Bucharest is a driving force in the Romanian specialty coffee industry. In recent years, the capital has seen specialty coffee shops crop up one after another. Bob Coffee Lab, founded in 2017, is one such establishment, running a coffee bar called “Lab,” which doubles as a roastery, as well as two other shops.
Head roaster Alexandru Niculae is one of the founding members. His love affair with coffee dates back around 10 years when he was fascinated by latte art. Now a master of roasting and brewing, Alex has a long list of accolades, most notably the top finish at the 2016 World Roasting Championship. His pursuit of coffee has taken him on a great voyage across the oceans of the specialty coffee world. What inspires his journey, and where is he headed now? This is the story of Alex.
An experience that lures customers to come back
At around 187 hectares, King Mihai I Park is the largest park in Bucharest. It’s a place of scenic beauty, featuring a lake that stretches 6 to 7 kilometers around, with its shores dotted with restaurants and bars. The picturesque spot offers city dwellers a full day of urban retreat. Just outside the park is a boulevard, a weekend hotspot that’s lined with many eateries and cafes and bustling with youngsters and families.
Bob Coffee Lab occupies a corner of the street, exuding the charm of a coffee bar. Its door is left open most of the time, giving the place an approachable feel. A step inside, there are 3 tables. The space is limited in size, but that’s exactly what creates intimacy between baristas and customers. From outside, passers-by can peek well into the shop and see the staff in action. All of these blurs the boundary between customers and shop staff.
“Conversation with customers happens especially when we are brewing coffee or making refreshments like lemonade. Our space is small, so it gets very crowded on a rainy day or when it’s cold outside. But that’s what nurtures close relationships between customers because they naturally start chatting with each other.”
The most eye-catching feature of the place is a pair of round windows on the left wall, seen from the entrance. Customers can get a glimpse inside the adjacent roastery through the submarine-like windows.
When curious patrons look inside, Alex, who takes charge of the roastery, taps into his customary eagerness to entertain. Every now and then, he opens the windows to let them watch the roasting process and smell the aroma of coffee beans.
When he does, children in particular get excited. “I didn’t know these windows can be opened!”, they say in an innocent surprise. Then their eyes go around the roastery with a look of adoration before fixating on something:
Rows of figures of famous movie and anime characters, including Freddy Krueger, Leatherface and Predator, cramming the shelves and desks – a sight not so commonly seen in a coffee shop.
“When customers have a good experience, they will come back again,” says Alex. He is also part of the supporting cast whose job is to deliver memorable experiences to those who come through the door.
It goes without saying that no matter how good the service is, customers won’t return unless coffee is also good. Alex serves customers at the bar on busy Saturdays and Sundays. This is partly because he wants to see customers’ reactions firsthand. Alex has a rare resume of accomplishments, including wins at domestic roasting and brewing competitions.
“I believe that a good roaster has to be a good barista as well. People who buy coffee beans from us don’t cup at home. There are a variety of brewing methods like Ibrik, Moka pot and espresso. Some people may want to make a cocktail with coffee. It’s very important for roasters to know the final stage of coffee and see the reactions of people who drink it.”
Winning isn’t the ultimate goal
Alex, who majored in international business management at university, saw coffee as a bitter drink when he was a student. Coffee wasn’t something he enjoyed at all.
After he graduated from university, he opened a restaurant with his girlfriend and a friend of his mother. He had no prior experience in the restaurant business, nor did he have any management experience. But that didn’t stop him. He would try to find what he could do to contribute to the restaurant, including helping the kitchen staff.
One day, his girlfriend’s sister came to the restaurant and ordered a cappuccino. But as soon as she sipped it, she gave a harsh comment: “This isn’t cappuccino. What is it?”
She worked as a bartender at a large cruise ship. Her job didn’t necessarily involve specialty coffee, but she had a good amount of experience as a barista, too. She came into the restaurant’s kitchen, offering to teach Alex how to make cappuccino, and drew a heart with steam milk and espresso.
The glitter on the shiny surface, and bubbles of fluffy foam milk. The tiny sparkles glistened in the light, twinkling and twinkling. What was unfolding in the cup was a fairytale-like world. Alex was fully taken by the magical experience, surprised by the breadth of possibilities of coffee.
“I want to do this myself,” Alex thought to himself. His heart beating loud, he didn’t waste time in searching the internet for information about what is called latte art. He looked into what kind of jobs were available, what training he needed, and so on. As if to decipher a map of a foreign land, Alex looked for a clue. Then he ended up at the Specialty Coffee Association’s Romanian chapter.
When Alex visited its office, he had an unexpected experience. There, baristas were training for a competition. Alex drank a coffee that one of them offered to him. He was surprised because it wasn’t bitter at all. It was a Geisha from Panama’s Esmeralda, and it turned his perception of coffee on its head.
Before he realized, Alex fell in love with the world of specialty coffee. He decided to let go of the struggling restaurant and went on an around one-and-a-half-month trip to Miami, the United States, where his girlfriend’s sister lived. As he visited several specialty coffee shops, it became apparent to him that roasting held the key to coffee’s taste and flavor.
Alex is disciplined by nature. He likes to set his sights high and train himself. His competition career started when he took part in a latte art contest where participants showcased their artistry and creativity.
