The Story of Phil & Sebastian

- written by Sebastian Sztabzyb -

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We Meet, It's Un-Monumental

It all started in a digital circuits class. It was 1996. Phil and I were both at the University of Calgary studying to become engineers. As fate would have it, we were paired as lab partners. I’d like to say there was a thunderbolt moment where we both saw our futures unfold in front of us, but it was substantially less monumental than that. We worked well together, largely because we’re both perfectionists. I never had to convince Phil to stay up late to keep working on a project and he never had to convince me to stay up even later. During our time as lab partners we became friends.  We were odd ducks in the world of engineering because while most of our cohorts feasted on pizza and beer, even as scruffy students both Phil and I had a taste for the finer things and bonded over a shared love of fine food and wine.

We Drink A Lot of Crappy Espresso, and a Few Good Ones

In 2002 we discovered espresso and just how good or bad it can be. The discovery happened for both of us accidentally and concurrently. For Phil, the revelation was sparked by his late Uncle Billy. When Phil visited Uncle Billy, who was quite the aficionado, Uncle Billy would meticulously prepare espressos for the two of them to enjoy. The process piqued his curiosity and Phil bought a Gaggia Baby espresso machine and began experimenting. Around the same time I was dropping some rather unsubtle hints to my wife Emily that it would be nice to make espressos at home. You can imagine my surprise when on my birthday a Delonghi espresso maker showed up. Despite using nice beans the results were atrocious and I can quite honestly remember asking myself why anyone would bother to drink the crap. After many discussions between Phil and I, along with some fairly extensive research (this is where it’s beneficial to remember our engineer-like tendencies) the truth was revealed. While Phil’s Gaggia Bay was a decent espresso machine, my Delonghi was essentially useless and would never produce a drinkable espresso. It was immediately exchanged for a Rancilio Silvia. The results went from atrocious to drinkable, but barely.

A Book Changes Our Lives

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Then fate intervened. Sadly, uncle Billy passed away and in his will he left Phil a book, David Schomer’s Espresso Coffee: Professional Techniques. As ridiculous as it may sound, that book changed our lives. I can honestly say that I don’t know where we would be had it not come into Phil’s possession. It introduced us to the science behind espresso, appealing to the engineer and the budding aficionado in both of us. We were zealots, learning about dosing, distribution, and tamping. We also learned that in order to create a great espresso it was time to invest in another piece of brewing equipment. I went out and purchased a Rancilio Rocky grinder, multiplying my wife’s initial investment in my birthday present by tenfold. But finally, we created something drinkable, and although we didn’t know it at the time, we had also created Phil & Sebastian’s first tasting lab. The cinematic progression of our story would involve the swift opening of a coffee shop. In reality that day was still more than half a decade away. And let’s just say life had a few curveballs planned for us in the meantime.

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Despite Good Advice,
We Road Trip

The tasting lab, also known as my former kitchen, was operating in full swing and we were starting to experiment with other espressos. It was our first cup of Seattle’s Vivace Espresso, roasted by the aforementioned David Schomer that really changed the game. If we’d looked up to the man before his espresso turned admiration into full-blown obsession. Not only did he have his own roasting business, he also had a small cafe where drinks were served small and without syrups. A road trip was in order. We ignored a lot of sound advice, the March road conditions and a severe avalanche warning and headed to Seattle. In tow were two friends who would both become instrumental in the creation of Phil & Sebastian, Joe Oppenheim, a long time friend, who is now our company lawyer, and Jonathan Herman my brother-in-law, a designer and now a guiding force behind our brand (who, as hard as it is to believe, at the ripe age of 21 had never had a cup of coffee).

We Experienced Excitement Normally Reserved for Teenage Girls

When we finally pulled into the parking lot at Vivace both Phil and I were overcome with a strange Beatles-groupie like excitement. We each ordered one cappuccino and one espresso. The cappuccinos were life altering. They were sweet, chocolatey, caramelly, creamy with only the slightest trace of bitterness. There was absolutely no need for cream or sugar, it would’ve been redundant to the already exquisite flavour. Then came the espresso. It was rich, thick like molasses, so smooth and intense with so little bitterness you almost didn’t know what you were drinking. Those drinks combined with the relaxed vibe, and the tattooed yet knowledgeable baristas, were what finally brought us to the realization that we needed to open a place of our own in Calgary.

