Fighting my way through the snow to his office, I couldn’t help but be curious as to whether or not we would have chemistry. Would our conversation go fluidly? Would I get to know Tim Wendelboe, or would he rather affirm the image I already had of him, as being very private?
Although it was such a mild December, and although I should be used to Norwegian winters, I was freezing cold. Still shivering, I took off my thick, way too sporty winter jacket with its fake fur and hung it with the other jackets in the hallway. Albeit, they were not jackets, they were coats. Nice, long woollen coats that belonged to well-dressed people. I, on the other hand, felt like a mix of “sporty spice” and a mother of five.
Nordic Approach, where I was meeting Tim, has a cosy little office. Open plan, with white and purple decor. Green too. Quite fitting really, as Nordic Approach is a sourcing company with a sole focus on high-quality green coffee. They identify, select and import the best coffee beans from the most interesting origins. Tim is a passionate co-founder.
While we were getting comfortable in the kitchen area, a couple of people passed us. Not in a rush, some would stop to say hi.
– Do you want some coffee?
Of course my answer was yes. It was Tim Wendelboe asking, after all.
I found it almost funny when he asked me if I wanted coffee, as if it was a connection we had already used up. With both of us being in the Oslo coffee community, him in a very big way, me in a very small way, our paths had previously only crossed through coffee. So, it had somehow lost its fluidity, it had become static. I just realized this when Tim asked me so straight forward if I wanted coffee.
It almost felt like a cliché, and I felt weird for over-thinking such a common everyday question. I didn’t say anything though, I just kept it to myself while opening my computer.
I do this a lot. Think about something too much, so quickly that the thoughts easily fit in between a question and an answer. In fear of not getting an answer if I share these thoughts, I always keep them to myself. I like hearing people answer, their tone of voice and the words they choose.
After spending some minutes brewing our coffee, Tim sat down in front of me and offered me a cup.
So, how are you?
I asked, not because I was actually interested, but because I wanted us to have a real conversation. The last thing I wanted was for him to feel like he was being interviewed. I thought I could almost spot it already, the way he wanted to be interviewed.
– I’m very good! I just got home from Paris.
Of course, we both knew what had just happened in Paris. I guessed he knew it very well considering he had been there, but his face seemed too light and playful to chase open that particular box of conversation.
Oh, you were there during the terrorist event?
I did it anyhow.
– Yes, but I didn’t see anything. Now I’m back to work. I mean, I’m always working.
He blew it off. Good.
He seemed proud of the fact that he’s always working. I guess that’s only natural. Or rather, I guess it really isn’t natural to give value to the amount of work as an end in itself, but aren’t we all doing it anyhow? Our work has come to define us. Somehow, it’s not working enough that makes us feel ashamed.
What does that mean, always working?
– Well, I have a plantation in Colombia for instance, which requires a lot of travelling. I’m travelling about 160 days a year. And when I’m finally home, I have a ton of work waiting for me.
Tim started working at the coffee shop, Stockfleths, in 1998, at age 19. Before working there, he didn’t even drink coffee. He would then go on to roasting coffee, and open up several new coffee shops under the Stockfleths umbrella, and in 2001 he took over the management of all their shops.
After winning the World Barista Championship in 2004, and the World Cup Tasting Championship in 2005, he left Stockfleths in early 2006 to work as a freelance coffee consultant and barista trainer. The change was ignited by a growing frustration of not working enough with coffee itself, but rather spending his time having to do office and maintenance work. Taking a step away from Stockfleths, was taking a step towards his passion.
The last day of June 2007, Tim opened the doors to his own espresso bar, training centre and micro-roastery. Located in Oslo’s Grünerløkka district, Tim Wendelboe’s coffee has not only become highly popular, but a definition of quality. The shop carries his name.
As we talked, Tim was in a good mood, smiling, keeping eye contact the entire time. Maybe because he was talking about something safe, comfortable, and something he obviously loves to do.
What does a regular week look like?
– A normal week is filled with answering e-mails, testing coffee, cupping, buying coffee, and roasting. I’m often in the shop; I think it’s really fun to work in the bar. Unfortunately, I hardly ever have time to do so, but when I’m not travelling I always try to be in the shop – to stay on top of things.
