‘Wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it,’ from an African proverb. The baobab tree pronounced bey-oh-bab can grow to thirty metres in height and eleven metres in width, in fact in South Africa you can find a pub inside one. In latin the baobab tree is named adansonia digitata which means an outstretched hand, an image that is inkeeping with one of it’s most important cultural functions, that is to provide a meeting place for people to share ideas, stories and to simply catch up.
Alex Thorpe and Luigi Fanzini are the owners of Baobob Coffee Roasters. They are childhood friends that grew up in Nairobi, a city that became the centre for coffee, tea and spices during the colonial period due to the an African rail network that headquartered there. Nowadays it is the base of several multinational companies in Africa as well as the UN. It is also the only city in the world to have a game reserve border it.
‘I guess everyone wants to live the dream in someway and there is no better dream then starting a business with your buddy,’ says Fanzini. His Italian father was an engineer, when he got a contract to work in Africa he met his wife and they settled in Kenya. Fanzini’s mother is from Cyprus. Her parents fled Cyprus during World War II to Egypt but when things became unstable in North Africa they moved to Ethiopia were she was born and raised. Fanzini stresses that an exotic mix of nationalties is very typical in Kenya, ‘I know some people with three passports.’
Fanzini has an infectious laugh and a face with no apparent lines. His long hair suits him, just as Thorpe’s short hair suits him. They sit in opposites not only in hair but demenour. Thorpe is the person that keeps the business on target, ‘I look after most of the business aspects, I’m not sure I enjoy it but it’s a necessity, I have to keep Luigi’s spending on track,’ he grins. Fanzini is the artistic part of the equation even though he studied biotechnology at DCU which surpised Thorpe at the time, ‘but he’s just one of these people that succeeds at anything he applies himself to.’ Thorpe’s career has, for the most part, always been in the hospitality industry, he used to work in the Conrad hotel in Dublin, only once did he have a job outside that industry, ‘I wasn’t happy there simply because I wasn’t working with food.’
Fanzini is exuberant but not in an overbearing way, he is the host at a party that makes everyone feel welcome, Thorpe is quieter but defintely not shy. He has an air of calmness and focus, he is the person at the party that you get locked into fascinating conversation with. They both are young, ambitious, excellent listeners, modest and self deprecating. You can’t but smile in their company, their chemistry is like that feeling you get when you remember your best childhood holiday, that is a mix of excitement, wonderment and adventure.
‘Going to school in Kenya meant the best geography trips,’ said Fanzini. ‘I remember walking through coffee plantations as a child,’ adds Thorpe, ‘I loved it. I always loved the taste of Kenyan coffee.’ Thorpe was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. He went to England for boarding school and at the age of nineteen moved to Australia to study hotel management. ‘I worked part time in Australia for a café, I just loved being behind an espresso machine, I thought it was cool!’ The seed for this business formed in his mind during that time of study, ‘whenever I went to eat I always thought the coffee was so bad at the end of the dinner. I knew for several years before we started this business that I wanted to change the coffee ideology of restaurants. We want to keep the focus on quality. We want to get to know our customers, that’s why we are starting with a small client base. We want to get to know them by name and train them for free.’
For Fanzini the love affair with coffee started through his mother. In Ethiopia they practise a coffee ceremony which involves drinking coffee and eating popcorn, please watch this short video to learn more. When he was four years of age his mother’s Ethiopian friend Ade showed him how to roast coffee using a frying pan and also taught him how to conduct the coffee ceremony. As he grew older he experimented roasting coffee using a popcorn machine and table roasters.
‘If Nairobi was a person I would describe it as open and amazing,’ beams Fanzini. They grew up with people from all over the world and their flesh is made from different worlds colliding therefore it’s only natural that one of the missions of their coffee is that it’s made up of many different varieties, ‘to keep it from getting boring.’
The business is based in Celbridge, County Kildare. It’s cobalt blue façade leaps out from the street. Once inside the one thing that strikes you is the warm ambience. Nearly everything in there was made or given to them. A friend constructed some of the furniture, Fanzini’s mother sent over beautiful Heidi Lange paintings that depict Kenyan people, ‘nearly every house in Kenya has a Heidi Lange.’ Everything about the café sits in contrast with the experience most people have had with speciality coffee. That is, interiors and staff that are uncomfortabley cool. It can be like the personification of that clique of obnoxious people at school that thrived on making it quite clear that you didn’t fit in. Baobab is not like that, ‘we want the brand to be open and friendly. Due to our upbringing we discovered how to talk to different people.’
It is that openess that motivated them to have the roastery on site, they want people to be curious and look at the roaster. ‘We wanted to knock through the wall so that people could see it from the café but it was not possible structurally.’ Instead the door to it is made of glass and people can look in, which they do. It’s wonderful to see the intrigue on peoples’ faces, initially they aren’t sure if they are allowed to peer in but the smiles of encouragment from the owners is all they need, and suddenly that feeling of childhood wonderment takes over.
‘We went to The Netherlands to purchase the Giesen in 2014.’ Part of it looks like a locomotive train, they are in awe of it, it is after all the heart of the business. ‘We want to keep the focus on quality. We want to get to know our customers, that’s why we are starting with a small client base. We want to get to know them by name and train them for free.’ They are just seven months in business and already they are a guest coffee of The Happy Pear in Greystones, they are available at Bear Market Blackrock and at Clement & Pekoe. ‘Dairine of Clement & Pekoe is great. I remember going in there to try and sell our coffee. It was full of customers and they were so busy but instead of turning me away she said take a seat, have some food and drink on us and I will speak to you in a bit. She tried our coffee and loved it.’ You can tell the memory of someone making time for their coffee, humbles them.
For Fanzini the ‘scariest thing I’ve ever done is this. My sleeping patterns have gone down the drain but I get to unload the stress by chatting to customers. We’re just two regular guys who don’t have a huge budget, so financially it is very scary. Alex convinced me to start this business with him, I had a great job as a quality control analyst but I had an opportunity to go into business with my best friend.’ For Thorpe the push to start the business came from losing his job, ‘my girlfriend was pregnant at the time so going on welfare was not an option but I just didn’t want to start searching for another job, that’s why I decided to do this.’ He now has a six month old son and the support of his Polish girlfriend that he treasures, ‘I would not of been able to do this without her.’
‘I had a gun pulled on me in Dublin, I was walking down a laneway near St Patrick’s Cathedral. This random guy pulled out a gun and pointed it to my face as he was walking away. He didn’t try to rob me, I guess he just wanted to scare me. Then there was the time in Nairobi when my parents and I nearly got carjacked. Three guys with guns started to surround the car and my Dad just floored the accelerator. It does change your perspective on life.’ It would be naïve to not acknowledge that these violent episodes also thrust Thorpe into realising his dream of working for himself.
Perhaps it’s the speed at which things have moved that has not afforded them the time to pause and give themselves a huge pat on the back. They have achieved so much but you get the impression that they won’t allow themselves to bask in it, perhaps it’s their modesty or fear of standing still for too long. Like any good relationship they keep each other going when overwhelming feelings kick in because they have bigger goals for their delicious coffee. There is African proverb that is very apt for this pair of entrepreneurs, ‘a friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.’
You can visit Baobab’s coffee shop and roastery here.
You can order their coffee online here.
The number 67 bus can take you there from Dublin City Centre.