Victoria Coffee Culture: A Conversation with Hey Happy Coffee Owner, Rob Kettner

By Julia Dilworth | Photo by Belle White

Rob Kettner started out in film and video, but after a snowboarding accident he entered the world of coffee. Rob chatted with YAM about creativity in cafe ownership, trends he sees pass through his shop and Hey Happy’s expansion.

You could say Rob Kettner’s coffee career started with a big break. The Winnipeg native moved to Victoria to attend film school with the goal of becoming a filmmaker and videographer — and he was doing it. He worked on film sets, released a short film, shot a documentary in war-torn Afghanistan, landed a job as a videographer at CTV — and then he broke his arm snowboarding. 

“I broke my humerus bone, so I couldn’t pick up a camera,” says Kettner. Unable to work, he started spending his days hanging out at his friend’s café.

“There was an old 1936 coffee roaster just sitting here, with a hand crank and everything. [The owner at the time] was quite busy, so I just started to help out. Long story short, I never went back to TV, and we started Fernwood Coffee Company in 2007.”

Tasting and learning about “real coffee” at Fernwood Coffee Company was a game changer for Kettner, who would go on to win Canada’s National Barista Championship in 2010, before branching out on his own to start Hey Happy Coffee on Johnson Street in 2014. 

“Hey Happy was a lighthearted name that basically said, ‘We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously,’” says Kettner. 

Attitude accounts for part of the coffee shop’s “it” factor, but Kettner says Hey Happy was one of the first cafés in town to have a multi-roaster system, bringing in the best coffees from around the world. The Barn from Berlin; Heart from Portland, Oregon; and Lüna from Vancouver are samples of what you’ll find on their shelves. 

With Hey Happy’s expansion into the space next door almost complete, Kettner was able to expand his vision too. The Bidgood + Co.-designed space has bleachers packed with outlets and USB ports, cozy seating areas and Art Deco living-room touches that encourage a great “hang-out vibe energy.” 

Kettner teamed up with BFF and OLO Restaurant chef Brad Holmes on a menu of simple bites — breakfast burritos, French toast soldiers with crème fraîche and maple dip and potato rushdies with tomato jam. 

“I come from a film and TV background, but this is 10 times more creative,” he says. “Being a business owner, [making] decisions from what’s going to be on my menu to what colour the wall is going to be, is awesome.”

His big worry when he left film was that he might never find something as fulfilling. “Being satisfied by something you created and watching people enjoy it is the biggest satisfaction,” says Kettner. “And that’s what I get to do here — to serve somebody a wonderful coffee and get to see their reaction the first time they try something, like the coffee we serve here. I love that.” 

Rob’s Trend Forecast

Au Naturel 

“There’s a huge trend right now towards naturally processed food and drink,” says Kettner. Homestead basics like fermenting and pickling are big, and wines, beers and coffees are being left to their natural devices with minimal human interaction. “So you’re getting a lot of these wild, huge, fruity, funkier flavours,” he says. 

Pop-Ups Gone Rogue

While it may not be exactly street legal, Kettner says people are starting their own home “dump ’n drop” food services, making things like dumplings or salsa at home and dropping them off for customers. We’d tell you who they are, but that info is off-the-record, so ask around and you might find a dump ‘n drop you like.

Return to Comfort Foods

Precious dishes with 14 ingredients and high price points are making way for simple, easier comfort foods, says Kettner. “A fried chicken sandwich, or a bowl of soup with a nice piece of sourdough still goes a long way,” he says. “Burgers and pizza aren’t going anywhere, but someone’s going to have a burger or pizza with a natural wine.”

Part-Time Economy

Staffing his coffee shop with full-time employees hasn’t been easy: Everyone wants to work part-time. “I’ve got one barista who’s a photographer and another who’s a potter on the side, trying to start her own business.” The age of working one job for your whole life is over. Do millennials have a bad work ethic? “I don’t think they’re afraid of hard work,” says Kettner. “I think they’re afraid of boredom more than anything. And I don’t blame them.” 

Personal Drink of Choice

“I’m a single-origin-filter coffee guy. While espresso is really bold and volatile and big — drip coffee is more subtle, more nuanced. There’s more going on. You just have to look a little harder to find it, but I think it takes me on more of a complex journey. Drinking a great cup of coffee is based more on where it came from. If I really had to choose, Kenya’s the spot for me. It’s like a big red wine — big bold flavours, stewed fruits, blackberry, very acidic, expensive and beautiful in colour.”

This article is from the January/February 2020 issue of YAM.