What do you do to relax then?
– Well, I love my job, so I don’t need much time away. But when I get home in the afternoons I make a point out of doing as little as possible. Ask my wife! She would agree that I can get quite lazy. And I love food and wine and beer. That’s sort of a hobby.
Any routines at all?
– Every Monday I quality control all the roasts from the previous week. Since it’s my taste that has to be reflected in the coffee we sell, it’s important that I’m there to do tastings and adjustments. It is also the day I crave something else, after tasting coffee all day – beer is really all I want. I’m trying to keep that Monday routine. A lot of the job is answering mails, talking to producers…
I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Tim didn’t drink coffee before he started working with it.
– In general, coffee doesn’t really taste that good, and when I was young the only coffee I had ever tasted was cheap low-quality coffee. I used to love making it for my mother and her friends when I was young though, and making it was more than half the fun. Taste was never the reason until I actually started working with coffee and realised that coffee can taste delicious.
Tim is born and raised in Bærum – a wealthy suburb on Oslo’s affluent west side. When he was 6, his parents separated.
– I got the whole divorce package – two Christmases, sometimes more. I used to celebrate with my grandparents as well. But I lived mainly with my mom.
His expression doesn’t change. Still keeping eye contact.
Was it a good childhood?
– Yes, you can’t complain when you’re born in Norway.
I disagree, but keep it to myself.
– I mean, when you see how a lot of people live in poverty around the world, in mud huts miles from the nearest waters source and with no electricity, you can’t complain when you come from the middle-class in Norway.
I nodded. He had obviously spent some time in those places, the parts of the world which most of us sometimes pretend doesn’t exist.
– I had everything I needed, although my mum didn’t have a lot of money. That has shaped my view on money and spending, I think. I am really not into material stuff – salary, things, space.
Hearing him say this makes me happy.
– But to be honest, the only things I was interested in at that time was my Nintendo, football and girls. And skateboarding, which was forbidden at that time.
He continues to smile, talking about his friends in school, and his sister.
How did they affect you, the people around you?
– My mother’s morals and strength has definitely affected me in a good way. My dad as well. My teachers of course, I had amazing teachers! And also my close friends at that time. I had a best friend during my school years, although we lost contact, she was a big influence.
I’m taking notes as invisibly as possible, trying to match his ability to hold eye contact.
– Oh, and my uncle! Although we weren’t super close, he sort of shaped the way I run my business.
What did your uncle do that inspired you?, I ask while thinking he must be a hard-core businessman.
– He is a freelance musician, and he is always optimistic and open-minded. So welcoming to the people around him, while I have a tendency to be critical. So I’m trying to be more positive. He definitely has been an influence in that way. And he has also taught me to be more opportunistic.
What great traits to be inspired by.
– I can basically get inspiration from anything.
That sounds so simple. «Get inspiration». But it’s not. I believe the ability to be inspired is an underestimated value, one that’s kind of hard. It requires an open mind and a deep respect of others. To be able to get inspired, and maybe even inspire others, should be a universal human goal.
Again, I feel myself getting religious during an interview. (continues)
Do you ever worry?
He seems so calm, yet focused.
– Almost never.
Wow, now that’s a trait! It’s my turn to get inspired.
– It’s easy. Life is too short to think about consequences, I try to think about solutions instead.
I know he’s right. Of course he is. We all know this: «It’s no use in worrying». But almost nobody excels in following through – it’s as if we’re born worried.
– It’s like when I was opening up my own store – the fact that I named it «Tim Wendelboe»… my own name. There was a discussion, what happens if we end up bankrupt? What happens to my name then? But, I mean, who cares. Does it really matter?
– The only thing that gets me really angry is when things get broken.
It sounds like the right attitude in order to get things done. I’m trying to learn that skill, I have been trying for 28 years. So, what matters?
– Well, I got married last summer. I’m trying to do other things too; I try not to work as much. I’m not so social, I’m social in my job, and there’s all these things I have to do, to get to do what I want.
What’s it like to be your wife?
