We want to be good members of our community, and make a positive impact in whatever ways we can. I feel really good being here and I couldn’t imagine a better place.
Brio Coffeeworks hums with activity on the morning of our visit in mid-winter. Located in the Soda Plant, a small business hub in the heart of Burlington’s South End, Brio has the vibe of a workshop, functioning as a roastery, espresso bar and coffee lab in one.
Magdalena Van Dusen greets us by the café tables with a warm smile and a solid handshake. Her partner in life and work, Nate Van Dusen, stands at the far end of the space operating the Giesen roaster, a cheery-yellow monolith that’s tumbling a batch of Kenyan beans at the moment. Nate admits that this new acquisition has taken some getting used to but the Geisen gives him better control over the roasting process. Now they can draw out even more attributes from their coffees . . . brown sugar, citrus, green grape, toasted almond, etc. etc.
It’s been five years since the Van Dusens started their business, six months with the new roaster and just over one year at this particular location. The Soda Plant on Pine Street reopened after renovations in 2019 and has established itself as a vibrant center for local businesses and unique community events. Highlight has hosted two New Year’s Eve happenings at the Soda Plant with live music and libations from Brio, Co-Sellars, TomGirl, Alice & The Magician and more.
As Nate continues his oversight of the roaster, Magdalena leads us to the cupping room where staff taste-test Brio’s daily roastings. We sit at a bar lined with espresso cups filled with freshly roasted whole beans. The aroma is heavenly. Magdalena sips what I imagine is not her first espresso of the day and we begin our quiet, caffeinated chat.
Where are you from originally?
I was actually born in Poland. I came over in ’89 with my mom, we settled in the Chicago area and lived there for a bit. I did the new American life, the American high school experience and then moved to Washington DC to go to college at George Washington University.
Nate is from Vermont. He lived in Middletown Springs then went to college at St. Lawrence University. After he finished college, he moved to DC to start his career. We both worked at a great nonprofit in the city focusing on electoral systems overseas. It was my first “real job”.
Did you study political science?
Yeah, I studied international affairs and political science, and the international realm. Same with Nate. We started off at the nonprofit where we met and then continued on a similar path. We were in DC for about 15 years.
I blame Nate for Vermont. (Laughs) Blame or thank him! No, I’m so glad we’re here. I wouldn’t say we always knew this was what we were going to do. Nate was more of an instigator in the whole business-ownership side. He comes from a very entrepreneurial family. I could also say that about my family from the perspective of living in Poland, and then moving and starting life in a new country. I guess I do also come from an entrepreneurial family in that sense. But back then I never thought about owning my own business. I was the first person in my family to go through the college process in the U.S. and all that. So I was not looking, in a way . . .
To do anything risky?
Yes, exactly. And for my parents, I think that was somewhat challenging for them when we made the decision to start our own venture.
How did you come to the decision to take that leap and open Brio?
Being in DC, we definitely enjoyed coffee and were seeing a lot of interesting things happening in the city. There were some great early adopters of specialty coffee and roasters in the area and so we were just experiencing that as consumers, spending a lot of time in cafes in college and grad school. Coffee was a thing—it was a big part of our lives. And then, when we honeymooned in Costa Rica we visited a coffee farm and that was a really cool experience that kind of stuck with us in the back of our heads. Back in DC, we also randomly stumbled upon a coffee event in the city. It was a workshop on starting your own cafe or something. We popped in and it was one of these trade events where there were coffee competitions going on. There were people pouring latte art and we’re like, people do this? How weird. This must’ve been about 2006, 2007.
At the time, when we’d come visiting Nate’s folks we noticed that the coffee scene was different (in Vermont), and it was definitely not as vibrant at that time. Specialty coffee, in particular, was just barely starting to be a thing.
One day it happened where we were talking and Nate probably told me that he didn’t want to be in DC longterm, that he wanted to go back to Vermont. And we thought, what are we going to do there? We considered starting a consulting firm but then thought, no way. It was time to turn the page and do something more fulfilling personally. We started thinking about opening a roasting operation pretty seriously at that point. Nate got a home roaster and started playing around with it.
