Just great thanks, that's how he has been - and still is - finding working from home during the pandemic. Houben is not someone to start climbing the walls anytime soon. At TU/e he manages eight academic advisors, now mostly online; in addition, he himself is in frequent contact with students. Last week, for the first time in a long while, he spent a whole day working on the campus, looking ahead with students who are starting their board year.
Even though he has never failed to manage well at home (in Helmond), something was triggered this past spring when, while co-hosting TU/e Community Radio, he received study management advisor Hedwich van Engelen as a guest. “She had a tip for people, that they do a side-project, to ensure they have enough variety during corona, ‘Otherwise all you are going to do is work’. I took her words to heart.”
Not that he has been without a side project: for the past six years he has co-owned Escape Helmond, which not only runs a couple of commercial escape rooms for private individuals but also develops concepts for training purpose (and whose customers include a number of dockyards and the police).
Thinking up concepts is second nature to Houben, who for some time had been getting agitated about various things, including the exodus from shopping malls and “stores that apply zero innovation”. Not that there is anything wrong with online buying and selling, he hastens to add. “It's quite right that people should be buying online; as a regular store you simply can't compete with those prices. But as a physical store you can offer added value.”
The key word for Houben is shoptainment. Not in fashion - to mention an obvious sector - but in coffee. “That is more to my taste,” he says laughingly. The concept was quick in the making and, thanks to his wealth of organizational experience, quick to be implemented: since this past weekend Coffee Experiences has been up and running in the former lab owned by Diagnostiek voor U in Eindhoven's city center. “The building will likely be remodeled or demolished in eighteen months' time. It was affordable, and we can do whatever we like with the space.”
Together with Sabine Jongerius, master's student of math at TU/e, he is keen for people to see and experience for themselves how they can make more of their coffee moments at home. Typically, uninspired, routine and efficient coffee moments, as Houben knows. “You press a button and within two minutes you've got coffee. While so much more is possible. Personally, I'm happy to spend five minutes on a delicious cup of coffee.”
Cold and hot methods, ‘cold drip’ coffee “in the VOC way”, hip Martini or mojito versions, techniques for roasting coffee beans, the value of often carelessly discarded coffee grounds, and the right way to use a moka pot so the coffee loses its bitter edge (take note: set the pot on the heat with the bottom half filled with boiling water not cold water, so that the ground coffee doesn't burn) - by the by, the enthusiastic Houben gives your Cursor interviewer and photographer a glimpse of a world that leaves your standard roast trailing far behind.
Read on below the photos.
“We hope we can surprise people at least twice during a workshop,” he says, talking about the 90-minute 'experiences' that his company offers visitors on Saturdays and Sundays. Houben wants to have them experience, see, smell, taste, learn and be inspired to try something new at home for a change.
These sessions offer him several ways to express himself and his creativity: from his process-based strengths as a mathematical engineer to his talent and desire to entertain people. Although Houben finds boredom sets in when he tells the same 'offhand' joke too many times, he acknowledges. Which means he doesn't plan to spend years in the coffee business. “I like to develop concepts. I love creating something tangible, ensuring that it takes off before, hopefully, passing it on to a young entrepreneur who can expand it further. As soon as it becomes routine, my interest flags.”
For now, during his weekends he is simply enjoying working “without a screen right in front of me”. Eighteen months is the period he has assigned to discovering, in a small pop-up-like setting, “whether this works. We can do three workshops a day, for a maximum of eight persons. If these are 80 percent full, then I'm happy.”
For the time being, these workshops will be given only at the building mentioned above on the P.C. Hooftlaan, “I like to have everything to hand. We are already getting questions about the possibility of workshops at other locations, but we are holding back on that for now. Our immediate focus is the quality of our workshops here. For example, we have had a couple of teachers pay us a visit and cast their critical eye over the instruction side of things.”
He himself is still learning and discovering, tells Houben, who incidentally drinks not only coffee. “I've worked a lot in theater and that taught me that sometimes tea is better than coffee when you're in need of hydration; if I am giving a training course, for example. Coffee is chiefly for the ‘delicious’ moments.”
The pinnacle of delicious, for Houben, is an Ethiopian coffee “with a lovely fruit flavor”, he says as he reaches for the packet. “If you brew this with a Chemex (a glass 'slow coffee' maker, ed.) with a thick filter, you'll get a nice transparent, somewhat stronger coffee. That really is a moment for myself.”
The workshops run by Coffee Experiences are for two to eight participants per session, corona-proof, and can be given in both Dutch and English. For more information, go to coffeeexperiences.nl. Promotion: TU/e students and employees who reserve online in 2020, putting ‘Cursor’ in the comments box, and who show their campus pass during their visit will receive an extra little gift.