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  • Writer's pictureDave Veale

It began with a dream… and a love of good coffee

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

Mike Duncan
Mike and Vanessa Duncan of Rogue Coffee. Photo Nienke Izurieta

What’s the connection between an electrical company and a coffee shop? In Saint John that connection is Mike Duncan, owner of Duncan’s Electrical and – more recently – Rogue Coffee Company. The coffee shop features Pilot Roasters Coffee (Toronto) and Modbar brewing equipment in a very unique location.

Mike hasn’t ventured into the coffee business alone. He and his wife Vanessa – both Saint Johners – started the business together in August 2017 after discovering a small space down a cool alley in Uptown Saint John.

As I sipped on my Americano and relaxed in a corner of Rogue Coffee, I asked Mike to tell me about his new venture…

A: Rogue Coffee began with a dream and a love of coffee. A big part of our vacationing – never anywhere too extravagant – always included visiting various cafes. We always appreciated coffee for the coffee itself, but it was also about the experience of the coffee shop – the energy and the vibe.

Casually we’d throw out that,“Someday, wouldn’t it be cool though to own a coffee shop?”And then we’d say,“Yeah, it’d be cool. It would also be a lot of work.”

Q: So, fast forward to today…

A: Our electrical company, Duncan’s Electrical, worked on several large projects with Historica such as Picaroons, Buckland Merrifield, Locavore, 14 apartments and the Bustin’s project.

During one project we saw these spaces that were available for lease. Most of them were already spoken for – the Five & Dime, Yuk Yuks and Tuck Interiors had secured units, but there was this other weird spot off of an alley that was just a tool room at the time. I took the space for a cool Duncan’s Electrical office.

One day I said to Vanessa,“Maybe, this is the time to actually think about the coffee shop. It could be amazing. The alley is so inspiring on so many levels and there is a vibe to set the scene of what Uptown Saint John is becoming.”

Q: So no second thoughts?

A: I’d have days where I’d be driving down Prince William Street and see a storefront and say,“Am I crazy? I’m shoving this coffee shop in some unknown location down an alley?

Q: How did you come up with the “Rogue”name?

A: Vanessa had the name of Rogue in her head from the beginning. We thought it suited us because we are doing coffee differently than it’s ever been done in Saint John.

[Tweet e a”We’re doing coffee differently than it’s ever been done in Saint John. – Mike Duncan”]

Q: What makes you different?

A: We’ve got different equipment. We are a destination. We’re not a drive-through. It can be a hidden little spot for a rogue stop. So Rogue seemed to fit well.

Q: Does Saint John need another coffee shop?

A: We want to be a value-add to Saint John and we didn’t want to open Rogue Coffee to the detriment of somebody else. We just want to offer a product that we feel Saint John is looking for.

Q: How has the business community responded to Rogue?

A: A lot of Uptown businesses are very collaborative and supportive of each other. It’s a really great feeling. We want to be a part of that feeling. Our three pillars are quality, customer service and community interaction.

Q: Where do you source your coffee?

A: We sourced as much coffee as we could from coffee roasters across Canada. There are logistical issues with getting it from the States. We assembled a team of six people to taste the coffee together – we felt it was very important to have other palettes involved.

Q: Will you roast your own coffee at some point?

A: At this stage we’re not looking at roasting. There are amazing roasters across Canada.

Q: Why choose Pilot Coffee Roasters?

A: Treating people well has always been a top priority for us and that included the source of the coffee. So the important questions when we met Pilot Coffee Roasters were,“Where’s this coffee coming from? Is it ethically sourced? What are your relationships with the farmers? Is it fair trade? Is it direct trade? Is it a Rainforest Alliance?”

Q: So direct trade was important to you?

A: Absolutely. Direct trade means that Pilot Coffee Roasters are caring about the farmer. They know them. They visit the farms.

Q: Is this important to your customers?

A: I think it’s very important for the customer. They know that their coffee – from the planting and picking of the bean – was all done with intention and people were treated well along the way.

Q: Tell me about your approach to customer service.

A: We feel coffee is an experience. So when you’re coming down the alley and you’re entering Rogue, we hope it’s a magical experience. And possibly one of the best cups of coffee you’ve had in your life.

Q: What kind of an experience are you trying to create for your customer?

A: So for most people, they probably grab a coffee and never think about it again. We want you to walk in – be greeted – and not feel weird. We don’t want any pretentiousness about the coffee. We want it to be very accessible. We price it at a very accessible level.

We respect the coffee. We respect our customers and we respect Saint John enough to serve coffee that could be the best coffee in the world.

Q: You’re aiming for world-class?

A: Absolutely. We didn’t want to aim for a little bit better than the next guy. We said,“Let’s blow this thing through the roof.”

Q: Tell me about your focus on community engagement and involvement.

A: Well, Duncan’s Electrical has been open almost five years. We’ve done great projects over the years but I’ll tell you what has given life to the business and me as an owner and our employees…it is when we help out Romero House or we get involved with Area 506 or we throw a queue across the alley for Quality Block or for the E2L Jam. It’s those encounters that breathe life into things. For Rogue, we want to do the same thing for Saint John because we love the city so much.

Q: What are your plans for Rogue when it comes to community engagement?

A: Our plans are grand – we want to dream big for the future. So far we’ve been able to do things like host a photography exhibit. Our goal is to have people come in and not feel they have to buy a coffee. Just come in and enjoy our environment.

Q: What’s it like being in business with your wife?

A: It’s good. We get to spend time together. We get to tackle issues as a team. We have a 7-year-old daughter and we’ve really tried to be very aware that the business can easily consume our life. The biggest challenge – for both of us – is that it is so hard to disconnect at times.

Q: What advice would you give to the budding entrepreneur?

A: My advice would be to do it for the love of your idea and don’t let that get lost in the day-to-day muck because, otherwise, it’s going to be a hateful experience.

Q: How would you finish the following sentence?“A leader’s job is to…?”

A: A leader’s job is to inspire.

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This article published in the Telegraph-Journal on Saturday, December 23rd, 2017.

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