A new coffee roasting business in Guelph started by commercial pilots is taking off months after they were furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pilots Adam Wright and Steve Zago met each other on the job about 15 years ago and have been friends ever since.
The pilots flew their last runs bringing Canadians back from overseas soon after the pandemic was announced by the World Health Organization in the spring.
“We spent March repatriating people and then we lost our jobs in April,” said Zago. “I am not going to lie, it was very difficult to watch our entire industry evaporate overnight. There’s no jobs because there’s no planes in the air.”
Both pilots began their careers in the mid 1990s and neither has flown since late March. That seven months is the longest either has gone being grounded in 25 years. Zago said after they were laid off a mourning period began.
“It’s pretty hard for anyone losing their jobs but for me being a pilot was more than just a job. I wanted to be a pilot since I was six. It is one of those things that you just have a passion for,” said Zago.
As for Wright, he and his wife Erin took possession of the With the Grain Bakery a week after he was furloughed.
“We put the offer in February and it took two months for the deal to go through,” said Wright. “Then the pandemic hit North America and everything started shutting down.”
Wright helped his wife, who is now managing the bakery, for a few months but he and Zago started bouncing around ideas for a business to run out of a small section of the basement in the bakery.
“One day in June Adam came over and we started talking because we had the space down here and thought we should start a business and be the masters of our own fate,” said Zago. “When are we going to have the opportunity to have the time to focus on being entrepreneurial because we both have the drive to do that.”
While spitballing ideas, Wright suggested the pair get into business roasting coffee.
“I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning because I couldn’t sleep and was frustrated I went downstairs, fired up the computer and did a Google search how to coffee roast and bought a coffee roaster the next day,” said Zago. “I called Adam up and said ‘Lost Aviator Coffee, are you in?’ and he said he was in.”
Wright said it has been a godsend for the startup to have the resources at hand from the basement of the established With the Grain Bakery.
The pair began sourcing green coffee beans, some from countries they used to fly to as pilots. Then a long process of experimentation and perfecting the roasting process began.
“One of the things we both love about being a pilot is that no two days at work are the same and you are always learning,” said Zago. “(Roasting coffee) has been a big learning process for us and it’s been quite rewarding.”
The company is not currently sourcing fair trade organic coffee, in part to keep the cost down as it launches, but may consider going that route at a later date.
“We are trying to make sure our beans are ethically sourced and sustainably farmed,” said Zago.
Wright said it was important to get get the consistency right for the five signature brands of coffee the company is launching with.
“We are doing a dark roast, a medium roast and a light roast, a decaf and espresso. That’s our five key products and then we have our little one-offs,” said Wright.
Zago said it’s important for the blends to be accessible.
“We are catering to a market that I call ‘blue-collar coffee.’ We are trying to make coffee the average person is going to really like,” he said.
One of those one-off blends is a limited run of 20 pounds the pair roasted and then aged in an empty whisky barrel.
“We just opened it up today and we are almost sold out. We only put 30 bags worth in this one because we weren’t sure it would work out,” said Zago. “It’s sublime, we’re really happy with it.”
The different roast have names with aeronautical themes, like Red Eye to Rome, North Star and Aurora. So far, Lost Aviator Coffee is available to order online or in-store at With the Grain Bakery.
Additionally, all of the company branding harkens back to the golden age of aviation.
The pair got a big boost in its first months in operation from their friends in the aviation industry, many of whom are trying to support each other while the industry is struggling.
The new business was featured on a Facebook group called FAST: Female Aviators Sticking Together and began taking orders in Canada and abroad.
“It’s all women pilots in the U.S., Canada and some from Ireland,” said Wright. “We got shared on one Facebook group and it just just started sailing. People are pretty serious about supporting the aviation crowd.”
To date, the company has roasted hundreds of pounds of coffee in the small basement space that has been fitted with thousands of dollars worth of equipment to do the work.
Zago said the company is starting small and trying to find a balance so it doesn’t grow too fast, especially if they were to be suddenly recalled to their careers as pilots.
“We figure we have a solid six months before we can get back to work. That’s best-case scenario,” said Zago.
He added that the partners don’t want to stop the coffee roasting business once we they get back in the sky.
“We have the hooks in it and we like being entrepreneurs. If nothing else it’s been good for our mental health because while the aviation business has gone down in flames around us we have had this to focus on.”