Indy Coffee

Rooster Coffee shop at 343 King Street West in Toronto

Rooster Coffee shop at 343 King Street West in Toronto

This page will be changing all the time. It’s been in draft mode for ages. I realize that if I wait until I have enough time to do it perfectly, I’ll never do it. In any case, ‘perfect’ isn’t required. Also, I’ve tripped myself up a few times because I tend to get too serious. Then when I read what I’ve typed, I just scrap so much of what I’ve written because of that. And then I’m off doing other things. The reader will no doubt conclude, reasonably, that I didn’t do a great job of keeping this page light. Hopefully, You’ll at least find it interesting and perhaps informative.

My direct experience with indie coffee is in Toronto (which I’ll often refer to here as TO), where I reside, although I checked the indie shops in Oshawa (a bust for quality) and have toured, so far, 2 roasteries outside of Toronto. A third roastery I toured, Rufino (which used to go by the name “Classic Gourmet”), may be regarded as being within Toronto, but I’m not sure. It’s in Concord, just north of Toronto. (I don’t think that there’s another roasting facility like it, on this scale, elsewhere on the planet. Reportedly, There is a similar, but smaller, operation on the west coast of Canada.) Check out a blog post I did that looks at Rufino coffee: Bean Around The GTA

I have been a coffee geek (I don’t actually like the term ‘geek’ but can’t come up with anything better that isn’t pretentious) since the 80s, but I’ve only been a knowledgeable geek since sometime after 1993, when I moved to Toronto and had nothing to do but check out coffee shops. (And much of what I learned, I’m forgetting, since I don’t keep up.) I was about 37 years old at that time. I wasn’t going to go clubbing. I wasn’t into that scene even when I was 20, and, in any case, I look better now than I did then. Since I didn’t have bad habits to occupy my time, it was coffee shops for me. I seemed to have arrived in TO at a time when the indie coffee scene was about to explode, which is why I have been to so many shops and know so many folks in the biz. It’s been fun.

And depressing. I’d much, much rather own my own, funky espresso bar than be a piece of furniture security guard who can work for a company (G4S) for eight years and not receive so much as a penny raise.

Fat Rick from 2005

Chain shops are not, as some imagine, a problem for indie shops or those who want to open an indie shop, depending. This is my opinion and it isn’t based on any sort of carefully collected data, so only take it as my opinion. Correct me if you know better.

If you have an intersection with a Tim Horton’s, a Starbucks and an Aroma (an Israeli chain, which I’d like to know more about) on three corners and decide that you’ll do fine opening an indie shop on the fourth corner, I’d say think twice. More than twice. That’s pushing it. But opening a shop on the same block as a chain (store that’s part of a big chain of stores like Starbucks) or two, as long as you’re not next door to one (and especially more than one), in my view poses no problem. Mad Bean, on Eglinton Avenue East (which is a bit north for indie shops in TO, although that’s now changing), is an indie shop across the street from a Second Cup (which, gag, uses Mother Parker’s coffee, or so I’m told) and only a few doors down from Starbucks. Brian seems to do okay there. His shop uses a newer, smaller roaster called Velvet Sunrise. It’s not bad and sometimes it’s quite good. (Owners: If you’re starting out, and you’re not rich and can’t afford to do all that you want or spend as much as you’d like to, then I recommend that you compensate by having a blend on tap that includes a bean from Ethiopia. Simply, It’s tasty stuff. It’s often strong in berry notes.) Incidentally, My favorite coffee is something medium roasted. (That goes for drip and espresso.) I like body but I don’t like harshness. I don’t like sharp tasting coffee at all, and, for whatever reason, there’s a lot of that flying around out there.

Folks who frequent Starbucks or Tim Horton’s don’t have to be introduced to coffee and they constitute a large pool of potential customers therefore. They already like coffee and don’t have to ponder whether they might or might not when they see your shop and are thinking of checking it out. Also, If you’ve got an indie shop in Toronto, or any other large city, then you’ve got the advantage of free advertizing for your shop. There are all kinds of minor media that will advertize your shop for free. Those media owners are eager to sell ads and therefore they are eager to get readers however they can, which can be good or bad, as this NOW magazine article discusses: “Farm Villains.” They have staff on the look-out for whatever new eateries or coffee shops pop up, although, where coffee shop reviews are concerned, the reviewers seem to be unprofessional and lacking knowledge about coffee (and that varies, with some reviewers displaying more knowledge and professionalism than others). When those shops pop up, those writers pop in, take some pics, get at least some basic info about the place and voila! Your free advertizing appears in NOW! or The Grid or BlogTO or whatever. Occasionally, You can catch the attention of a bigger paper. I can’t count how many times Shawn Andrews and Dave Watsons’ shop, The Rooster, has been written about in major media.