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We Come Up with Some Horrible Names, and Struggle Through Writing a Mission Statement

It was during that summer that planning for our own cafe began. Although Phil and I would both consider ourselves fairly proficient at most things in life, naming the business was not our strong suit. We cycled through some embarrassing and in hindsight rather entertaining options such as Ooze Espresso Bar, Atypica Coffee, Latte Art Coffee House (I blame Phil for most of those). We also started putting down on paper our vision, and mission. To date this is one of the most challenging tasks we’ve undertaken. There was a lot of procrastination, a lot of revisions and a lot of late nights. It reminded me of this scene from Seinfeld where Jerry and George are trying to write script for a show about nothing. After the initial enthusiasm, they find themselves staring into space blankly. This lasts for a few seconds until Jerry remembers he has to call Elaine, and George turns on the television. That was Phil and I. We’d sit down, long stretches of silence would ensue until we came up with a distraction or one presented itself. I am happy to admit that after many painful attempts, and well into the fall of 2005, we had a mission statement. You can read the full version here, but the gist was and still is this: We believe that coffee has great potential for flavour and nuance. We want to introduce this potential to our customers, and help them discover just how great coffee can be.

We Hit Up Woodstock
for Coffee Lovers

Although we had cleared a few hurdles there were still many more to come. A major one being we had no real business experience, no experience in the food in beverage industry, no name and only a partial business plan. Fortunately during another bout of internet research, we came across a conference called Coffee Fest held in Seattle. Once again, Jonathan in tow, we headed across the border. We sat in the front row at every single seminar, asked way too many questions and basically scrounged together an education on hiring, retention, pricing drinks and pretty much anything else you could think of. We were introduced to the coffee community, and to a brand-new machine that would change the coffee world. The Clover would allow baristas to brew one cup at a time, changing the parameters of each cup and launching the single-cup brewing phenomenon now seen in pretty much every quality cafe.

We Finally Find a Name

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It was around that time we finally found our name. It was Jonathan who suggested Phil & Sebastian. At first we weren’t taken with the idea of naming the company after ourselves, but soon the personal nature, authenticity and the sheer simplicity of the suggestion overcame us, not to mention our other options were all terrible.

Phil Spends Eight Months Sleeping on a Couch in Vancouver

Around the same time we secured a name, we also came to the realization that two guys opening a coffee shop without ever having worked at a coffee shop was a dumb idea. So we decided to divide and conquer. My wife Emily and I had a baby on the way, so it was decided I would work on securing a location and finishing up our business plan while Phil would move to Vancouver, work in cafes and immerse himself in the coffee community. Our good friend Joe (who accompanied us to Seattle the first time) lived in Vancouver, and graciously granted Phil use of his couch. Phil quickly found work at the Hines Roasterie. He also visited every coffee shop in sight, and conducted informal interviews with anyone in the coffee business who would grant him an audience. Phil spent eight months in Vancouver. During which he also worked at Caffe Artigiano, and an establishment no longer in operation called Cafe Natura (it proved to be a very valuable lesson in “what not to do”). Meanwhile I was struggling to find space in Calgary. Commercial rents were at an all-time high, and landlords weren’t keen on a cafe operated by two fellows with no operational experience.

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We Try and Get Into the Farmer's Market

It was during a trip to the Calgary Farmers’ Market that we finally stumbled across the solution. It was the perfect place to launch. We’d have low initial-overhead, the customers were more discerning and for the most part people weren’t in a rush. However there were a few issues, there was a three-year waiting list, and the market already had two coffee shops. Trying to pitch a third wasn’t going to go over well, so we decided we’d get our foot in the door by pitching a tasting bar for the purposes of selling whole bean coffee and home brewing equipment.