“It is the will to get better that keeps me going,” Alex says. “When I went to the World of Coffee* for the first time, the happiest thing was that I was able to touch various coffee equipment I’d never seen before. The atmosphere was open and casual. I got to know different people’s opinions and ways of thinking. I felt like it opened a lot of new doors for me. Before that, I didn’t have the courage to ask others questions.”
*An annual gathering of coffee experts in Europe.
Alex went on to join 5 competitions, 3 of them in the brewing category (2014, 2019, and 2020) and 2 others in the roasting category (2015 and 2016), winning national championships in all.
“I practiced my routine about 350 times to prepare for competitions in 2019. When you repeat so many times, you get a deeper understanding of your movements. If I’m honest, training itself is never fun. But that’s precisely why I need to make it fun and enjoy it. If I can do it, then I will certainly reach a higher level.
The reason I continue to take part in competitions is because I want to keep evolving. There is no losing in competitions since you can find new things and techniques from skilled baristas, not to mention various coffees and new friends. Every relationship I build through competitions becomes a learning material for me to grow. I did win the world championship, but even if I had finished at the bottom that year, I would have been just as happy because I knew I had made improvements.”
Mindset matters most
Alex describes himself as a “big child.” Indeed, if you have a stereotypical image of a world champion as someone with uncompromising stoicism, then you will be surprised to meet him. Cliches like “cheerful” and “friendly” don’t do justice to the energetic vibes emanating from his large build. Alex has the charm of a character straight out of a comic book.
“The fact that I am a world champion doesn’t change anything about me as a person. If there is any change, it is that I’ve made friends around the world. Titles shouldn’t change what kind of person you are. Even today, I very much enjoy joking with the staff. I guess people see me as a ‘big child in their neighborhood.’”
Alex’s collection of figures is ever-expanding. For Alex, pieces of coffee equipment, like drippers, grinders, and pitchers, are also toys. Collections of such items abound at home, including more than 30 cupping spoons.
“The collection has become bigger and bigger before I realized. Unfortunately, I use only one or two of them regularly. I keep the rest in a drawer. I have never even used some of them.
I spend a lot of money because I have a habit of collecting things. That gives me a headache. When I find some new equipment on social media, I regret seeing it because then I ask myself, ‘Should I buy it? Should I not?’ In many cases, I end up buying it. I can’t resist the urge to give everything a try. Plus, you never know if something is good or not until you try using it.
You could say I’m on the constant hunt for treasure. You don’t know where you might find a good idea. Some equipment makers may be struggling just because their promotion is not working, or they don’t have enough money to promote the product. If I like it, I can help them promote it. I believe everyone should help each other as much as possible.
I bring the same attitude to roasting, as well. Trying a new profile and adding to my ‘collection’ broadens my possibilities. On the other hand, if you let your past experiences or preconceptions guide your decisions, then you can’t expect to grow any further. I want to keep challenging my own boundaries so that I can evolve and improve.”
These days, Alex is once again engrossed in latte art, rekindling his passion for the first time in about 7 to 8 years. In the intervening years, latte art designs have become far more elaborate, from chulip, rosetta, and swan to dog, tiger and kangaroo.
“A Thai man who won the latte art world championship in 2017 invented a new technique to draw animals’ eyes by dragging milk through the surface. It set a new bar and made latte art a more difficult challenge. But at the same time, it became more rewarding. I was happy when someone recently told me my latte art was so beautiful they couldn’t bring themselves to drink it.”
It seems as if Alex enjoys ever-lasting childhood much like Peter Pan, seemingly indifferent to the expectations from society. From the outside, it may look like he has the innocence of a child who’s waiting for a Santa Clause. But of course, not everything is all that rosy like in Neverland. Alex has had diabetes since he was in his teens. He’s had insulin injections for 23 years.
“I don’t use it as an excuse for not playing sports or doing other things. There is no point in feeling sorry for myself. I just have to live with it.
The most important thing in life is to have a strong mindset. If you have it, you can easily overcome any hurdles. There is no benefit in panicking. I was infected with Covid-19 twice, but I believed, ‘Everything will be fine. I can get over it easily.’
Life is better if you smile rather than feel sad or cranky. Sure, problems happen when you are a grown-up, and I do understand what’s going on in the world. I don’t joke around all the time. But if everyone loses their inner child, the world will be a place with nothing but sad faces. I’m 35 years old now. So I can still be a child, can’t I?”
Whether you feel exhilarating joy or excruciating pain, those emotions are subjective, after all. Happiness comes down to how you perceive your own circumstances and experiences.
But Alex doesn’t go out of his way to preach such lessons of life. Over the years of training, his heart has been strengthened, and the positive vibes radiating from it are a magnetizing force for those around him. Coffee is, and always has been, somewhere close to Alex.
Honestly, I prefer drip coffee to espresso because I can brew a lot at a time, and I can share it with everyone. With drip coffee, I can also enjoy complex flavors like those of tea. The beauty of specialty coffee is the fact that there are various different coffees. That’s why I roast coffee in a way that vividly brings out its unique aroma and flavors. I do the same with the beans for espresso, too.
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