And all those coffee drinkers frequenting Starbucks etc, who read about the new indie shop in their nabes will now be exposed to advertizing for your shop. “Hey, That looks interesting. Well, I like coffee, so I think I’ll check it out some time.”

Speaking of interesting, That’s such a big deal. Make your shop interesting (and a positive experience; which might include thinking about blind spots; Read on) and people will be interested in it. In the area of coffee, That would mean changing up the bean, perhaps even bringing in coffee from different roasters (which I’m beginning to think would be a BIG plus). One house blend and a feature or two is ideal, especially if the feature(s) are guest beans from different roasters. Why? Recently (December 2014), My two favorite coffee shops (different owners and roasters) changed their house blends at almost the same time. The change was not at all good – to my palate. Just like that I have far less of a chance of getting awesome espresso here in TO, which is already challenging due to the temperamental nature of coffee and the complexity of the brewing process. (I complain about the coffee I’m drinking, a lot, but I’m fussy. And I know, better than most, that even good quality, tasty coffee is up and down. You just have to learn when to ignore me.) It’s easier to get crappy tasting coffee, even with quality coffee, than it is to get good tasting coffee. But I’d much, much rather get crappy tasting coffee from a shop where they fuss over what they give me. I just appreciate it. It’s about the service and the pleasure of seeing friends as much as anything. If those two shops (and there’s more than one of each) were bringing in coffee from other roasters regularly, maybe that would improve my odds. At least it would be… interesting.

Serious

On the other hand, It seems that city hall is small business owners’ biggest enemy. If you’ve got a new shop, Good luck setting out a small sandwich board on the sidewalk (Noir Coffee & Tea before Kirby, the owner, packed it in) or putting in a patio on your perfect ‘front of shop’ space (Cafe Novo) or getting the city to put in a bike rack on your side patio (Voulez Vous before that shop closed). I’ve pondered this problem but don’t why it exists. But it does track. It’s like Freemasonry. If it’s not about merit, then you end up with professional scammers, not professionals. Our capitalist system is crooked and based on the same principles as the mob. It’s not what you know and do. Rather, It’s who you know and what you do for them. I also believe that money, especially in the hands of imperfect humans, is positively bad. It conduces to a loss of civility as the greedy, unprincipled people out there cause problems in their pursuit of as much money as they can get, however that’s accomplished. And they enjoy, as believers in inequality, taking from others. They end up sucking the life out of everything. Which is why I refer to neoliberal capitalism as vampire capitalism. So, Cities are much less than they could be in a mafia capitalist system and unnecessary blight is found throughout them. A minority does okay and lives in nice houses etc, often in nice neighborhoods.

I don’t understand why there is no fund that small businesses can tap when the very survival of their businesses can be threatened by work being done on streets etc where they’re located. To me, That’s a no-brainer. But no one talks about it. It doesn’t come up during municipal elections. There is a common sense idea of competition in the marketplace but it’s too often not matched by reality (for example; “The TPP Is About Entrenching Corporate Power, Not ‘Free Trade'” by Yves Engler). There certainly isn’t the idea of fair play among today’s brand of capitalist. Once again, It’s a mafia capitalist system in which it’s not what you know and do, but who you know and what you do for them. But I don’t agree with that kind of system. Maybe, On a block on which there’s a Starbucks, a Second Cup and an indie shop, the bosses behind Starbucks and Second Cup would have no interest supporting a fund like that when they, unlike a precariously smaller business, can easily ride out business-killing construction outside their stores. And maybe that has something to do with why some sort of financial support for small businesses impacted by normal city infrastructure repairs isn’t there.

If so, My thought is: Our taxes go into infrastructure that ‘all’ the businesses on that block enjoy and benefit from having. I support that. What else can I do? Therefore, I want, and am on solid ground in calling for, bigger players like Starbucks to play nice. It’s only fair. But being unfair is how the powerful get powerful in this world. They break the agreements and rules (written and unwritten) and laws that civilized people – who like social harmony and peace and security, and economic security, for all – wouldn’t think to break. Starbucks (which finds itself in the company of tax evaders) and other big companies don’t have to play nice and so they choose not to, while they enjoy the benefits of civilization without doing much to make it civilized and good for everyone. As for their coffee; Talk about having the life sucked out of things! There’s little coffee in their coffee (but you could say there’s blood in it, when you consider that there are real, negative, impacts to people’s lives that come from the billions ferreted away in offshore tax havens by companies like Starbucks) and what’s there just can’t be good quality. It’s essentially hot, black water. Most coffee drinkers don’t notice because most coffee drinkers are drinking milk and cream and sugar with a few molecules of coffee in it and that satisfies them. (And they do the same to quality coffee. Of course, People often go to indie shops for more than just the coffee.) And Starbucks et al are satisfied to tell them that they’re drinking coffee. Technically they are. But…

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