Person of the Month: Ros Juan, Commune
On switching careers, being a woman in the industry, her Anna Wintour moment, and of course, Philippine coffee.
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On finding her way to coffee
How did you find yourself in this business?
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, I knew I wanted my own business; I just didn’t know what it would be. But in university I interned in a coffee place, and worked for that company afterward.
But when did the coffee start? Thinking back, it was probably visiting Italy at 13: being in coffee shops, watching people drink really fast at the bar or sit down to watch the world go by, seemed so very sophisticated. I watched it all, fascinated.
I stayed with the coffee company after college. In 2009 I came home after opening a shop in Shanghai. The fast pace and long hours got tiring. I said, “Sige, I’ll take a break [from coffee] to focus on digital.” I worked with an ad agency, handled accounts, started my own boutique agency.
But I missed being in a shop — starting with the pain of paying for my own coffee! But I also missed the action, the customers, my friends coming to see me. Then the Salcedo space opened up; we knew who had the lease and that they were letting it go. My friends were, “Didn’t you wanna open a coffee shop? There’s this reeeaally nice spot…”
So I just bit the bullet. I didn’t know what to expect. It was scary, but as with any business you just see what’s gonna happen. And that’s how Commune started in 2013, after I’d been out of the business for almost four years.
What was it like starting out?
Getting it up and running was the most exciting part. In 2013, restaurants that were conceptual had just started coming out here. My inspiration, conceptually, was drinks and experiences from my travels, my time in Shanghai, things I wish we had here.
The first thing I turned to was Pinterest. When you’re on there long enough, you start seeing a theme to your design inspirations. I went from there.
I knew from the get go that it’s going to be about Philippine coffee. I didn’t even entertain thoughts of other origins.
The story behind the name
While doing digital, I consulted a lot with online communities. We’d be speaking online like old friends, then realize we’d never met! So we would organize meetups, looking for new restaurants to host us. We knew all the closing hours throughout Makati. We’d stay out until 3 AM just talking, moving from one cafe to another kasi magsasara na [when it was time to close]! At one point we were sitting in Salcedo Park, with snacks from Ministop, leftover food, and literally nowhere to go. We were there for an hour and a half, and the joke was, “Alam mo Ros, kung may coffee shop ka, may headquarters tayo.” So that’s where “commune” came from. I really wanted it to be a place to entertain groups for meetups, workshops, even performances.
On championing Philippine coffee
In your case, the coffee sourcing is part of the concept. You mentioned that Philippine coffee is important, but what was that like?
It was a hard sell at first, especially in third wave. Some people took it seriously, but others were, “What’s your case for local coffee? Kailangan ng defense.”
I would say people looked down on Philippine coffee, even thought it inferior. But we were out to prove them [wrong]. In 2013, we didn’t claim that all our coffees were specialty. Partly it was that lots of people may have had a bad experience with Philippine coffee, or they weren’t getting the right kind. That was part of the mindset we worried about. Although some were very interested to see what kind of Philippine coffee we had, what we could do with it.
Fast forward to 2017, 2018. Shops were opening up and featuring Philippine coffee. The interest is really high. On Instagram, we used and still use the #PhilippineCoffee hashtag, and it used to be all our Commune pictures. Now if you look at it, there are so many merchants selling Philippine coffee in different forms. This is good, and I’d like to think we somehow played a part in piquing that interest.
Now when we get walk-ins, especially foreigners, I ask them, “So how did you find us?” They really looked for a place to try local coffee. With lots of hostels in the area, we get many travelers wanting to try coffee origins at source. And they’re so happy to find it at Commune, with their choice of brewing methods.
From cafe owner to roaster
I knew from the onset that we wouldn’t franchise. I didn’t envision Commune as a chain; because for me, Commune is this space and neighborhood. If we were to expand, it would be one or two smaller store, But roasting is our real expansion plan.
Why? Because roasting in-house tightens the supply chain for us. We’re sourcing now from the farmers: visiting the farms, seeing how they do stuff, even training farmers on process improvements. That’s one end of quality. The other is brewing in house, or training baristas. Roasting was missing link for us, because we were still outsourcing.
I had the opportunity to learn about roasting, and I thought, hmm maybe it could be done. For me, roasting was the most daunting part. I’d only seen it done on huge machines, where one mistake means wasting how many kilos of coffee.
It seems so technical. But when I learned about it, and tried it with much smaller roasters, I’m like, Ok! I could get the hang of this! And I sought more education. Roasting really helps us control the quality, and for me, really helps me get to know the coffee better.
