doing coffee way before it was cool?
Cam: After attending the first specialty coffee trade show in New Orleans, my wife and I recognized that this would be the future of coffee. We returned home to sell our office coffee service company and devoted our efforts to fine tuning our coffee roasting and services. New prospective café owners would need our help with the best coffee and equipment.
FC: Chris, what was it like watching your dad roast coffee as a kid? What about it made you want to get involved?
Chris Prefontaine: Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, coffee was not cool like it is now. I remember being kind of embarrassed that my dad sold coffee out of our garage. But I remember thinking it was neat when he got into roasting in 1985. I liked seeing the production process, and it got me more interested. I worked for my dad right out of high school in 1989 when coffee was just starting to get very popular.
But it wasn’t until my dad suggested he help me start my own business selling espresso machines to cafés in Calgary that I really became excited. So in 1991, dad made it possible for my older brother and me to start Espuccino Imports, distributor of Nuova Simonelli espresso machines.
FC: How old were you when you started drinking coffee? You look awfully young in those photos standing next to the roaster.
Chris: I must have been 8 or 9 years old. My dad provided coffee for our church, and I would take some coffee from these large percolators, and then I would grab several sugar cubes to dissolve in the coffee! I feel sorry for my Sunday school teachers who had to put up with a super hyper kid in the class.
FC: What changes have you seen over the years in the coffee industry?
Chris: It started out in the ‘70s with my dad’s cheesy mustache, selling crappy office coffee. In the ‘80s my dad started roasting many different types of coffee and supplying restaurants and mom & pop shops. At the time, it was all about having 20 to 30 different flavored coffees, like “Irish Cream,” “Hawaiian Breeze,” or “Toasted Hazelnut Cream.” All artificial chemicals we would add to the beans. Yuck.