>> Mila Czemerys
Philosopher Thomas Browne wrote, “One should never approach the temple of science with the soul of a money changer,”—but perhaps the inverse could be said too. Scientists aren’t known for their inclination towards business but three Victoria scientists are trying it anyway.
“We’ve given away almost every penny we’ve made so far,” laughs Hannah Charnock, the 21 year old co-founder of Smoke & Mirrors Coffee Co., Victoria’s newest small-batch coffee roaster. “Cash might rule the world, but we’d rather focus our energy on building social currency.”
The company was founded over the summer by Charnock and Euan Thomson, her co-worker in the Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. laboratory, after they took a hard look at the low yield, high stress world of non-profit fundraising.
“Getting grants is hard enough,” says Thomson. “But even when an organization is lucky enough to land one, the work involved can drive staff to work unpaid overtime so it looks better on the balance sheet. It’s a serious problem in the non-profit sector, and it isn’t getting better.”
They decided to direct their efforts at launching an enterprise with a single focus: applying their scientific and sensory training from the beer world to make good coffee, netting a reliable, and (for the organizations, anyway) low-effort revenue stream for local non-profits. The team has since added a third member, UVic biochemistry PhD candidate Karen Lithgow, who, as Thomson puts it, has an “advanced” coffee problem.
Social enterprises are businesses that exist to benefit the community, and since launching in June, all profits from Smoke & Mirrors have been reinvested into four community-building organizations.
In 2013, B.C. became the first province to have a corporate category that encourages social enterprises, but they have caught on across the country.
“We’ve been inspired by the selflessness of celebrities like Paul Newman, who could just as easily continue padding their bank accounts by opening up standard for-profit businesses and use their name to market the product. The difference with our situation is we didn’t start with names or money—just good friends and customers that believe in what we’re doing,” says Thomson, who taught himself how to roast on a refitted chicken rotisserie.
“We’re going to keep pushing that DIY ethos. We’ve been able to gain an intimate appreciation for roasting science through our projects. This fall, staff at Phillips are helping us design and build a bigger roaster out of recycled materials. We have so many skilled people around us that are keen to help, so instead of trying to dig up twenty thousand dollars for a new roaster, we’d rather see that money build the community.”
Smoke & Mirrors is supporting four non-profit partners: Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT), which engages the Victoria region in conservation efforts that protect and support habitats and wildlife; Restorative Justice Victoria (RJV), a key partner for local police, facilitating community focused alternative solutions to crime; UVic Women in Science, a community engagement hub for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in Victoria; and The Latitude Project, which brings the resources to remote communities in Central America to build and maintain critical infrastructure.
The organizations received cash donations in the company’s first month of operations, with Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. stepping up to match it. The following round, Smoke & Mirrors collaborated with The Very Good Butchers after they were mentioned as a potential matching donor on an Instagram post.
“The matching donations don’t just add money to the pot,” says Lithgow. “They also help spread the word and get new people involved.”
The scientists say they couldn’t resist applying their knowledge to the roasting process. They have even partnered with analytical chemist Blair Surridge at Camosun College to research roasting chemistry, an area they say is under-studied.
“Our small batch approach lets us experiment in a truly scientific way,” says Charnock. She says the company has plans for its scientific approach to making coffee, and insists, predictably, that it isn’t all just “smoke and mirrors.” “We aim to be industry leaders someday.”
Smoke & Mirrors coffee is available at Phillips Brewing & Malting Co. and Niagara Market, online at smokeandmirrors.coffee and at the offices of the community partners listed above. To learn more in person, look for the Smoke & Mirrors booths at the Boreal Collective Winter Fair in Duncan on Sunday, December 16th or the Picot Holiday Market at Sea Cider in Saanich on Sunday, December 17th. Holiday gift boxes, coffee and t-shirts will be for sale at both of these events.