It was a three to five year period where we really dug ourselves in to learn about the industry and roasting. Looking back, I was working crazy hours at a consulting job, I was studying for my CPA exam, and then also on the weekends I got a job at a cafe barista-ing. I figured if we’re going to be a roaster and a true partner with cafes and customers, with a focus on teaching people how to use our coffee and how to make it, I should be really good at it. I was a barista at the Wydown Coffee Bar for eight months. I’d go in two hours before going to the office or on the weekends. That was really, really fun. I finally decided to call it quits on the CPA exam and just focus on the coffee.
How would you describe your community here in Vermont?
What we noticed in the very beginning was that Vermont is a very welcoming environment for new businesses from the customer perspective. It’s still challenging to open up a business from the administrative and lab perspective but people are very supportive. People were very curious, in a good way, and because we were doing something different, we really needed people to be curious and open-minded.
Over the last several years, we’ve been able to bring retail customers and our wholesale partners along on a journey with us. Someone that hadn’t had a light roast coffee when we started five years ago, that’s all they drink right now. The Vermont curiosity, openness, warmth, and welcome, for me not being from here, seemed like a different kind of community.
You live and work here in the South End of Burlington. How do you carve out personal time?
We’re working on that. Yeah. I won’t lie, and I think Nate would probably agree with this but, I don’t think I have a good work/life balance right now at all. Sometimes I might happen to go out with a friend for a drink or dinner and I’m like, Oh, I feel like a person!
We also are owner/operators. It’s not like we started a business to not be in the business. Which some people do—it’s how you structure it. But we want Brio to also be where we work. We don’t have a desire to not be involved. But I think right now, I see the value of trying to bring a little bit more personal space into my life.
Businesses go through phases, and we’re not really changing—I feel like we don’t want to change—but five years is a really good mark to revisit. We were just doing this exercise of, why did we start this business? Who are we as a company? Who do we want to be? Are we doing a good job at it? To either recommit or find things that we could do better. We try to always learn and improve.
Owning a business with a partner, your life partner, is amazing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but that adds a dimension to it that you have to navigate through. I feel like we’re in a really good space right now. One thing we’ve done is learn what our lanes are, and what each of us is good at and not good at. We’re settled into our roles. It doesn’t mean that we’re finished. You’re never finished, but that’s the beauty of it.
Any challenges looking back in the last year?
From an operational perspective, this isn’t super deep, but the challenge of moving a roastery. Even the challenge of new equipment, that was significant. Being in a new space was definitely a challenge, and also to figure out how it feels in here, how we work, how the workflows are, what’s the potential of the space. From my perspective, our space isn’t finished, it’s not perfect. That was somewhat a result of necessity, but somewhat by design.
Resolutions for 2020?
Thinking about the next phase, what we wish for is to continue to be and get better at being a community resource and hub for people. Now with our new space, we have more ability to do that. We want to be good members of our community, and make a positive impact in whatever ways we can. I feel really good being here, and I couldn’t imagine a better place. I want to put some effort and focus on the education aspect of our business and doing workshops for home espresso enthusiasts, brewing workshops, and more offerings for our wholesale customers and their staff. To put some actual things in place and make that happen this year is my big resolution.
Another resolution is to be a little bit more vocal and specific about who we are as a company. I sometimes feel like I’m a horrible business person because I don’t always like to be outward about “this is what we’re doing”, but what I’ve seen is that some things you want to be a little bit more explicit about. To have clear, better communication about who we are and what we do.
My third resolution is we’re thinking about the customer experiences, and by customer that means people that come and interact with us in this space to someone that picks up a bag of our coffee at City Market, and then all of our wholesale partners. What can we do better and what can we do that would bring value to people, aside from still making a really great product. How else can we be involved with them to create better experiences?