SISSIBOO COFFEE – Roasting and Rooted in Rural Living

Jon and Erin Welch left the forestry industry and other work in the province of British Columbia to seek a new beginning in Nova Scotia. As aspiring entrepreneurs, they took a chance by bringing something new to a rural area. But while Jon and Erin invested in their business, the communities of Annapolis Royal and Bear River invested in them. With local support, Sissiboo Coffee Roaster grew beyond their expectations. As the company continues to expand, Jon and Erin maintain their values of producing high-quality, fair trade, and organic products.

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Jon and Erin Welch were born on the opposite coasts of Canada, and they met while tree planting in British Columbia 20 years ago. Both Jon and Erin were born and raised in small communities; Malagawatch, on the amazing Bras d’Or Lake shore of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, and Telkwa, in beautiful British Columbia. They enjoy rural living and outdoor activities such as camping and canoeing. While working in small towns in British Columbia, Jon began to take an interest in the coffee culture he found on most main streets. He watched the small businesses with micro coffee roasters take off and gain popularity. On his days off he enjoyed drinking great coffee and talking with owners and roasters about their success. Both Jon and Erin knew they had the self-motivation and desire to work for themselves and coffee roasting was a way to start their entrepreneurial journey, and they never looked back.

In 2009 Jon and Erin decided to purchase a building in Bear River, Nova Scotia, and introduce micro coffee roasting to the area. They purchased a small commercial roaster machine that could roast 5 lbs of coffee beans at a time and began the plans for their new business, Sissiboo Coffee Roaster. “It was like joining a secret society,” Jon said jokingly. “Nobody was giving away any trade secrets, so we had to figure it out on our own.” They chose the name Sissiboo Coffee Roaster in recognition of the impressive Sissiboo River, a tidal river located in southwest Nova Scotia. “We felt it was important to choose a regional name that would help promote the area,” Jon described.  Their original business plan was to only have wholesale partnerships. But being in a small community, they took advantage of the exposure from participating in the Annapolis Farmers Market, the oldest farmer’s market in Nova Scotia, on Saturdays in the summertime. While forming loyal customer relationships with the locals at the market, they, unfortunately, had a hard time getting their new coffee recognized for wholesale partnerships. Not achieving their goal only added fuel to the fire as Jon and Erin were motivated to be successful. “One of our motivations to open the coffee shop in Annapolis was that nobody had picked us up to serve in restaurants. We thought it would be a good way to put a face on the business,” Jon explained. 

Knowing they already had local support from their reputation at the farmer’s market, Jon and Erin opened their first brick-and-mortar coffee shop in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in July of 2014. Opening the Sissiboo Coffee Bar was a swift, two-day affair. “We partnered with a friend of ours who was looking for a co-tenancy setup,” Jon said. “It was an incredibly lean operation to begin with, one that has been added to significantly over the years.  It received amazing local support that has helped us grow over the years,” he explained. The coffee shop has become a social gathering spot for people in the community. “We said right from the beginning, if you come, we’ll stay open,” Erin added. “So many of our customers are regulars, familiar faces that come by every single day.” 

After the success of the Annapolis Royal location, Jon and Erin opened another coffee shop in Bear River in 2016, two years later. To this day, they run both the Sissiboo Coffee Roaster wholesale side and the two Sissiboo Coffee Shops and Galleries.  Jon and Erin operate their company together, each filling vital roles in the business.  Jon does all the roasting. He has developed the profiles and does the research about which coffee beans they bring in. In recent years, they have invested in a larger roaster, and they can roast 25 lbs of coffee beans at a time. Jon still uses the original, smaller roaster of 5 lbs per batch for coffee samples. Erin took on the HR and managerial role of their wholesale, coffee shops, and art galleries. She oversees a lot of the behind-the-scenes action including managing staff. “On any given day, we’re wearing a lot of hats,” Erin said, “but this is the element of being an entrepreneur that keeps things interesting.” To pay their bills while growing their business, Jon and Erin took on other jobs such as construction, landscaping, and property management for alternate sources of income. “We did not take a wage from the business for seven years. We just kept rolling the money back into it as much as we could,” Jon said. “We did get free coffee though,” he teased.

The Sissiboo Coffee Roaster wholesale side of the business grew alongside the coffee shops. “I think people realized we were in it for the long haul and we’re worth investing in,” Erin said. They have now been picked up by over 100 businesses, from small coffee shops to restaurants, hotel chains, and grocery stores. Our customer base is very diverse at this point, but the majority are other small businesses,” she added. When buying Sissiboo Coffee from either wholesale or retail markets, people can expect high-quality, fair trade, organic coffee beans. Purchasing fair trade is a value for both Jon and Erin. “We appreciate the work that goes into creating products and paying a fair price,” Erin said. Customers can purchase from Sissiboo Coffee Roaster with guaranteed freshness and the roast date stamped on each bag. They offer 2 dark roasts, 2 medium roasts, espresso, and decaf coffee.  “We don’t do any blending, it’s all single origin,” Jon explained. “We depend on the quality of the beans, and we just try to bring out those qualities to create the roast profiles that we use.” 

Jon and Erin enjoy the relationships that have been created in both the wholesale and retail sides of their company.  “There’s a real familiarity with the rhythms of our customers,” Erin said as she described their ability to anticipate when orders from each business will come in. “I think it’s a perk of working with a small company. Our customers feel very known and appreciated,” she said. The retail customers also feel a strong connection with Jon and Erin because they have truly seen Sissiboo Coffee grow firsthand. “They have seen us go through the most dramatic growth periods that this company will ever have, right from zero,” Erin continued. “Our success is their success. We are successful because our community decided to support us.”

While looking to expand their company, Jon says they never think about relocating. “We prefer to be picked up by coffee shops that are already operating in other areas. Quite often you see businesses move to the city, but I think it’s important to show the strength of rural living by sticking around,” he explained. Being surrounded by family, friends, and a wonderful community that continues to support them is very important to Jon and Erin as they grow. In the works right now, Sissiboo Coffee Roaster is financing a new production line and investing in a rebranding. Jon and Erin are hoping their expansion will allow them to explore business opportunities in larger grocery chains and export outside of Atlantic Canada. “We’re looking at an intentional growth spurt over the next couple of years,” he said eagerly. 

We look forward to watching Sissiboo Coffee Roaster expand and continue to supply customers with quality, local products. Vendors wishing to contact Jon and Erin about wholesale partnership opportunities are encouraged to visit their website or send them an email at wholesale@sissiboocoffee.com.

by Gabrielle Gamblin