Before, it would be just what the roaster gave us and I’d decide if it’s ok or not. But now, we’re very involved even in developing the flavors.
Is there a profile you’re going for, that you want Commune to be known for?
For me, coffee is all about balance. For the Philippine market, that balance is a delicate one: between the darker roast they’re used to, and the acidity they’re afraid of. There’s still the notion that acidic coffees are old or whatever. But there’s a pleasant acidity, which you can develop in local coffees. It’s more apparent in origins like Ethiopian or Central American, where acidity is the first punch you get. Philippine coffee is more earthy, chocolatey. But if you roast it just right, you get pleasant acidity and some fruitiness.
We’re more involved in that part now, which makes it more exciting for me and the rest of the team. There’s pride that goes into it. Like, Yeah, we roasted that in house!
We also represent Probat in the Philippines, so we hold classes on roasting and opening a coffee shop. For others who want to fulfill their dream of opening a shop or a roastery, or both, that’s something we can also help them with.
Future plans apart from roasting?
World domination! Definitely more classes. Demand is at an all-time high. There are many courses out there, some very technical. What we do here is for people trying to get their feet wet.
For How to Open a Coffee Shop, most customers come from the professional field. Seeing it as a career shift or as a retirement plan.
Supporting women in the industry
You’re one of the more visible faces in the International Women in Coffee Alliance (IWCA) here. How did that start?
I learned about IWCA in 2013. A Filipina Q grader and coffee trader got in touch with my aunt [local coffee industry figure Chit Juan] on starting a Philippine chapter.
ICWA helps women in all aspects of the supply chain: farmers, roasters, traders, cafe owners. It’s a lot about networking. Studies show that for any industry, it’s important for women to be part of an an industry organization, something men are used to but we are not. Men have the Rotary and all these male-centric organizations, and being part of that grows their network and helps them become successful.
In coffee, it’s the same. Having that network, gaining access to people in other parts of the supply chain, learning experiences, sharing best practices. So that is what IWCA provides.
We started a small group here. We’re trying to get more traction, more information out, by organizing small events. In 2018, I’m proud that ICWA was able to do at least six trainings nationwide for women in coffee farms. This was done with the Department for Agriculture’s gender initiative, and also with ECHOsi Foundation. Sometimes international organizations help as well.
Are there particular issues for women working in coffee that male colleagues might not?
There are really more male baristas than females, I have no idea why. We’re trying to find more female baristas and we’re having a hard time. Maybe it’s really just training, because there are lots of Filipina baristas abroad.
Other challenges? I don’t think there’s much discrimination at shop level. But at the farm there are still a lot of challenges, and any additional help — access to markets, technology, learning, funding or even just being recognized for the work — gets their product closer to the right market.
Helping farmers find the potential of their coffee
We travel to different areas to train: Sultan Kudarat, Nueva Vizcaya, Sagada, Butuan, Davao, Vigan. I talk about coffee markets, to show them how much people pay for a good cup and what kind of coffee they’re looking for. We open their eyes to the fact that they don’t have to roast all their coffee, that there is a market for their green beans.
Usually then there’s Jennifer Remando, a farmer from Sagada who’s also a Q grader. She talks about good practices in farming, in post process, and then we do a cupping.
The cupping shows how important it is for them to taste their coffee. Farm reality is that beans are categorized for sale, and the farmer drinks the bad ones, the cracked ones not even sold at the public market. So they don’t get to taste the potential of their coffee. But they need to, because the improvements we suggest are tedious, taking more time and more investment. But we show them that with just these tweaks in the process, your coffee can sell for this much more because of the quality.
We show them photos of coffee crawlers — you guys — telling them, these are the people you want to sell to. Coffee to them is not just a drink. They study it, they try it from different places. And to the farmers, that is such an eye opener.
We do the cupping blind, with local and international beans. We ask which do you like, which don’t you like, which do you think is local? And they always know which ones. They have a sense of it, the skill just needs development.
For 2019, we hope to do more training, reach more people, have more discussions like the panels we’ve had here.
On her hair
Now, finally… your hair! Do you dye it yourself? What made you decide to go with it?
It’s an unfulfilled dream from the 90’s! But I’ve always had short hair, not as a fashion statement but because in my family, our hair goes wild at puberty. So it’s always been short, but I cut it this short for my parents’ 50th anniversary, to complete the look with a brightly-colored gown. We experimented with the color, and now the hairdresser I work with is like, “Wala, feeling ko stuck ka na dyan forever. Yan na yung Anna Wintour moment mo.”