– She needs to deal with the fact that I’m travelling a lot, but that’s all about coordination and she is extremely patient.
– I’m not interested in having kids.
How old are you?
The exact moment I asked this question, I saw myself from the outside and realised what I was doing. I’m putting my kids-age-calculation on him. Somehow, if he was older than me, and didn’t have kids, I didn’t have to stress about it either.
– Ehm, 36…
Did you have to think?
– Haha… I’m lazy by nature. There’s really nothing I want more than to lay on the couch and watch the winter Olympics.
I get this, I was thinking to myself, while daydreaming straight into my favourite activity; watching a semi-ok American TV-show while drinking wine.
– I’ve sort of always done my own thing. Always been lazy, and not caring if I’m different or what people think. When I was a teenager I wore this pink plush vest, a ladies vest. I had an image you know. I played in multiple bands.
Really? What sort of music?
This piece of information managed to both surprise and delight me.
– Rock. I had vocals, playing both drums and guitar.
Cool! I guess you’re still interested in music?
– No. I figured out that I didn’t have a talent for it, and then there was no point. I didn’t like it enough to practice. I’ve never really wanted to play an instrument.
Oh! But at least this is someone who knows what he likes and not. It’s quite refreshing to get such straightforward answers. (continues)
– I like to play football though. But just for the fun of it, I never had the ambition to become a professional football player like many young boys. We play when I’m in Colombia, and it’s really fun. I’m planning to build a house there, by the plantation.
I love talking to people who like what they’re doing. Unfortunately, it’s rare. It is something you can see in their eyes when they’re talking.
It sounds like you really like your life. Are you proud of what you’ve accomplished?
– I am living my dream. I am so grateful that I have the life that I have, that I can do what I do without lacking anything. I could tick off every box in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And if I never knew about that hierarchy, I would still be happy.
What’s the best thing about that dream?
– To be my own boss has been a goal. I don’t like it when people tell me what to do.
Without a twitch.
… and to be true to myself. I refuse to sell my soul – my integrity. It’s my own self-esteem and what I believe is the right thing to do that is important to me. And I don’t care what people think about that.
I think people respect that. And the ones that don’t just wish they had that faith in themselves. But how do you stay true to yourself? How do people know what they want?
– Easy. You need to trust your gut. I believe I’m doing the right things if they feel important to me. Of course you mess up sometimes – and that’s the worst, that happens when you’re not following your gut. If you always follow your gut, you never completely mess things up.
I’m writing it down, as if it is law. I agree. I try to follow my gut. Sometimes it’s hard… but… wow, he’s right! The times I’ve taken bad choices for myself – I wasn’t following my gut.
I told him this. And he replied that it’s the same with honesty sometimes – it’s hard, but always right.
– When people ask me what I think, I say what I think. Then they get angry because I say what I think.
People are strange. They don’t want to know what you think; they want to know that they’re right.
He continues without me saying anything.
– I am very comfortable with the fact that everybody doesn’t like me. I don’t like everybody either.
– Yeah, I have everything I ever wanted – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. You need to make it work. All the time.
You’ve experienced a lot of professional growth, what about personal growth?
– I feel like I’ve finally learnt something, you know. I was smart in school, but in high school I got tired – and it feels like I haven’t learnt anything specific after that. I would like to be able to speak Spanish for instance. And this year I’ve attended these courses in soil biology ad biological cultivation. And I completed them with flying colours! Also, I’ve learnt some Spanish from my time in Colombia, so I’m finally getting somewhere.
From my point of view he already is somewhere. But having ambition is key to growth.
I wonder if he is the happiest when he’s on the run, working, juggling. He sort of seems like that type of person, but at the same time – I think it’s easy to judge people who work a lot.
He is hardworking. And easy-going. Serious, but not too serious.
When are you the happiest?
– When the week is over, and I’m drinking wine with my wife or in other good company on a Friday night.
– That’s surprisingly nice.
I laughed. Of course he had to add the «surprisingly».
Can you describe yourself?
We’re sitting in the same positions, at the same chairs in the kitchen at his office. Just like our conversation, the coffee never turned cold.