Finding one’s self through coffee

Imagine the smell of coffee beans. That sweet-earthy scent that permeates the air wherever they are found. Coffee is a tactile experience. Physical. Real. Awakening. It’s also a social experience; a good coffeehouse provides a place for people to gather to talk or work.

Smoking Gun Coffee has won numerous awards for all these factors. They were recognized this year as the best coffee roaster by the Vancouver Coffee Snob. And for those who drink their coffee, it’s no surprise why they won. Their coffee is top of class.

But where does this magic come from?

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Brandon Litun (BA CYC ’12) began roasting in his in-law’s garage in a small popcorn popper. Prior to his undergrad studies he worked as a barista and had an innate sense of what constitutes good coffee. After entering into his career as a child and youth care worker, he found himself overwhelmed.

“As I was doing the child welfare work there was a tension there for me,” says Litun. “It’s work that’s so important that I so value and treasure, but it was very, very hard on me emotionally and mentally.”

It was during this time that he read about people roasting coffee beans in popcorn poppers, and that piqued his interest.

“My in-laws had an old air popper that they got 30 years ago at their wedding in their cupboard,” says Litun. “So, I ordered some green coffee off Amazon and roasted. And by the end of that first session, which was like 15 minutes to make like half a cup of coffee, I was in tears.”

For Litun, the process of roasting coffee became therapeutic.

“You’re smelling smells and you’re charting colour change,” says Litun. “And I tricked my popper out with thermometers and stuff. And then at the end of it, you have this thing that you channeled all this energy into and that can then be shared.”

So, while Litun struggled with his work as a child and youth care worker, he roasted coffee. And the more he poured himself into it, the more people around him wanted him to roast.

“It just kept kind of snowballing while still doing that social work piece and still struggling with my ability to cope with what I was doing,” says Litun. “And as it grew and people got into it, I would have to buy a slightly bigger roaster because now instead of making half a cup I could make half a pound.”

Eventually, he bought a drum roaster and set up a small contract with a coffee shop in Mission.

“So, I either had to hang this up and figure out what I’m going to do with my life, or I give it its fair shot.”

“I got a little side business or side hustle, and it felt good to me,” says Litun. “And then my career came to an alarming halt. I reached a breaking point with myself emotionally.”

From there, Litun left his child and youth care work but continued to roast coffee while working odd jobs to keep himself afloat. It was a turning point in his career, but it wouldn’t be the last one. After some time, he realized that this hobby of roasting coffee had grown to the point that it was no longer sustainable as just a hobby.

“The hobby was a little too unruly to just be a hobby anymore,” says Litun. “Too expensive too. So, I either had to hang this up and figure out what I’m going to do with my life, or I give it its fair shot. So, I bought my first large-scale commercial roaster, which is the one in the shop here.”

From there, Litun set up a small roasting location which he shared with Raven’s Brewing in Abbotsford. But it wasn’t a clear path at first. He began his full-time roasting in 2019, just before the COVID pandemic, and found himself facing a challenge in 2020 when restrictions on gathering took full effect.

“Again, either I had to hang this up and find a career, or I needed to pivot,” says Litun.

It wasn’t a simple solution, but Litun realized that he had some small espresso and coffee equipment. So  he set up a portal through Square and began selling lattes in a parking lot. He called it the Curbside Café.

“People would order their coffee online, pay for it, and leave a little note of what their car looked like,” says Litun. “An order would come in, I would make their drinks, put on my mask, put it on a tray and go out to their car and deliver it to them in a contactless way.”

This was Litun’s first community exposure and set the tone for how he wanted to conduct business going forward.

“It became like a beautiful little community point of connection which really began our cafe expression and solidified pieces of our culture, which is largely connection,” says Litun.

From there, Litun was approached by Highstreet in Abbotsford  to run a pop-up cafe. The store, which was supposed to be a three-week trial, lasted six months.

“I’ve been given a real gift from the universe to fall into something that is so life giving.”

And not long after, District 1881, the new development in Downtown Chilliwack, approached Litun with the proposal of a permanent location.

“We managed to bootstrap a lot with the help of some dear friends, the CEBA loan, and financial support from the developer We didn’t have any significant loans. It just snowballed,” says Litun.

Once again, he was faced with a crucial decision: take a risk or hang up his apron.

Smoking Gun has grown exponentially since its location opened in 2021. They’ve expanded to a second roasting location in District 1881 and continue to engage with the community over a cup of well-brewed coffee.

Though, Litun has had to face new challenges since switching careers. The grass wasn’t greener on the other side, but he’s found renewed purpose and strength in what he is doing.

“I’ve been given a real gift from the universe to fall into something that is so life giving,” says Litun. “And I still feel that way. I still feel that way when I roast.”

He considers this a journey of self-discovery. A journey he is still on.

“I think a lot of individuals who find their way into entrepreneurship or into small business are kind of forced into a decision of 0 to 100,” says Litun. “It’s hard to find yourself there. And that certainly was my experience leaving university and going into a career social work. It was 0 to 100. It’s hard to find yourself.”

What makes his coffee career so special for him  is the connections with the community and his staff that he gets to make.

“Certainly, my experience in social work has informed the way I connect with people, the way I approach conflict, the way we resolve conflict and internally the way we develop and have fun together,” says Litun. “I feel really fortunate to be allowed into the lives of individuals who are doing their own journeying, self-discovery, going through school, getting married, starting families, and still learning about their needs as individuals.”

Smoking Gun, which started in Litun’s garage, has grown into a full roastery and café. Litun just added benefits packages for his staff, and he continues to engage the community in meaningful ways.

“I’m not a perfect human and I don’t get it perfectly right,” says Litun, “but I think the human focus has been an incredible gift to approach this space with.”