Despite the assumption of many, the Vancouver coffee chain Kafka’s isn’t actually named for writer Franz. (Sorry to disappoint the many hipsters who think that chilling at the café with an earmarked but unread copy of The Metamorphosis is the pinnacle of cool.)  

Instead, it’s the last name of its owner, Aaron, who has been running his eponymous cafes for more than a decade now. We sat down with the entrepreneur at his newest location in Gastown, which serves as the storefront of a four-floor co-working operation called Spaces.  

Vancouver magazine: Your third location here in Gastown opened right before the pandemic. How’d you survive that?  

Aaron Kafka: Yeah, it was really hard. We opened; sales were totally good. And then Gastown was hit the hardest. Gastown was a place people came to work, and no one came to the office anymore. This is a shared co-working space, it was full. Then COVID happened and they reopened to 10 percent capacity. The customers that we relied on aren’t here. The landlords were pretty nice though—right away they gave us some free rent.  

VM: How are things at all the locations now? 

AK: The co-working space here is like 50 percent capacity. We’re fully open but there’s just not enough people here, though there has been a good increase in the last two months.  

Great Northern Way was hit real hard. The school [Emily Carr] closed, businesses closed. It's clawing back, long term it'll be fine. Main Street has been fine, though it has other issues with [Broadway subway] construction. 

The government was very helpful, the subsidies. A lot of people don’t realize how hard the industry has been hit. There’s a lot of focus on the labour issues. For restaurant owners, it’s a real slog for us.  

VM: Really? I feel like there’s been a decent amount of coverage on how hard the industry has been hit?  

AK: Yeah, I guess there has. I think we as an industry put on brave faces. Fact is, we all lost a lot of money. But what are you going to do? You have to just roll with it. 

READ MORE: We Are Failing The Restaurant Industry

VM: You just recently made the switch to roasting your own beans. Was that a silver lining from COVID?  

AK: Yeah, totally. Had a lot more time to take on some projects, especially early on. We first wanted to make sure our food and baking program was way better, so we did that, including introducing Lil Bird Sandwiches at Main Street. And then I was exploring sourcing and roasting our own coffee, so I applied for the Business Recovery Grant and used all those funds to start the coffee roasting. 

VM: Was that a fairly big endeavour? 

VM: Yeah. For roasting, cash flow is really important. Because you have to basically buy a huge supply of your coffee for the year. So our GM Paul Rose learned how to roast, we hired a consultant, worked on design, rebranding, packaging. 

VM: Why is that an important change for you? 

AK: I just felt we needed to get back to our roots. I opened Kafka’s because I love coffee—the stories behind it, the interactions with people, the traceability.  

VM: Was part of it trying to step up amongst a really crowded Gastown coffee scene? 

AK: Not really. For this location I just really like the landlords. As I get older, I realize the people you interact with are really important. And the deal made a lot of sense.  

But I’m not worried about competitors—all we can focus on is giving good service, good product. We’re all a little different. 

VM: Speaking of competitors, Matchstick (along with some other Vancouver businesses) was called out for a culture of employee abuse during COVID. Was that a surprise to you?  

AK: It wasn’t a shock. Most people in the coffee industry knew it was terrible.

VM: What’s your general philosophy towards creating a healthy work environment? 

AK: Try and make sure staff is happy and supported. Fortunately, we have longer-term staff—Paul has been around almost 10 years. It’s about finding people you work well with and who can be helpful to each other. That’s the biggest thing. 

Kafka'sKafka's

VM: Tell me about the coffee you’re producing these days. 

AK: Definitely. Are you really into coffee?  

VM: I like it, but it’s similar to wine for me—I have a lot to learn. Whereas I know a decent amount about beer.  

AK: Well there’s a lot of similarities with coffee and beer. A few years ago, coffee beers were really popular. I think one of the reasons is because people drink it and feel like it tastes different. But a lot of coffee beers lack complexity. So now, in the last few years, people want complexity and hoppyness, a balance of the two.  

READ MORE: Two Coffee Beers Battle For All the Beans

That’s really common with new coffee roasters. They go for coffees that have a lot of acidity in them, because it’s easier to get that than a balanced cup. And a lot of new coffee drinkers think they like it because it’s something that tastes different and that they can identify.  

We worked hard to get it dialed in so that everything has that acidity, but in balance. The best things we consume are all in balance. Our Ethiopian and Guatemalan coffees, for instance, will satisfy any coffee drinker—super delicious, light, complex.   

But if you wanted to buy some coffee for your aunt, that’s our Simpler Times blend. We want to sell our coffee to restaurants, and it goes so well with food. I was drinking a cup and ate one of our breakfast sandwiches just thought it was fantastic with it. A lot of French pastry places like heavier, darker coffees because they cut through the fat of the pastries. That’s what this does but in a third wave coffee style. 

VM: Do you think you’ll do a beer collab at some point? 

AK: Yeah, I think so. I’ve known the guys from Brassneck for a long time. They’re good people. All my staff are regulars at Brassneck and most of their staff are regulars at Kafka’s. So I think we’ll do a collaboration with the brewery. But right now we want to focus on bringing in delicious, approachable coffee.