Student Spotlight: Albert Tang

For the October issue of LINK, we sat down with Albert Tang. It is not often a twenty two year old is accomplished, and It is even more rare when they are a full time student. Albert Tang wears many hats but, none more impressive than that of being a small business owner while finishing his studies. His willingness to take on challenges have led to his coffee shop and grades making subtle noise. Nemesis Coffee has started to gain traction and is all the buzz for coffee lovers in the area and truly is bringing a “coffee culture” to our city.

Listen to the extended interview in the BCIT SA’s Entrepreneurial Podcast

interview kellan tochkin
images lara fuzetti, maddy adams

photo by maddy adams

Give us a little bit of a rundown of what Nemesis is?

Nemesis Coffee is a specialty coffee shop located in Gastown. We’re trying to blend coffee and food culture together through sale or service, through high quality organically sourced foods, and featuring coffees from around the world; kind of celebrating what coffee is and paying homage to the farmers that we get our coffee from.

How did you come about starting Nemesis?

We’ve been exploring. The four partners and myself, we’ve been around the world and we’ve been to multiple high-profile coffee shops, especially in Australia and Europe, even in the States. We noticed that the Vancouver scene is missing this food and coffee culture operation. We have good coffee in Vancouver – it may not be known to everyone, but we do have a ton of specialty coffee shops, mainly saturated in Gastown, along Main Street, and in Chinatown… [We] had a vision in mind to start this place and we couldn’t really work for anyone else anymore. We’re really driven and motivated by each other to kind of create this progressive platform where we can link our local and eventually our international communities together. Nemesis started as a magazine, but [with] us being baristas, writing and photography and all that it takes to start a magazine doesn’t … it’s not the easiest thing. We’d all worked in coffee shops, so we knew how to start this kind of operation. We decided to pursue that first and kind of use that as a platform to pursue a magazine concept in the future and engaging with our local communities for now.

Tell me about your five-person team. How did you become a part of this specific group and what specifically do you bring to this team?

So I personally worked with two of the partners at a previous coffee shop. One of our partners, Jess, owned it. There I met Josh, who is one of the other partners. He’s currently in Australia; his visa expired and we’re currently working on getting him back. But the other two I’ve met through coffee and they’re good friends of Jess’s and we get along. When we finally decided to start this place up, we got to the final decision that we work well together, that we have this common vision in mind [so] let’s join forces and make it happen.

photo by lara fuzetti

You’re a full-time architecture student in the final year of your degree program. Obviously, with this new school year being relatively young still, how are you finding that balance between school and work?

It’s interesting… Most programs at BCIT are supposed to be super demanding, so working is almost not an option. The fact that I’m working three to four times a week, I can see it being a problem in the future, if not the near future. For now, I’m trying to just work smart and as quickly as possible, which is to get [school] work done and then go to work, or vice-versa; work in the morning and then head over to school, bang out all the school work and then go home and sleep. I try to eat properly as well.

When it comes to having a business and making money, as opposed to paying for school, are you still finding that you have that passion between studying architecture and working at Nemesis?

I was always passionate and fond of things that are planned, fond of arts and sciences. And it’s never been one or the other; it’s always been a mixture of both. I tried pursuing engineering, and that didn’t work. It was too much science. I needed something that had a little bit of art component to it.
I have to know, how on earth were you guys able to find a location in Gastown, and then be able to afford it?
The idea started in 2013, so we’ve had a lot of time looking for the right space in Vancouver. I mentioned earlier that one of our partners, Jess, he owned a coffee shop on Commercial Drive. This was kind of the testing grounds for this Nemesis idea, and we were trying to explore where coffee culture would work in Vancouver or where a certain concept would work, or wouldn’t work in Vancouver. [With] Gastown being so saturated with coffee, we thought it’s not saturated enough with specialty coffee, and it wouldn’t hurt to put another one in there. So we were actively looking around Gastown and Chinatown and Strathcona. A couple of years later, we came to this spot… linked up with someone from Colliers (the real estate company) and they turned us on to this spot… Our landlords were actually SFU [and] I think they wanted to bring in someone who didn’t already have a big name. They wanted to bring in someone local, someone trying to create something special in Vancouver. And after many, many months, we had won the bid and that’s how it kind of started.

photo by lara fuzetti

Where does the name “Nemesis” come from?