We Get Rejected, Not Really

It’s important to note that there was a management change going on and the gatekeeper to the GM at the time was a lovely woman named Beverly. It’s also important to note that aside from my wife, it’s generally been women over 50 who have found me the most charming. Beverley bought into the concept immediately, and agreed to pass it onto the GM at the time, Darrell. Unfortunately she wasn’t the decision maker. Many weeks elapsed with no word. Finally on November 17th 2006, I headed down to the office uninvited. Beverley seemed nervous but agreed to put me in front of Darrell. He took one look at me and said “The answer is no and that’s final.” I’m not sure if it was the shock, the disappointment or the potent combination of both that caused me to launch into an rampant diatribe about how he was missing an opportunity to inject some much needed passion and energy into the market, how nobody in Calgary was doing anything like this, and how the market deserved so much more than its current coffee offering. I’m not sure if Darrell was inspired or bemused but something in my speech stirred him, and he told me “Come back tomorrow and we’ll figure out how to get you into the market.”

I Share a Six-Pack with Bob

The next day I went back. Darrell suggested I approach Bob, the owner of one of the existing coffee shop Bit O’ Beans, about purchasing his business. Bob had achieved great success at the market with Simple Simon Pies. The coffee business was running as a mediocre offshoot, a second thought to an already thriving enterprise. Darrell also suggested that while I was offering to purchase Bob’s business I bring along a six-pack of Beck’s. I have to be honest, at that point I really had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to approach a total stranger and ask to purchase their business. Thankfully Bob is the kind of guy who will spend five hours on a Sunday talking to a total stranger about selling his business as long as that stranger was friendly and happened to bring along a six-pack. The deal to take over Bit O’Beans happened slowly and to say informally would be an understatement. Over the next few months, Phil and I had many “meetings” which were the three of us, a few pints and some incredibly entertaining tales about Bob’s youth. In the end we bought Bit O’ Beans without signing a single document.

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Despite All Odds, We Pull It Together and Open at the Market

Now that we had space secured, and some experience under our belts Phil moved back to Calgary and we got to work. We took possession of Bit O’ Beans on March 12th 2007. The plan was to open for business on March 30th 2007. That’s a fairly tall order for any start-up but it was an especially tall order considering we were two guys with no budget, no drawings and limited construction know-how. We did however have two of the most sophisticated pieces of brewing equipment in the world, a 3-group La Marzocco FB-80 and a Clover by-the-cup brewer (one of three in all of Canada). At the time they were both living in my basement which was operating as our testing lab and also as an impromptu coffee house with friends stopping by to taste our experiments. We approached Karo Design to help us get things started. The budget we managed to scrounge together was measly and to this day I’m not sure why Karo Design agreed to help us, but they did. The construction crew consisted of myself, Phil, my brother Rodrigo who at the time was a carpentry student (he’s now a very established cabinet-maker), Jonathan who isn’t handy, and Sebastian’s brother-in-law Lou, who also wasn’t handy. We were a sorry excuse for a construction team led by a first-year carpentry student. Thankfully a few fateful turns helped us get things on track, most notably the support of our friend the very capable handyman Bruce Weir. None of us are quite sure how it happened, but by the evening of March 29th we were ready for business. Well, almost ready for business, the cash register wasn’t functional so we armed ourselves with a shoebox and a calculator. That night, in a fit of panic that no one but our families would make an appearance, I sent out a 3:00 am email begging everyone I’d ever met to please come by. That first weekend was extremely rewarding. Sales were nothing to write home about, but based on customer feedback, we felt we had succeeded in re-creating our amazing beverage experience from Cafe Vivace years prior, only this time we were on the serving side.

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John Gilchrist Shows Up

On Sunday, local food critic John Gilchrist approached the bar. I nervously took his order, and whispered a very encouraging “Don’t fuck this up,” into Phil’s ear as he prepared John’s cortado (an espresso with a very small amount of warm milk). Just as he was finishing his cortado, John mentioned that he’d like to run a feature on Phil & Sebastian in the Calgary Herald.

