A taste of Moldova in Groningen

By Edward J Szekeres

Ever wondered what’s it like to run a business in Groningen? “Hard but rewarding,” says owner of Tucano Coffee.

When you come in, it feels like you stepped in the Amazon rainforest. Leafy plants, wooden statues and flamboyantly coloured paintings of wildlife greet the customers of Tucano Coffee, an ethno-styled café co-owned by Moldovan fiancés Diana Scorpan (19) and Sergiu Braga (30).

“Groningen is buzzing with business potential thanks to its vibrant and active student community. It just needed a place where likeminded people could come together,” Diana explains her business idea.

Elegantly dressed and radiating confidence, Diana proudly scans the half full coffee shop with her vivid eyes. It´s early afternoon and the warm light inside Tucano is a great lure for rain-soaked people out on the street. The sound of a coffee machine pouring fresh cappuccino in a patchwork cup, cuts through Diana´s words. “Trust me, this place is going to fill up in no time.”

Pioneers of the west

The city´s very own coffee jungle is just a few metres down the road from the Harmonie building on Oude Kijk in ‘t Jatstraat. But its origins trace all the way back to an inconspicuous country in the Balkans.

The Tucano brand was born in Moldova in 2011. Its founder and CEO, Ruslan Cojocaru, became fascinated by the indigenous Tucano culture while travelling around the tropical forests of South America.

The Tucanos are a native tribe from Brazil and Colombia. Emblems of their lifestyle take prime position in all 32 Tucano coffee shops dispersed around eight countries of the world, including Romania, Kyrgyzstan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Diana and Sergiu´s café, the first of the Tucano franchise in Western Europe, is no exception. Before opening their coffee shop in October last year, the ambitious couple embellished the commodious premises with wooden furniture and natural, wholesome décor. Wicker chairs surrounding walnut coloured patio tables, rest under the constant gaze of tribal figurines. The design became an instant hit with Groningen´s hip, eco-friendly student community.

“We have a very loyal customer base. Most of the people that come here are familiar faces,” says Diana.

She thinks this loyalty is sparked by the famed Moldovan hospitality that her business is trying to stay faithful to. Diana greets every incoming customer with a bright, warm smile. Waiters nonchalantly stroll around the cosy room as the sweet scent of steaming coffee and freshly baked cheesecakes slowly lingers behind their backs. The hum of casual conversation bounces off the tall walls.

“Everybody is welcome here. Dutch, international, young or old, all our customers are part of the Tucano family.”

Photo credit Tucano Coffee

Love, peace, coffee

Meri Cools (24), a journalism student, is one of the returning clients. “I really like the place. It´s very laid-back and easy-going, almost like a hipster hub. Oh, and their coffee is great!”

Diana´s coffee shop imports all its coffee beans from Moldova, where they are dried and processed. Despite the long journey, the freshness of the beans upon arrival is guaranteed. After all, Tucano Coffee has a reputation to uphold. “Our coffee recently scored 87 points out of 100 in the prestigious Coffee Review evaluation, which is the world´s leading coffee guide.”

On average, only a few hundred coffees score this high or above, from the thousands of cups of joe tasted every year.        

But serving good coffee is one thing. Distinguishing your café from the dozens, if not hundreds of others in the city, is another. “What makes us different from our competition is our intimate and very personal care for our customers. We don´t just serve them, but we gradually get to know them. We talk, laugh and sometimes even cry together,” describes Diana, revealing her coffee shop´s competitive edge.

Love, peace, coffee is the brand´s stamp and philosophy. But the symbolic motto is not just a lofty ideal. It shines through Tucano´s day-to-day operation.

“When you go to Starbucks, yes, you can get quite good coffee, but it´s very busy, loud and you don´t want to stay there too long. In Tucano, you get both the chill, comfy vibes and good coffee,” says Meri, the faithful customer.

“This doesn’t taste like Coca-Cola”

Still a teenager and a second-year student of international relations at the RUG, one would expect Diana to spend her days floundering with her studies in the library, only to fritter the evening away in the pub. Instead, she works in her café day-in, day-out, either as a bustling waitress or a composed manager. “I´m here at least eight hours a day. I do most of my studies in here as well. It´s practically a full-time job.”

