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Barista Stories: David Lalonde of Rabbit Hole Roasters, Montreal

“Whenever you want to threaten the status quo anywhere, you will feel resistance.” – David Lalonde.

We ourselves decided to challenge the status quo for a tiny moment and invite this week to Barista Stories a guest from the other side of the ocean. David Lalonde is a coffee professional born and raised in Montreal, Canada. He is the co-founder of Rabbit Hole Roasters, that was awarded “The Micro Roaster of the Year” by Roast Magazine.

David however is also known for challenging the status quo in the coffee industry and loudly speaking about some uncomfortable truths that some specialty purists and professionals tend to ignore. He not only stirs the pot but educates and shows and example of positive change and exemplary attitude with his initiatives and in the way he runs his coffee business.

Get prepared for a story longer than usual but packed with insights, controversial opinions and most importantly ideas on how we can make the specialty coffee industry better if we open our eyes and be a true community.

Barista Stories are sponsored by PUQpress.

David, what is your first memory of coffee? 

This happened so late for me. No one in my house drank coffee in the morning. I don’t even recall hearing the word coffee until I was in my teens. My first real memory of coffee is from when I was 18 and I was tired before going out with friends. One of them offered me a coffee. It was gross. I took it with cream and sugar and it became my emergency pick-me-up, something that tasted bitter but with good side effects.

​​​​​What inspired you to pursue a career in the coffee industry, and how did you get started? What did you do before coffee?

Before working in coffee, I worked in the restaurant industry. I was mostly a waiter and I was managing a restaurant at the end. I always loved to taste things, but working in restaurants meant mostly nights and I wanted a change.

Specialty coffee was new back then in my city. A friend of mine swore to me he found a place with coffee that wasn’t bitter and he even tasted blueberry in one the other day. ‘’What a fool !” I thought. But he was right, and I was hooked. Pretty much t the most unoriginal coffee origin story: I was compelled by a 2013 Yirgacheffe natural.

Can you elaborate on your journey leading up to starting Rabbit Hole Roasters? What were the key realisations that inspired you to create something different in the coffee industry?

I started as a barista like we almost all do. So for the first few years, my focus was on taste, brewing, extraction etc. I loved it. I thought the taste was all there was. That was until I worked for a roastery and was initiated into green coffee, roasting, and coffee buying. It was a pretty confusing experience because no one ever talked about the origins or the farmers, and we all just cupped and cupped to try and get that golden brew.

After this, I went back behind the bar while working on a little project where I rented a space to teach home baristas how to brew well at home. This kind of blew up and became my full-time enterprise for about 18 months. I developed a class around coffee’s history and even though it was fun for new enthusiasts, it was not diving very deep and I realised I had to focus more on something else than taste and brewing to fully grasp this industry.

After a short unconvincing stint at another roasting company, I decided that no one in roasting was willing to talk about where coffee came from, at least not the two roasteries I worked for.
Having just received my Q Grader license, I was hired by a new roastery to build their coffee program and I was tied: I had to do this for myself. Rabbit Hole was born and it’s been going on for more than 5 years now. 

You often mention a commitment to staying true to your vision without compromise. How do you ensure that Rabbit Hole Roasters reflects this vision in every aspect of its operation?

One of the things I keep asking myself is: why do I deserve to occupy space in this industry? What can I bring to it? To bring something new, you have to stay true to yourself. This means no shortcut. It means slow growth. It means saying no a lot. This also means asking tough questions to the people we work with and moving on from the people whose vision doesn’t align with mine. It means truth before hype, and people before profit.

Diversity seems to be a central theme for you, both in terms of coffee origins and stories. Could you share some examples of how Rabbit Hole Roasters embraces this diversity in its coffee offerings and storytelling?

Focusing on what I used to call ‘’emerging origin’’ is something we did from day one. Every coffee menu was the same (sometimes today as well) and we all had coffee from Colombia, Kenya, Ethiopia and something else.

Offering origins like China and Uganda made people curious and we are kind of known for that. The way I buy coffee has evolved now, but I still source from many less popular origins and people love it. It also gives me an opportunity to talk about different countries that are less talked about, and I learned a lot through this process. Then it’s just a matter of telling a story that is true without embellishing anything.

One of the most important coffees on our menu are from Guatemala. Solid washed coffees, but nothing spectacular. But the story behind why RH is invested in that group called Cafe Colis Resistencia is because that group of Indigenous Xinka producers organised so they could reach more buyers and sell their coffee for more. The goal: fight the illegal occupation of their land by a Canadian mining company who wants to destroy the region to exploit a silver mine.

My point is this: coffee is a vehicle for good if we choose to, and telling the stories that matter are key.

What challenges have you faced in challenging the status quo of the coffee industry, and how have you overcome them? Are there any specific instances where you’ve had to navigate resistance or scepticism?

Whenever you want to threaten the status quo anywhere, you will feel resistance. It’s just human nature. The key is to be consistent and to educate oneself. Staying true to our goals and values is crucial here: we can deviate because of people’s resistance to new ideas or ways of doing things.

