Located in a new building in the old part of the town, a building that still hasn’t been fully utilized, the interior of Pallett is, as the name indicates, mostly made of wooden pallets: the bar, the benches, the shelves and the sign outside of the café. We sat down together and talked about Pallett, his approach to coffee drink definitions and growingly picky coffee drinkers in Iceland.
Pálmar Þór Hlöðversson has been in coffee for roughly 6 years and, like many others, initally started because he needed a job; the passion came later. 6 months into his job as a barista, he first started to compete in 2008 in Coffee in Good Spirits – a coffee and alcohol themed competition – and “failed miserably” as he himself says, laughing. But once bitten, forever smitten. He competed again the month after in the Barista competition and won – and again in 2009! “These two years of kind of ‘competition mode’ made my passion for coffee more concrete and impossible to shake off,” Pálmar says. Fast forward to this year, he is now a proud owner of Pallett Kaffikompaní in his hometown Hafnarfjörður, a twenty minute drive away from Reykjavík.
When did you want to start your own coffee business, and why?
I was working at Te&Kaffi at the time as barista and trainer. I started thinking about starting my own café around the time I was in the midst of competitions in 2009. It was during the time when I traveled the most and got to know the people that became my biggest influences today. I realized that in order to successfully open up my own place I would have to travel a little bit, get to know what people were doing differently outside of Iceland. I stayed in Oslo after the Nordic Barista Cup 2010 and worked at Kaffa for three months. When I came home I started working at Kaffismiðja Íslands which was the first new Icelandic specialty roastery to start business in many years in Iceland. Competing and travelling – no surprise – really opened my eyes to what was possible and what hadn’t been done at home.
What is the concept behind Pallett?
I’m kind of finding that one out right now. Since I opened in August 4th 2012, I’ve always bought coffee from all three specialty roasters in Iceland: Te&Kaffi, Kaffitár and Kaffismiðja Íslands. In addition. I wanted to offer coffees that I personally liked, nevermind where they came from – very much influenced by Fuglen in Oslo. Friends of mine have also been very kind to send me some stellar coffees from abroad, from Tim Wendelboe, Solberg&Hansen, Kaffa, The Coffee Collective and Koppi among others. I want to do the same with everything else: I have a monthly tea subscription from a local tea club called Tefélagið, so my tea selection is always limited to a couple of teas changing every month; I get my sandwiches from one place and my chocolate from another … I’ve gradually come up with a mantra for myself (although not very original): “Always new, always good”.
What made you decide to open a café in a rather quiet town like Hafnafjörður?
Reykjavík downtown is, in my opinion, satiated with cafés. There is limited space for new coffee businesses to thrive there without having to offer a lot of food. And Hafnafjörður has played a significant role in the development of specialty coffee in Iceland. Two coffee roasteries originate in Hafnafjörður, Súfistinn and Te&Kaffi, although a big part of their business has now moved to Reykjavík. I spent most of my free time as a teenager at Súfistinn; my first impression of coffee is from there, so I have a huge emotional connection to the slow café scene in Hafnarfjörður and I wanted to contribute to it.
How do people respond to your drink menu.
Mostly well. Some of my regulars have already started using the metric system in ordering their drinks. They know by now not to rely on a drink with a certain name looking one way and not any other. But they can always trust that an espresso with 15cl of milk always looks the same. I got the idea from Gwilym Davies (World Barista Champion of 2009 and owner of Prufrock Coffee in London) who has a beautifully simple drinks offering. Just Espresso. And if you want milk, you can choose between 4oz, 6oz and 8oz. What fascinated me was how accurately this created the expectations of the one ordering the drink. I had to convert, however, to cl because no one really thinks in ounces in Iceland. And I’m not very strict on approaching the drinks objectively; if someone asks for a cappuccino I’m not going to correct him/her with a sneering look on my face.
I’ve also been very lucky about the people coming to Pallett. The fact that it’s off center for most people means that those who do come have made a special trip to visit me; I’m relying mostly on word of mouth and I’m experiencing that it has gone to greater lengths than I’d hoped for. Icelandic coffee drinkers are starting to get more picky about their coffee; the home baristas are having an extremely valuable forum on the internet, awareness about coffee quality is getting higher in Iceland.
And finally: How do you see Pallett growing in the future?
Slowly to start with. I’m gradually saving for the ideal machinery for the café; I’ll be offering some of my favourite Icelandic beers (the license is in the pipeline). I’m also planning on roasting my own coffee, hopefully within five years, although the café will still offer coffees from multiple roasters.