Her duties mostly revolve around ensuring each clog in the Tucano machine fits perfectly and works according to plan. Only rarely does she have to defuse tense situations evoked by customer complaints. “A lady once complained about the Coke she ordered. She said it didn´t taste like Coca-Cola. I couldn´t help her much in that instance,” she says with a smirk. “But most customers are very friendly and excited about Tucano´s exotic look.” 

While Diana´s entrepreneurship has taken its toll on her studies, she remains defiant in the face of a momentous challenge. “I failed some of my courses, but I just keep going. Doing business is much bigger than just studying. I know it will be worth it in the end.”

Photo credit Tucano Coffee

Come as you are

By Clémence Waller and Oscar Cheng-Kai Wu

Meet Max de Witte (28) and Jantien Kuiper (31). Two Groningen natives who succeeded in their dream of opening one of the coolest hidden gems in the city: De Graan Republiek. This little patch of heaven is unique: they are the only independent literary café of Groningen.

This is home

‘I’m home’.  This is the impression you get when you pass the faded yellow doors of De Graan Republiek. You are greeted by a large table in the center of the small space with mismatched chairs all around it. There are warm terracotta floors, cozy dim lights, shelves filled to the brim with thousands of books. You can hear the soft croon of a jazz song and see generations mix.

Here a student working on her essay, there two older men chatting and playing chess. At the bar, you see Max, laughing loudly with Sior (30) and Frans (73), regular patrons, over pints of beers.  You feel like you have just entered your grandmother’s kitchen or living room.

Jantien and Max

If downstairs is a living room, upstairs is the bedroom. The lights are brighter, there is another large table and the wooden floorboard groan and creak as you walk along it. More books greet you as you enter. This is your study space. For you and for any other stranger who wants a safe refuge from the world. There is even a corner overlooking a window where musicians can meet up and jam together.

“I’ve been coming here since November, when I discovered this place. I study architecture and urban planning so this ‘organized chaos’ is great for me.” Says Mo (31) from Egypt.

From the outside, this bookstore is a discreet nook in the wall, blink and you will miss it: faded and unassuming, this old grain warehouse, and once squatter’s hotspot, is now the scene for a relaxed, literary and music community. With a plethora of artistic, literary and musical events planned all year, there is always something for everybody in this café. If you fancy staying, this café also doubles as an Airbnb.

A woman from the Irish bar next door enters the café and passes that Bring Your Own Food sign with a big plate of bitterballen and nuggets. She offers everyone a bite and walks out. This kind of comfort, easygoing attitude may surprise some, but not the patrons of the bar.

And that is exactly how Jantien and Max want it.

“This is a safe place for everyone to come and talk. Express themselves. This is home.”

Thanks for the memories

This bookworm’s heaven began in 2011 when Jantien’s (now ex) husband Willem, found the property and had a dream of opening a bookstore with a cultural and drinking twist.

“He used to work for a guy, old Casper, who owned a bookstore. The guy was really the Santa Claus of books, big belly white beard. He was a wizard when it came to books. Once he bought a book for two euros and sold it for two hundred because it was a rare, old edition” explains Max enthusiastically.

Willem observed that selling books alone wasn’t enough for a successful business so he came up with the idea of adding drinks and cultural events for an interesting concept. He then enlisted Jantien and Max, a mutual friend, to enter this venture together. “I would never have opened if not for Willem,” says Jantien.

“Sometimes you need to be crazy” adds Max.

De Graan Republiek

Amongst the paper, leather bound overlords, the café ironically focuses on community and events rather than selling the books. “Selling books was not the main point of this place.” The books belong to Jantien, Max and others. With 4000 novels crammed into the walls, patrons can purchase these books, should they wish, or bring their own.

Now, after running for three and a half years, both owners look fondly on the memories created and ones to come.

“I have seen relationships be born in this place, we are now waiting for our first literary café babies hopefully.” Guffauws Max as he grabs himself a cup of coffee.

Enter as strangers, part as friends

Everyone has different reasons for why they came and why they stayed.