If you start publishing transparency reports, some other roasters or importers might say it’s useless.
If you start saying ‘’we can’t buy coffee only based on cup score’’ you have an army of buyers and Q Graders arguing the opposite, and if you ever bring up dark roasts, watch out for the purist elitist geek who tells you your coffee only deserves to be on the grocery store shelves. But these situations are easy to handle because Rabbit Hole is small but successful, and I let people argue with themselves.

The most resistance I ever faced was at the end of 2023 when I started comparing how our industry reacted to what happened (and is still happening) in Ukraine versus how we reacted collectively to other events, most notably Palestine (but also in Sudan, the Congo, Ethiopia, Yemen, Haiti, etc. etc.). This showed me the true colour of many people and organisations and how we value different people unequally. I called this ‘’selective activism’’ and people did not like that one bit. Ukraine deserved unconditional aid and support, but for Palestine, it’s ‘’complicated’’. What is the difference?

You post a lot of hard truths on your @davidsrabbithole ig. Which three hard facts about our industry in your opinion are completely ignored but are important for everyone to realise so we can grow together in a fair and sustainable way?

This is my favorite question so far and I feel I could go so deep on the topic that it could have been the whole interview.

I think the number one fact that people don’t seem to understand is that the coffee systems in place today, even in the specialty world, are remnants or amended versions of the rules set during colonial times. By that I mean there is a massive power asymmetry between the Global North and the Global South. With the former dictating the rules of the trade and the latter being forced to follow, even if it’s keeping them in poverty.

Almost everything else comes from this first point.

But secondly, I’d say we have to centre origin and not just us in the Global North. This means less emphasis on gear, consumerism and individualism. It means sharing profits in a way that empowers farmers; just giving a premium one year won’t solve a thing. To integrate what farmers need to thrive in our mission rather than play the white saviours once in a while. It means that famous roasters need to stop buying coffee farms and focus instead on why can’t generational farmers can’t profit from their land.

The last point is that I want more people to realise that the big coffee organisations, the ones claiming to work for every actor in the industry, truly really work for the people in power, the people controlling the flow of coffee at a cheap price. And it is not working. They are part of this giant corporate machine that benefits an elite group of people and companies. We need a worldwide organisation that is based on community, problem-solving for the masses, one that would redistribute resources where it’s needed and not in the pockets of a few.

My main point here is this: we need to reorganise ourselves as a community, on a grassroots level, without catering to the feelings of people in power and the people making tons of money while so many are struggling.

I am ready for the coffee revolution. Is anyone else down? 

David, you also took part in coffee championships. Can you let us know more about it? Do you plan to take part in some championships in the near future?

Another question that could be an entire article! I did compete a while ago, the first time in 2016 and the last time in 2018 I think. The first two times I competed, I was a full-time barista and picked a coffee off the menu from one of the roasters we used at the shop. I had no idea about rules, concepts, etc. I still made it to Nationals and met many people, so that was great, but I had a zero chance of making the finals.

That was my favourite part: travelling and meeting new people as I was new to the industry.

The last year I competed, I had way more support. I worked as a sales representative and trainer for a roaster, I had way more time to practice and a budget to buy gear and a world-class coffee. I made it to the National finals but completely messed up my espresso service so I came in sixth, aka last of the finals 😉

What I took from that was: that you need so much time and so many resources to compete that I don’t think it’s worth it. I think that most speeches are similar and that even though we say we care about farmers, what we really care about is individual wins and expensive coffee from famous farms.

I think that for those competitions to be successful, we would need to change so many things so that the playing field is more equal and levelled for all. We would need to ensure that each national champion can travel to worlds, we would need to pick a couple of good coffees from unknown smallholders to help them build relationships through the competition, etc. SO many great things could come from that, but I see this as an ego-feeding business, nothing more.

Some other competitions are way better and more fun. The AeroPress one is fair because everyone gets the same coffee and the competition is just an excuse to throw a huge party.

So no, I have no intentions to compete again but I would be very excited to follow that world again and support it if I see drastic changes… But based on what I know about specialty coffee and the people in charge, it’s very unlikely to happen…

What kind of community do you hope to build around your roastery, and how do you plan to foster that sense of community?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I think Rabbit Hole can do more when it comes to community building. Currently, we are toying with the idea of opening a small retail spot for tasting and events, and really building momentum directly with the consumers and professionals in the city. A virtual platform could also be in the works, maybe via IG live streams, Patreon or Discord. And like every white man on planet Earth, maybe I should consider a podcast?

What coffee challenges are you looking forward to? Any new projects or collaborations?

I would love to start writing a lot more long-form articles. So writing, reading and finding different ways to talk about coffee is something I deeply aspire to. Memes and short, snappy posts for which I am known are useful up to a point, but I have more to give.

Quick Fire Questions for David Lalonde:

Would you serve filter coffee with milk if asked for it?

Anyone saying no to this question needs to change the industry.

Do you ever take sugar with your coffee?

No, but I don’t take offence to people doing it.

Espresso or Filter coffee?

Filter coffee, forever and always.

Truth or Dare?

I dare us all to seek the truth.

Slurp or spit?

A combination of both.

Do you aim for Sweetness, Acidity, or Body?

Tricky. But sweetness first, body second.

Favourite piece of barista equipment?

Bonavita 8-cup brewer. So easy, so tasty.