Entrepreneurs Leena and Gustavo Castelar brew the perfect blend
Successful entrepreneurs Leena and Gustavo Castelar run Firebat Coffee Roastery in Oakville, Ontario, sourcing beans from their native El Salvador and selling to cafes and households across the GTA.
When Leena and Gustavo Castelar first considered immigrating to Canada, the idea of moving to a new country and chasing another corporate career didn’t appeal to them. They are now the co-owners of Firebat Coffee Roasters in Oakville, Ontario, roasting beans from their native El Salvador and distributing coffee to local cafes and households across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
The couple immigrated to Canada in June 2016. As a mixed race family (Leena is originally from Finland and Gustavo from El Salvador), the couple felt Canada would be a welcoming place for the next phase of their lives and to raise their young children, then aged 2 and 4.
The decision to start a company was in part the result of wanting a career change. In El Savador, Gustavo was an airports director, overseeing airline operation to 13 different airports across North America and Leena was a project manager in strategy and business development.
The couple didn’t just want a new scenery; they wanted a new life. “I imagined what it would be like here looking for jobs, working, maybe getting fired,” says Gustavo. “I’d rather bet on us.” Leena was more apprehensive about becoming an entrepreneur. “I thought who moves to a new country with two tiny kids in tow not knowing anyone to start a new business. This goes against everything we learned in business school,” she laughs.
They also felt an ethical call to stay connected to their home country. “Coming from a country you foresee is going into
trouble, if my economic activity would help me to slow it from falling into that place, I had to do it,” says Gustavo. “To come here and get a job and forget about El Salvador felt a bit traitorous to me.”
Gustavo had started learning about roasting coffee as a hobby and knew that there was a market in North America for good quality coffee. For two years before making Canada their home, Gustavo spent every weekend driving up to the mountains in El Salvador visiting farmers and learning everything he could about the coffee production process and roasting, with the intention of bringing that knowledge to Canada to start Firebat Coffee Roasters.
When they arrived in Canada, the couple felt the pressure of a tight timeline to get the business off the ground. They had already ordered the roasting equipment from the Netherlands and it was ready to be delivered, but they didn’t have an address to ship it to. After delaying the roasting equipment company for several months, they finally rented a house in Oakville and gave the company their home address to ship it to, knowing they would have six weeks while it was in transit to find a location for the business and be able to accept the delivery. “We couldn’t have it delivered to our house of course, but we had to give them an address,” says Gustavo.
With a little bit of luck, they were able to find a space in an industrial location in Oakville with affordable rent and the right amount of space and by the end of September, Firebat Coffee Roasters had a home and a brand new roaster.
Next, they needed customers to purchase their coffee. They decided to take their coffee to local farmers’ markets to meet people and build connections. “From May to December 2017 we did 100 events,” says Gustavo. They often had their children tag along with them to markets, which was challenging but it was there that the couple were able to find a community of supporters who were willing to help.
Through word of mouth at farmers’ markets, the Castelars found connections with local cafés. One vendor at a farmer’s market introduced them to their first retail shop, Raise the Root Organic Market in Leslieville in Toronto. Another introduced them to a local café. Firebat Coffee is now served in dozens of cafés in the GTA and surrounding areas and they have several grocery retail partners as well.
Starting a new business in a new country was risky, but the Castelars trusted their ability to work hard. “I am a believer that the effort is yours. The outcome isn’t, so just focus on the effort,” says Gustavo. Now two-and-a-half years into the business, the Castelars are happy with what they have achieved so far. Not only have they steadily grown their brand recognition in the GTA, but their business is sustaining itself.
The couple love meeting with other entrepreneurs, especially other newcomers, and their advice to those looking to start a new business in Canada is to seek ideas and inspiration from their own cultural heritage and background to offer something unique to the Canadian market. “We feel that Canadians are excited about different cultures and curious about life in other parts of the world,” says Leena.
The Castelars love when Canadian customers ask questions about the producers in El Salvador and feel that through the roastery, they are not only able to support their own family here in Canada but are contributing to families in their home country. Canada is also full of cost-effective ways for new businesses to start without investing a huge amount of capital. For the Castelars, farmers markets and pop-up events provided great testing grounds for their business without a huge financial commitment. Their success from these small events has helped them to grow into the business they are today.
While the Castelars are excited by the growth in their business, they say family always comes first. “We want to grow the business sustainably and in balance without sacrificing our family or our health,” says Gustavo. While in the early days of the business, the Castelars and their children were spending every weekend at farmers markets selling coffee and putting in long hours, today they are more conscious of the time they invest into their business.
Living in Canada where there are so many opportunities for their children to discover their talents, the Castelars want to provide their children with the time and space to do so. “They are blessed to live and grow up in Canada where they have access to great education and the possibility to truly flourish,” says Leena. The couple hope that their business will help their family maintain their connections to their roots and to their family members in El Salvador, providing the perfect blend of both worlds.