On Starting…The Coffee Virus, Connecting People to Taste in Amsterdam

For coffee lovers in Amsterdam, there’s no shortage of specialty coffee shops to choose from. Yet even with such a wide selection and new cafes popping up all the time, it can still be surprisingly confounding to find one that checks all the boxes.

That’s why I was happy when the folks at The Coffee Virus reached out to me to check out their cafe. Being a coffee lover and an Amsterdam resident for almost five years, I thought I had discovered all the specialty coffee shops by now, but by virtue of their slightly tucked away locations, I hadn’t happened across The Coffee Virus yet. And when I first visited their Amsterdam Noord cafe, I was pleased to find all my boxes checked with friendly faces to boot.

The Coffee Virus centers their concept around the customer and the simple yet oft-neglected tenet that taste is personal. With two locations in the startup and entrepreneurial hubs, A Lab Amsterdam and Startup Village, The Coffee Virus offers high-quality coffee with a focus on innovation and fostering connections. They give you three different types of espresso beans to choose from, grow their own salad greens and are always keeping an eye wide open to how they can improve.

For these reasons and more, I thought it would be fun to sit down with Floris Van Luttervelt, the founder of The Coffee Virus, to hear their origin story. On a bitterly cold yet sunny Amsterdam day several weeks ago, I joined Floris and two other Coffee Virus employees, Lucas and Milan, at their Startup Village location to do just that.

In our conversation, Floris shared how an interest in coffee evolved into many different cafe concepts that eventually blossomed into what The Coffee Virus is today. He also offers a refreshingly simple outlook on what drives his business forward at the most basic level: the opportunity to connect with people and make them happy.

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Best Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam_Amsterdam's Best Coffee Shops_The Coffee Virus
Floris at The Coffee Virus in Startup Village.

Tell me about the origin of The Coffee Virus — how did you first come up with the idea?

Well, it’s gonna be a long story…When I first started, I created a different company with a friend called Coffee & Cocktails. We did catering, workshops and brand activations for different companies. At some point, I was asked by a friend who sometimes hired us for workshops to come and work a few days in his soon to be opening coffee bar called Lola Bikes & Coffee in the Hague. I started working there one day a week and really enjoyed it. That became more days a week, until eventually, I was working full time there and decided to stop with Coffee & Cocktails.

After a while working at Lola Bikes & Coffee, another friend asked me to do a pop-up in A Lab Amsterdam. I was unsure at first because I had never done something exactly like that before, but I decided to go with a friend and take a look. When we met the guy, there was an instant bond. We were immediately visualizing where everything would be in the location; the bar, the kitchen, etc. Within a few weeks, my friend Maarten Van Belkom and I had our espresso machine, two grinders, and chocolate bars. When we started, we were open one day a week, one hour a day.

That’s it?

Yeah, just in the beginning. It was also the beginning of A Lab Amsterdam. There were almost no people in the building. It was still an old laboratory so not everything was finished yet and a lot of construction was being done.

What was the one hour then?

From 12 to 1 pm.

Later, the people at A Lab really liked our enthusiasm and how we just dove in headfirst so they asked us to expand and start a lunch room. Of course, we said yes and after a month we had completely filled in the space. Slowly, the building was getting fuller with more flex workers and companies. We were enjoying ourselves, having fun getting to know all the people in the building and business was going well.

After a while, we started to wonder; what are we doing here? What is the future? And that’s when we focused more on the brand. We came up with the name The Coffee Virus right away because A Lab was built in an old Shell laboratory and it was designed to be a tech/new media building where the brightest minds met to create amazing things. That made us think of how we started as a pop-up and would soon spread through the whole company and building, like a virus. And there we had The Coffee Virus.

What year was this? 

2013

Did you have funding when you started?

We borrowed 20,000 euros, and that’s what we started with. We also rented some things at the beginning, like the espresso machine, until we had some more money and could buy it. Then we invested any leftover money right away back into the company, which ended up working really well for us.

But after a year, it was time to take things to the next level. I started looking again at what we were doing. What was our power? And that’s when I decided to be more intentional and grow The Coffee Virus as a brand. My partner didn’t want that. He was enjoying it as it was. So he decided to leave, and I continued on with the one staff member we had at the time. After half a year, I asked my brother, Ollivier, to join me as a partner in the company, which he was really excited about since we’d always talked about starting something for ourselves in coffee. So his entrance into the company ended up coming at a really good time.

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Floris and his brother, Ollivier.

Did he want to be involved in the day-to-day?

Yeah, he joined in 50-50. At first, we had no idea what our roles would be. We had no business plan. We were just doing things as we thought they should be done, but what helped us is that Ollivier had a degree in hospitality. So he had some knowledge about costs and prices, which propelled us to make more professional choices in the company and get the financial side of the business in order. I’m always more of the guy who thinks about the vision and the brand, where we should go next and what differentiates us from others, and my brother is more the guy that puts everything on the ground and gets things rolling.

That’s a good combo.

Yeah, definitely. But of course, we also had our struggles because The Coffee Virus was my baby and he came in later to raise it with me so we had to find our ways of bringing it up with the same vision. But after we sorted that out, we became even closer and stronger.

