The Roasterpreneur Series focuses on inspiring up-and-coming roasters and offers advice on running a successful roastery. This week, we spoke with Jacob O’Riain, the founder of Off-Grid Camper Cafe, which is not only solar-powered but also North America’s first and only hand-pressed espresso café.
Jacob was fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by the bustling coffee culture in Australia, which sparked a lifelong desire to build an ecological enterprise. During his time studying business at university, Jacob developed the idea for a solar-powered campervan that sold coffee on the go. That said, a business like that is unlikely to open overnight, and Jacob has spent years researching and developing it.
After moving to Canada, Jacob noticed the local coffee scene differed vastly from that in Australia. However, it was here that he and his partner Ella found the campervan that would eventually become a cafe and home on wheels. It has taken the pair four years to secure a loan and complete the work needed on the van. Now, the Off-Grid Camper Cafe features a full living area for Jacob and Ella, as well as a bakery and coffee serving station. After a road trip through Canada in order to test the van, the pair were ready to trade.
A campervan becomes a solar-powered coffee shop
“It’s taken years of hard work to transform the van into a workable space,” Jacob explains. “We only had the solar power set up completed this year. That said, the van is now powered by nothing more than a few solar panels, batteries, and a bit of propane.” This allows the Off-Grid Camper Cafe, also affectionately known as the OG Camper Cafe, to park anywhere without the need to connect to power. The van has no need for electric outlets or space for generators, presenting the brand with limitless business opportunities and countless potential consumers.
The idea of running the business through solar energy stems from Jacob’s desire to build a business that had as little impact on the planet as possible. In order to build the solar panel system, Jacob reached out to a small, local battery company that agreed to sponsor the project. Following this, Jacob realised supplies such as wires could be costly. Therefore, he garnered support and discounts from local hardware stores, which made the outstanding materials more affordable. Now, the Off-Grid Camper Cafe has secured a spot to sell coffee at Clover Point Park, and a second van that is awaiting refurbishment.
The coffee itself has also been a hit. The beans, a blend of Peru and Colombia, are roasted by Tofino Coffee Roasting Company in a way that resembles light Australian coffee. The sourcing and sustainability values of Tofino Coffee are perfectly aligned with OG Camper Cafe, making it a match made in heaven. Additionally, the Camper Cafe team uses a Flair to produce hand-pressed espresso – helping the business save up to 80% on electricity. This hand-pressed technique provides the barista with control over more variables than a usual espresso machine. More so, Jacob has created a unique milk steamer by modifying a pressure boiler – again reducing the amount of energy required to brew an order.
Educating the community about coffee waste
To further boost its sustainability credentials, OG Camper Cafe uses compostable takeaway cups and lids. That said, the brand offers a 50c discount for consumers who bring their own reusable cups in order to reduce the amount of single-use waste. More so, the used coffee grounds are sent to Long Beach Farms to be used in compost, while the OG team uses them to make espresso soap, which they sell from the van.
Customers have responded well to the coffee, and the business has made a great impact on the community. The team has catered to thousands of people at several festivals, and despite doing everything manually, Jacob and Ella manage orders efficiently. Therefore, consumers never wait in long queues, which has resulted in amazing customer feedback.
Interestingly, the pair have found customers either love or hate the overall idea of the business but do so with passion. “Sometimes, people get annoyed because they assume I’m just a guy in a van, trying to live an easy life by selling coffee,” Jacob says. “However, they don’t see the four years of hard work and sacrifice that have gone into building this!’
Partnerships that align with the brand values
“It’s important to remember that you can’t do something new or push for change without facing resistance or questions,” Jacob says. In order to grow the business and increase brand awareness, he inquired about partnerships with several local businesses. As a result, the Camper Cafe secured a spot at the local Patagonia – Victoria store over the 2022 Christmas period.
More so, the brand has landed another pop-up spot with Patagonia Vancouver in the near future. As a business, Patagonia is known for its dedication to social enterprise and environmental protection. Jacob’s determination to partner with those who align with his values is a clear demonstration of how standing firm by your beliefs can lead to opportunities with like-minded businesses.
Since then, the partnership with Patagonia has blossomed even more so. Recently, Off-Grid Camper Cafe was invited by Patagonia to attend the West Coast triple plank. The team supplied coffee for the annual snowboard, surf, and skate event that takes place on the slopes of Mt. Washington and the wild west coast of Vancouver Island. The event coincided with the opening of the brand’s new location at Surf Grove Campground on Cox Bay Beach in Tofino, where Off-Grid Camper Cafe will be permanently based until year-end.
The brand recently received a technology grant from the local government in order to encourage e-commerce, helping open up additional revenue streams. Jacob reveals the team are using the funds to invest in a website and branded coffee bags to sell beans from Tofino Coffee. “I’ve got a crazy design idea for the bags, and I’m looking for the best possible packaging. I’m researching which is truly the most sustainable option for us. I’ve discovered compostable bags may be difficult to dispose of here, and so, recyclable coffee packaging may be a better option.”
Much can be learned from Jacob’s determination and entrepreneurship. As a business owner, Jacob displays confidence when asking for support and finding new solutions. His forward-thinking and proactive drive has led to sponsorships, partnerships, and opportunities that may have been missed had he chosen to sit back and wait for the ‘right’ time.
“Believe in yourself and make sure the idea is worth pursuing,” he concludes. “It helps to have a purpose, other than money, to start your business: you need values and a mission you believe in, as it helps fuel the passion to succeed.”
Did you enjoy this edition of our Roasterpreneur Series? Learn more about running a successful coffee roastery by reading our interview with Owen’s Organic Coffee. Or dive into articles that revolve around our coffee community, with exclusive interviews with roasters, importers, and coffee shop owners.
Photo credits: Off-Grid Camper Café