Nathanael Johnson, the owner of Rêve Coffee, joined Discover Lafayette to share his 15-year journey in the coffee business.
Since the age of eight, when Nathanael began rising early with his dad to share a cup of coffee before the elder Johnson left for work, he dreamed of having a coffee cafe in his hometown of Eunice. The dream nagged at him and eventually, he dropped out of college so that he could open his own shop.
It all started with Café Mosaic in downtown Eunice. Nathanael had already chosen the cafe’s name as he felt it embodied a place that different age groups would enjoy….”a mosaic of people.” When he located a desirable space in which to open, he was shocked when he walked in to see that the floor was mosaic! With financial help from his father and after a great deal of work to restore the building, Cafe Mosaic opened on March 3, 2006, when Nathanael was 21.
Nathanael shared how difficult those early days were, working around the clock and figuring out what an independent coffee shop should look like. Very few such shops existed and those that opened never seemed to stay in business very long. Further adding to the stress was a comment made by two customers within his first two weeks in business: “You’re going to fail!” He was fearful of failing and remembers how he would work from 5:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night every single day. “My mom bought me one of those little kindergarten sleeping mats so I could sleep in my office when I had a chance to break away. I couldn’t leave, I felt I needed to be there all the time.”
Well, not only did Nathanael not fail, but three years into business he was approached to open Johnston St. Java in Lafayette. Within 2 1/2 years he decided to jump in head first and enter the roasting aspect of the business. His partner, Christopher Pickle, played a key role.
Nathanael knew he wanted to understand the roasting process and ensure that the highest quality of bean was selected, so he became certified by the Specialty Coffee Association, the largest coffee organization in the world. He found a broker who deals in the highest grade beans and started his micro-roasting business in 2013 in what was then Bibi’s Patisserie on Pinhook.
Starting with a ten-pound Ozturk roaster that he purchased out of Turkey, he began roasting on a small scale, eventually working up to an average of 6000 pounds per month today. He says that “roasting is a trial by fire experience, and is similar to popping popcorn. When coffee beans start to release their moisture, it pops like popcorn. They call it ‘first crack.”
Rêve Coffee beans are now sold at over 100 locations, including Whole Foods and Champagne’s locally, and micro market stores. Nathanael says he never really wanted to open up a retail Rêve Coffee shop, but he quickly realized that if he wanted the coffee sales to be successful, people needed the opportunity to taste it. “It was a hard beginning as I just wanted to be a roaster. But we wanted to make a name for ourselves” and this was the right route to take. If you’re wondering what Reve means, it is a French masculine noun translating to “dream” in English.
Nathanael was approached to enter the Baton Rouge coffee market and first opened up a kiosk at White Star Market on Government Street, which marketplace eventually closed due to the COVID shutdown. But he wanted to be in the Baton Rouge area and also ready to redefine what Rêve was going to look like in the future, offering a high-end yet comfortable vibe that blended food, cocktails, and coffee. A place where you don’t leave when your meal is finished, but feel comfortable enough to stay longer and enjoy yourself. Reve Coffee Lab opened in January 2021 in Baton Rouge at 8211 Village Plaza Ct Bldg. 4 Ste. 1A in Perkins Rowe.
“Coffee shops are the new office for all age groups today. We love when people stay awhile,” says Nathanael.
When asked what he’s learned over the past 15 years, Nathanael said “I’ve realized what my strengths and weaknesses are, most importantly my weaknesses. I’ve had to learn to pass along tasks to people who were more talented so that I can focus on the culture and concept that our company is trying to create. If I could go back to my 21-year old self, I would do things differently. I would create systems, learn to let go, delegate responsibilities so as to be better able to grow.”
Recognized for his business prowess, Nathanael Johnson was awarded the St Landry Economic Development Entrepreneurial Excellence award in 2016, and was the recipient of the Junior Achievement of Acadiana Rising Young Business Person of the Year in 2018.
“We’re taught that failure is a problem, but in fact it’s the exact opposite. Failure is a light post to success. Don’t be afraid to fail because that fear will stop you in your tracks and hold you back. The KFC guy started at 65 years old….it’s never too late!”
A proud resident of Lafayette, Nathanael enjoys seeing the growth occurring in the city, such as the Horse Farm and Downtown Lafayette. As we closed out the interview, he shared his love of the food and culture, and being a part of the overall growth as our region redefines itself.
We thank Nathanael Johnson for the energy and high-quality product he has brought to Lafayette and South Louisiana. We wish him much success as he moves forward. You can find out more about his various coffee shops and roasting business at https://revecoffeeroasters.com/