Ottawa-Based Bridgehead Coffee Gains National Presence with Wholesale Distribution [Interview]

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Ottawa-based Bridgehead Coffee, the first coffeehouse in Canada to offer fairly-traded coffee more than 40 years ago, was forced by the pandemic to double down on plans to grow outside Ottawa.

Through ecommerce, a digital evolution and retail strategy, Bridgehead is now available to Canadians from coast-to-coast and at more than 100 grocery store locations across Ontario.

Its specialty coffee is available in grocery stores including Farm Boy, Sobeys, Costco and select Whole Foods locations as well as recently Longo’s in nearly all of its southern Ontario locations.

Image: Bridgehead Coffee

The history of the company dates back to 1981 with the original founding store under Bridgehead Trading. The current company was established in 2000.

But in January 2020, the company was sold to Aegis Brands and Kate Burnett took over its leadership.

Bridgehead has 21 coffee houses all in Ottawa. 

Kate Burnett

“(The company sale) was a few weeks before the pandemic and we’ve been working through the pandemic which really allowed us to double down and forced us to double down on the strategy around diversification. Expanding into ecommerce in a significant way and grocery and really using in addition to coffee houses the ability to start to expand outside of Ottawa which has always been important to us. But the timing really never seemed right,” said Burnett, the company’s President.

“But the pandemic’s silver lining is we were actually able to make very quickly really strong partnerships with Farm Boy, Costco, Whole Foods, Longo’s now, to get our coffee into the hands of the Bridgehead community – new and existing customers – where at the time of the pandemic we had eight weeks or so to shut down our coffee houses entirely. So that sort of expedited a new strategy that we pivoted with and that’s where we’re going now.”

Bridgehead Coffee in Ottawa, Ontario (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

The first grocery store selling the Bridgehead coffee was Ottawa-based Farm Boy in April 2020.

The presence in those grocery stores is great for brand exposure and the ability to get in front of more customers.

Burnett said the brand is looking to expand its partnerships focusing on Ontario and its core cities first and then to eventually expand nationally.

Image: Bridgehead Coffee
Image: Bridgehead Coffee

For many people, grocery stores will be the first introduction of the brand and that will allow the brand to expand across the country. 

“We see a big opportunity with ecommerce and the digital space with the goal of bringing that community hub, that really intentional, authentic experience that you get in the coffee house, online. So how do we bring that to the digital space as a big opportunity and a huge area of growth for us throughout the pandemic and continuing to be?,” she said.

“Likely we will expand brick and mortar but in a very intentional destination focused way and helping encourage that omni channel approach . . . That’s something in a couple of months we’re going to look at now. What is the brick and mortar plan? If we were to have a physical presence in a place like Toronto or beyond, would that help to spread the awareness and be that pinnacle of the brand experience. So it’s definitely on the table in terms of conversations.”

According to the company’s website, two United Church ministers and two social activists concerned for the prospects of small-scale coffee farmers in Nicaragua formed Bridgehead Trading in 1981. These farmers were contending with formidable odds: the pressure to trade through ‘coyotes’ or intermediaries (often local traders or moneylenders who exploited growers); a civil war; and the restrictions of a U.S. trade embargo, it says. 

Bridgehead Cafe (Wellington Village) Image: Wellington West BIA

“Bridgehead became the first company in Canada to offer consumers fairly traded coffee. A devoted group of volunteers sold Bridgehead coffee from Toronto church basements and interest spread rapidly. With headquarters in Toronto, Bridgehead ‘fairly traded’ coffee was well received by consumers, and within three years the business outgrew its informal structure and voluntary management,” says the company.

“In 1984 Oxfam-Canada acquired the business and formally incorporated Bridgehead as a federal, for-profit company. Oxfam-Canada, an international development agency, sought to bring more fairly traded products to market and to share the stories of the small-scale artisans and farmers who made the products. Diversifying the product line to include handicrafts proved to be more troubling than expected. As sales revenues grew, profits dwindled then turned to losses.

“In May 1998 Bridgehead underwent restructuring, culminating in new ownership by Shared Interest, a cooperative lending society based in the U.K. that specializes in financing the fair trade sector. Shared Interest held Bridgehead for one year in the interest of finding a buyer who could offer a future path for the company. 

“In the Fall of 1999 Shared Interest accepted an offer from Tracey Clark to purchase the name and return Bridgehead to its roots as a fairly traded coffee and tea company. In April 2000, Bridgehead (2000) Inc. was formed by three individuals with support from family and friends and on June 17, 2000 Bridgehead opened its flagship coffeehouse at 362 Richmond Rd. in Ottawa, Canada and renewed retail and wholesale sales of coffee and tea.”

Rideau Centre Bridgehead Coffee (Image: Design for Movement / Steer)

Bridgehead opened its own Roastery in June 2012 and now roasts all of its coffee in-house. The Roastery imports green beans from co-ops all over the world and roasts about 6,000 pounds of fairly traded, organic coffee every week. The coffee is used in all of the Ottawa coffeehouses as well as sent to a variety of wholesale customers and online customers all across Canada.

“When we opened new coffee shops, we really focused on always fair trade and always organic, especially at a time when that was very new and very environmentally focused,” said Burnett. “And basically grew one coffee shop a year in sort of the urban core of Ottawa. In the old city neighbourhoods and into the downtown core.

“We started roasting our own coffee in 2012 and really forming direct relationships with the coffee farmers that we work with. Really long term, sustainable, year-over-year relationships, and helping support them on achieving the highest quality standards because ultimately at the end of the day fair trade’s great and it’s important but quality is really what helps farmers make the most income that they can and that’s really become our focus. Quality, because people love quality and the coffee’s delicious.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

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