Best Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam_Amsterdam's Best Specialty Coffee Shops_The Coffee Virus

Best Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam_Amsterdam's Best Specialty Coffee Shops_The Coffee Virus

Let’s backtrack a little. How did you become interested in coffee in the first place?

It started when I was working at the biggest restaurant in Gouda. That’s the first time I was able to work with coffee and operate an espresso machine. A colleague of mine there was also quite interested in coffee, and we challenged each other to learn more about it. Thanks to our boss we got in touch with the supplier of the coffee beans and he taught us even more about coffee. This was back in the early stages in Holland when coffee meant Italian espresso, yet this guy knew a lot about third wave coffee and he was competing in barista championships. I eventually started to help him with his championship routine, which was a really great learning experience. After that, I went on a world journey and ended up in Australia where I worked for 3 months in a coffee shop in Melbourne. That’s where I really learned how to brew coffee in a different way.

Yeah, they’re really known for their coffee there.

Yeah, being a barista is a really high status there.  The only thing I was allowed to do was stand behind the machine and make really good espresso with the right foam and latte art. I wasn’t allowed to get milk or cups because it was so busy. It was an eye-opening experience, and when I came back to Holland, there was another barista competition that I joined with my friend from before.

Which one?

The 2016 Netherlands Barista Championships. Unfortunately, my friend didn’t make it to the finals, but I managed to place sixth.

After that, I got more serious about coffee. I was working in coffee bars, brewing at home and just generally diving in deep. That’s the point when I started Coffee & Cocktails.

Best Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam_Amsterdam's Best Specialty Coffee Shops_The Coffee Virus

Around the time you started The Coffee Virus, the coffee scene in Amsterdam was also really starting to take off, right? 

Yeah, there was Espresso Fabriek and Coffee Bru, and then later, Caffeination and a lot of other places opened. All the people from the championships started their own shops. It definitely exploded. And all those new shops popping up prompted me to consider our own purpose and differentiation. It got me thinking about how taste is personal and how we should understand our customer’s desires and brew something that really suits their taste. So it could happen that with one grinder or even two, we don’t have something that they are looking for. That’s why we decided to get a third grinder and make it really easy and understandable for everyone involved by offering three main coffee flavors: sweet, bitter and sour. There’s a ton of complexity within those flavors of course, but this is the main thing we decided to focus on. We selected three different beans and roasters and started asking our customers when they ordered their coffee what kind they wanted. Now, this is still a little bit awkward for some people because they don’t understand — sweet, bitter, sour — what the hell? But if they keep coming back and don’t feel pushed, then most people will want to dive deeper into coffee and search for the flavor they really like. I think this ultimately creates a lot more respect for the product and has led to an amazing new way of brewing coffee for our customers.

It’s about creating something for everyone that comes into our place.

Best Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam_Amsterdam's Best Specialty Coffee Shops_The Coffee Virus

Best Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam_Amsterdam's Best Specialty Coffee Shops_The Coffee Virus

Innovation seems to really be at the heart of your company. Where does this come from and what is its importance to you?

I believe that understanding something comes from doing it or trying it out, and when it fails, it fails. But in actuality, it never fails because you always learn something from it. This sweet, bitter, sour thing we’re doing is also an experiment, and it’s still in its early stages, but if we didn’t try it, we’d never know. Experimentation is a crucial part of going deeper into the material. You try things out, test and always stay aware. For example, if I always put our cups one way, what is the reaction of our customers? What if I do it another way? Experiments are everywhere. You can always experiment and see what is most useful for your customer, but that’s the thing: you have to always have your customers in mind.

Do you find that it becomes easy to forget about experimentation when you get caught up in the day-to-day tasks of running a company? Is it something you have to actively keep in mind?

Definitely, but that’s why we decided to grow The Coffee Virus from within, and now that we are in a stage of growth, it’s important to tell our story. That’s why Milan and Lucas are here, so they understand where it’s coming from and what it’s built on, and so that they can also keep me and my brother and everybody else sharp. So it lives on in the whole company.

Best Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam_Amsterdam's Best Specialty Coffee Shops_The Coffee Virus

In the future do you think The Coffee Virus will stay in these types of entrepreneurial / working spaces or will you branch out to other types of locations?

Well, we are focusing on these type of spaces because we love this type of hospitality. We love having the opportunity to get to know people better and help them by making professional and personal connections and this is the perfect ground for that, but we also want to try being on a shopping street or a little bit outside of that because we want to help people all the way. So when somebody stops working at a big company and decides to start for themselves, most of the time this person starts from home and then fairly quickly understands that they need to be around people. The first thing they usually do is work in a coffee bar. We want to be that coffee bar for them.

And one more question to close things out: how would you sum up The Coffee Virus in 3 words?

Connecting people with taste and spreading a positive virus.

That’s more than 3 words..but I’ll let it slide. :)

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Thanks so much for sharing your story, Floris!

You can find out more about The Coffee Virus on their website and Instagram. Make sure you check them out if you’re in Amsterdam! You’ll definitely find something to suit your taste buds.

> Read more On Starting stories and follow along with the blog on Instagram.

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