“I come here for the music. They play Django Reinhart.” Exclaims Frans. The 73-year-old is dressed in dark clothes, a sky-blue scarf and beanie hat. His pale weathered skin pulls back and he smiles his contagious toothy grin.

Zero percent beer in hand, he explains that he has quit drinking 5 years ago after 45 years of heavy drinking. “That’s why now, I’m in a relaxed bar” he laughs. “I’m an old knackerbut the people here are gentle and quiet. Relax, that’s why I love to come here.”

Inside bookworm territory

This café makes its profit from its bar and Airbnb side, the books are just added value and a way to attract the shy bookworms to their doorstep.

“They help attract those who like to read, they can look here or bring their own books. It’s also the reason why we have one big table, not many small ones, because we want to invite people to talk to each other. When things go wrong, people talk on the internet and no longer to each other, and that’s where the divide begins.”

All about respect

Respect: this is the golden house rule, break it and there’s the door.

“You can derive everything from that simple rule. No weapons, no drug abuse, everything flows from having respect for each other,” explains Jantiene serenely.

Part and parcel of running a bar is the disturbances that may come in the form of unruly guests. “When we opened there was this discussion about the Zwarte Piet and we had a guest come from Amsterdam. I got threats on Facebook from people 500 km away,” says Max with a grimace.

“On that night we had seven to eight skinheads show up in leather vests, and surprisingly they didn’t do anything, they just took up the space. Eventually they got frustrated and left but there was a lot of tension in the room,” he goes on.

But the good ambiance, the friendly atmosphere and the cozy one-on-one bonds that are formed between patrons and owners, help stand up to that sort of behavior.

“The nice thing is that if you feel the need to stand up to someone, the whole bar is behind you. Every other guest, can sense or stand up if you need it.” Jantien shares a look with Max and they both laugh.

“I have been coming here since they opened and I will stay here until I have to join AA,” jokes Sior as he drinks another pint of beer.

It’s more than a brewery; it’s a family

By Anne de Vries

“Here on the left, it used to be toilets,” says Albert-Jan Swierstra (64), “and those windows over there were boarded up for the darkroom.” Swierstra’s animated gestures make me feel like I am there in the past with him. I can see it playing before his eyes, as he explains how he and his son transformed the 20th-century building from a former printing house into the three-story brewery, pub, and restaurant it now is.

After working as a zoo-photographer for 20 years, Swierstra took over the printing house in 1995, looking for a change in his career. He became the fourth occupant of one of the first industrial sites in Groningen, designed by local architect Frans Klein.

But as the 2008 economic crisis drew near, Swierstra saw his revenues slowly decrease. Books were printed abroad, labels were made digitally, advertising was done on the internet. In a successful attempt to get out while he still could, he decided to start his own beer brewery in 2015. After all, he already had the perfect location.

He knew a bit about this business after years of doing the printing work for brewery MAALLUST in Veenhuizen, and together with his brother tinkered about for a year, brewing 20 liters a week, every Monday.

When his youngest son, Martijn, returned from his travels around the world, Swierstra saw a business partner in him. “He wanted to be a barista, but I said, if there’s a barista in you, there sure as well is a brewer in you. And I was right.”

With the addition of Martijn, brewery Martinus was born, a name not only inspired by the youngest son, but also a nod to Groningen that is known as ‘Martinistad’, named after the city’s patron, St. Maarten.

Martijn attended brewing classes in Gent, Belgium, and father and son visited breweries all over Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. During the four months of construction, the men decided to go for the building’s full capacity of 2000 liters a month, starting with three different kinds of beer. Four years later they’ve worked up to a collection of 10 different beers.

“We’re still growing,” adds Swierstra, a proud smile playing on his face. Only local stores buy from them, and they deliver everything themselves. Even the leftover grains go to local farmers to feed cattle, or a baker comes to pick it up. A new box of grains is already waiting at the brewery’s front door.

However, Swierstra wants to keep it small: “Haste makes waste,” he says, “As soon as you want to go national, you need all these parties in between, and you won’t even be left with more than a nickel.” This way, Swierstra thinks, they can put the least amount of effort in advertising. “People will always want a local beer.”

