The Grand Seduction

Former lab technician Curtis Burns pioneers coffee roasting on Fogo Island.

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Curtis Burns can still remember the day he had his first good cup of coffee. It was July 2011, and the Prairies native was firing up his state-of-the-art, fluid-bend roaster for the very first time, in a shed in Newfoundland. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” he says with a laugh, adding that it was nothing like the “crappy” coffee his parents drank when he was a kid. There was another reason he enjoyed it so much: That cup kicked off his new career as the only coffee roaster on the Bay of Exploits, a 1,000 square kilometre bay in northeast Newfoundland.

If you told the 45-year-old Burns a decade ago that he’d one day be making and selling coffee on Fogo Island, the largest offshore island in the Bay of Exploits, he would have thought you were crazy. For 14 years, the Saskatchewan-born Burns was in IT, working as the manager of academic technology at Calgary’s Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD). He was in charge of everything tech-related at the school.

By launching an independent coffee roasting company on Fogo Island, Burns realized he could live there and still be part of a vibrant working artists’ community.

While he enjoyed his role at ACAD, he was disenchanted with the bureaucracy of academia and the frenzy of city life. In 2009, he had enough and wanted a change. Fortunately, deciding where to go was easy. A decade earlier he and his wife Kay visited Newfoundland and fell in love with the place. In 2003 they bought a cabin on Fogo Island, so moving there permanently made perfect sense to them.

Coffee roasting wasn’t his first idea – he wanted to build a high-tech studio for artists near his cabin. However, when Burns heard the news that a not-for-profit organization was creating a luxury inn and international artist residency program, his first thought was, “They’re going to need coffee!” he says. By launching an independent coffee roasting company on Fogo Island, Burns realized he and Kay could live there and still be part of a vibrant working artists’ community.

To get started, Burns invested $25,000 in equipment and began buying small batches of direct-trade, organic green beans. After several months of experimentation, Flat Earth Coffee was born. For two years he sold packages of coffee out of the trunk of his car. He opened an actual coffee shop, Flat Earth Outpost, in 2014.

Burns has no regrets about leaving his old life behind, even though many of his friends questioned his decision to leave a thriving urban community for a rural Newfoundland setting. Interestingly, there are an increasing number of people who are starting new lives and careers in the area too. “Locals assumed I must have family here, but I am a ‘Newfoundlander-By-Choice’ and NBCs are becoming less novel all the time,” he says. “And they all want coffee.”

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