The idea of a coffee shop business in Butuan, Agusan del Norte took about five years to brew for Emily Egmilan and Canadian husband Martin Bazylewich. And it took another two years before they could safely say that their coffee business is starting to smell like success. The seed was planted shortly after the couple met in 1997, when Emily was working for the local branch of the Department of Trade and Industry and Martin was completing his master’s thesis in the Caraga region.
Martin, who was studying in Singapore, loved coffee. Unfortunately, Butuan did not have a genuine coffee shop that could give him his caffeine fix. “He doesn’t like the taste of instant coffee,” Emily explains. “But there were no gourmet coffee shops here where he can have fresh coffee, even the hotels here in Butuan do not serve them.”
From their first bad-coffee dates, Emily’s and Martin’s relationship took many twists and turns. They included a long-distance relationship, their eventual marriage, and her joining Martin in Singapore. But the seed was ready to pop in June 2001, when Martin decided to pursue a doctorate degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, which meant he would have to quit his job and leave Singapore by the end of the year. Emily’s immigrant visa had not been approved then, so the couple could not move to Canada. The only option left was to go back to Butuan. Figuring out what they would do once they’re back in Emily’s hometown wasn’t hard for the couple. “Our stay in Singapore had exposed us to the gourmet coffee scene, and we felt it was time we introduced a similar concept to Butuan,” she says.
By the time Martin and Emily arrived in the country in January 2002, they had the business concept down pat, from which suppliers to tap to the colors of the store’s façade and interiors. In February, they found a 180-square meter space in a newly constructed building along the city’s main road. Although the space was bigger than what they originally planned, they took it because it meant lower renovation costs. The Bazylewiches took P500,000 from their savings to cover rent, construction, and equipment, the bulk of which came from Manila. They imported their lighting fixtures from Singapore.
In April 2002, the region’s first specialty coffee shop, True Brew, opened for business. “We don’t want to boast, but we are the first coffee shop in Caraga,” Emily says. “There were others who claimed to be the first but they’re not considered real coffee shops because they’re just restaurants that happen to serve coffee.” The downside to being the pioneer was that it took several years for Butuaneños to warm up to the idea of a coffee shop in their rustic city. “It’s very provincial here in Butuan and most people have never even tasted specialty coffee before,” Martin says. “True Brew was a brand new experience for everybody.”
To overcome this problem, they went on a coffee culture campaign. “We’d have little trivia cards on our tables that would explain the history of coffee, different types of coffee beans, drinks, what’s in everything.” Martin relates. “Fortunately, people actually read it.”
They unwittingly received promotional help from a very unlikely source: local television shows that aired foreign soaps with lead actors hanging out at coffee shops. “So when people here saw it, they would go, ‘Oh, we have that here too,’” Emily says.