It’s kind of our way of referring to the coffee stagnancy here in Vancouver; we want to be the enemy to that and fight coffee stagnancy, let it keep progressing and not have it ever stop. But simply put, it’s one of our partners Cole’s favourite word. And it has a nice ring to it. It kind of speaks to our ‘against-the-grain’ mentality. It speaks to our presence in the coffee industry and as people. We’re trying to be progressive, but not pretentious at all. And that’s it. It’s really simple, actually.

Your food, coffee, and space all seem very intentional and thoughtful. What is your concept and what is your inspiration?

The concept of the space was to have the bar as the centrepiece of our space. Nemesis is kind of an L-shape. On the long side of the L is our bar, and you can circulate and walk around the bar. It’s white, it’s got light wood, it’s super clean. It’s very inviting. We’ve got tons of window space, transparency, and that’s kind of what we want to be as a company. Usually most bars are backed up against a wall, and you can technically hide stuff underneath and have stuff that you don’t want other people to see. But with Nemesis, our bar is so open, you can circulate around it. We actually invite people to walk around to the backside of the bar. We really want people to experience this coffee-making. In the kitchen, we have a huge glassed-out window where the people can peer in, and that’s also speaking to the transparency that we want to create in our space, where the customers can create that one-on-one relationship. When the chef is there, you’re totally welcome to strike up a conversation. Same with the people behind the bar; if you have any questions, you can ask. Just yell out someone’s name from the front: “Hey, why are you doing this? How are you doing this? Can you explain this?” and we’d be more than happy to explain to you our processes and why we think this is right way to do certain things.

It’s very homey, somewhere people who may not be having the best days can come in and all of a sudden they’re comfortable. Is that something that was really big for you guys?

Yeah, that was a big concept when it came to our food. We wanted to walk that line between fine dining and comfort food. So most of our food, if not all of our food, is beautifully plated, but it’s reasonably priced and sourced. And with most restaurants in Vancouver, when something is beautifully plated, it’s not really full or you don’t really feel like you have or had enough. For us, we kind of… that’s where the comfort side comes in. We want to give you a healthy portion and still have that beautiful presentation and taste, and leave you feeling good at the end of your Nemesis experience, with the coffee and food.

You mentioned how travel really helped you identify wanting to be in the coffee world. Did things really start to kick off when you had been to these different countries, you know just trying different cafés and coffees?

Well, Nemesis currently is a multi-roaster, so we bring in high profile roasters around the world. We eventually wanted to start roasting, but right now we just haven’t gotten around to it yet. We’re still collecting knowledge and establishing international relationships. I went on exchange to Italy last year in second semester, from February to July. And I went out to Germany, to a roaster called Five Elephants out in Berlin. And we actually opened Nemesis with them being one of the three roasters. It’s really nice to walk in and be like, “Hey, I’m one of your wholesale accounts from Vancouver” all the way across the world.” And when I said that to the guy at the till, he just looked over and was like “what? From Vancouver, that’s crazy! What are you doing here?”… He was just thrilled to see someone from Vancouver out here in one of his cafés and he immediately pulled out a map and started to tell me about Berlin and where to go. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do, establish these relationships so when we do roast, we have these people to reach out to and possibly we can give back to them for helping us in our starting journey with Nemesis.

Nemesis could be its own career. Why do you continue to study architecture while starting your business?

photo by maddy adams

Like I said before, I’ve always been fond of things that are a blend of art and sciences and not one or the other. Architecture is a blend of art and science, and coffee is as well. It’s a very science-driven career path or trade… whatever you want to call it. But it’s also very artistic in the way of you present your drink or food, how you communicate with your customers and friends, and I’m very passionate about the two. In the future, I am not too sure where that is or what it is, but I definitely want to keep the two in my life.

What kind of architecture do you hope to do, or how do you want to involve architecture in your life and career?

I’d love to be doing some smaller works, like cafés or restaurants where you have to interact with the clients every day.

Sounds like you want to do something that’s a little more intimate.

Exactly. As interesting as it is to build really cool houses and work on huge residential-commercial projects, I really like having that one-on-one experience or that one-to-two experience; that intimate connection with the clients and other trades.