For the limited amount of advertising the brewery has done, it is admirable that they’ve landed the 5th spot on the TripAdvisor top 10 list of things to do in Groningen. The building isn’t the easiest to find at Kostersgang 32, and yet, “people walk straight here from the train station, without even having seen anything of the city.”

Just as I arrived at the building for our appointment, Swierstra drove up in the brewery-van and opened the door for me. A sharp, sour smell hit my nose as soon as I walked in, but the regular guest doesn’t need to worry; as soon as they stop brewing for the second half of the week, the smell disappears.

Swierstra launched into one of the tours he gives visitors on a regular basis, leading me past the kettles, the bottling machine, showing me the bags of grains that feed the machines, and the leftovers that were picked up by the farmer that same day.

He also points out the ceiling, from which hangs a chain that hoists up the barrels of beer for the pub. Swierstra mentions how in the first weeks of construction they had to work in the rain, as the plastic over the hole had come loose. Now, the light that comes from that top window fills up not only the pub on the top floor, but the restaurant in the middle as well.

The kettles on the ground floor may look intimidating to an outsider, but the pub seems like a relaxed place to hang out, and the restaurant looks cozy with old, dark brown tables and rugs on the floor.

Both the restaurant and the pub are full of records and pictures of musicians. For this, Swierstra credits his wife, Henriette Tukkers. While the love of music has spread through the whole family, Henriette has made Martinus a hub for famous musicians. Martinus is one of the main stages for Groningen’s Jazz Podium, as well as the weekly Comedy Night.

Once in a while, Martijn also heads the ‘Martinus Take Over’ they host in pubs around the city. For one evening, the bar only serves Martinus beers, and Martijn takes over the turntables.

Swierstra sits across from me, occasionally glancing at the two phones lying on the table in front of him, as another call comes in. It’s a reservation, and while he’s on the one phone, his son calls on the other, and someone enters the shop downstairs. Right after he hangs up both phones, he heads downstairs and helps the customer.

When he comes back up, he smiles and tells me how he loves the diversity of their clientele. The customer downstairs was a man from a nearby town, dropping by to pick up a gift package for friends in Germany. “And like him, we have so many others coming in. We’ve had 27 international plastic surgeons in here for drinks, and 25 firefighters, and whole bachelor parties dressed as lobsters and ladles.”

There is no one specific Brewery Martinus customer, but they are all served by family. Next to father, mother and son who run the brewery, Swierstra’s other two sons occasionally help out on the weekends. They also hired 13 staff members for the restaurant, and one extra brewer, Kars. Each one of them has come into the business via friends or family, and most of them come from his sons’ Waldorf School group of friends.

Still, Swierstra wouldn’t recommend working with family to everyone. While it’s really fun, he says, it can also have severe drawbacks. One of which is that work never ends. As soon as they get home, they have to debrief the day and prepare for the next one.

Then Swierstra gets up, on his way out the door to pick up his son for the next shift at the tanks.

I walk around a bit to take some pictures in the meantime, and I talk to the brewer, Kars, and another family friend, who’s just hanging around. The latter is a cameraman and tells me about the amount of material he has on the brewery. He would love to use it for promotion. But he’s hesitant, because he thinks they wouldn’t really want to use it; they keep saying they’d like to stay small.

The moment father and son return, Martijn heads over to Kars to go over what still needs to be done for the beer that day. Swierstra gets out one of the bottle caps with the new logo. The old one featured a big ‘M’ that they now removed, “it was just too McDonald’s”, says Martijn.

While Swierstra seems to enjoy discussing business and beer with the guys, with all the extra staff they hired, he is looking forward to taking a step back soon. “My wife tells me to butt out a bit more,” he says, “I just need to learn to let go, trust that they can do a fine job on their own.”

He tells me about his favorite beer. It’s one they brew themselves, with help from a supercomputer that converts characteristics into ingredients. The beer is called ‘nuchter’ or ‘sober’, a typical characteristic of Groningen people. A characteristic I would ascribe to Swierstra, a man who according to himself “has no secrets”, and is always looking for the next opportunity to increase revenues and decrease costs. But, he says, “At some point I’ll just have to be satisfied with what I’ve got.”