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He Writes a Review

Early on the morning of the April 14th Phil and I met at the market having already read the story. Phil asked me what I thought, so I told him. “I think it’s good, right?”. Phil’s neck immediately turned purple, this happens to him during moments of extreme excitement. “You THINK it’s good. Really. Did you read the headline? How much better than ‘Farmers’ Market Brews Coffee Nirvana’ can it get?” Clearly my nerves had prevented me from absorbing the true sentiment of the article. By 8:15 that morning a line began forming and Phil & Sebastian quickly became a sensation, attracting locals and coffee lovers from across Canada.

We Decide We Want
to Roast Our Own Coffee

It had always been part of our plan to roast our own coffee, so three months into our venture at the market we started looking into it. We purchased a sample roaster, some green coffee and returned to my basement. Things started off pretty shaky. After much experimentation, we were able to bring out a nice warm brown in the beans. Unfortunately the beans looked gorgeous but tasted terrible. So in true engineer fashion, we spent the next fifteen months researching, reading, roasting, cupping, hiring consultants and flying to San Francisco. By September 2008 we weren’t roasting the best coffee in the world, but we were getting pretty good. We were confident enough in our abilities that it was time to invest in a production roaster.

We Buy an Old, Rusted Roaster and the Coffee is Amazing

Finding the right roaster was a tedious and extensively evaluated process. We tasted coffees from around the world and made a list of the machines they were roasted on to see if we could discern a pattern. Nearly all of our favorite coffees all came from reconditioned UG-15 Probats. So we set out to find an old UG-15 and found a 55-year-old beauty that would need extensive work. Truth be told, buying a piece of machinery that was created well before Phil or I were born, and knowing we’d have to spend a fair amount of money and time having it refurbished wasn’t a prospect that either of us was thrilled with, but we’d tasted it ourselves, the Probat was roasting the best coffee in the world. So we commissioned a Dutch company, Giesen, to rebuild the UG-15, and seven months later it arrived. We excitedly began unpacking it like two kids on the first night of Chanukah, only to discover that the whole thing was covered in rust. Our hearts sank. We went to the phones, calling the experts in Holland, our Moms and pretty much anyone else who would listen. We discerned it was only surface rust, and nothing a little elbow grease couldn’t set right. Fifteen hours of hard scrubbing later, the roaster looked like new, or as new as a 55 year-old roaster can look. On June 4th 2009 we started our first test roasts. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t start selling it at the market until it was as good as the coffee we were currently using, which at the time was Novo coffee from Denver. We threw away and donated more coffee during the next four weeks than I care to think about. But finally, around the first week of July we were serving our own roasted coffee for public consumption.

We Decide to Source Our Beans Directly

The first hurdle we encountered when we started roasting was securing a good green coffee supply.  Buying from green coffee importers is a bit like playing the lottery (with admittedly better odds and lower upside) in that there are many green coffee offerings to choose from but the chances of finding consistently good coffee is hard.  We knew early on that we both philosophically and practically (quality wise) we wanted to purchase direct from producers but didn’t really know how to go about it.  Our first venture into buying direct happened when we visited Costa Rica in February of 2010 and worked with Francisco “Chico” Mena from Exclusive Coffees.  Francisco is likely one of the key figures responsible for putting Costa Rica back on the map in the quality coffee world.  He is passionate and in 2008 had a vision of becoming an exporter solely dedicated at exporting coffee with traceability direct to the producer, something that was rare and frowned upon in Costa Rica at the time.  He introduced us to a number of producers in Costa Rica, many of whom we are still working with and have built strong relationships with.  People like Ricardo Perez, Macho Arce, Ricardo Calderon and Gilio date back to 2010.

Once we got a taste of buying direct, it became clear that we needed to set a goal to purchase all of our coffee “direct” by 2012. We also decided to carry coffees from a select limited number of countries in order to keep our travel manageable and to be able to spend proper time with each producer to get to know them, launch projects and see improvements.

One of our founding principles is this concept of continuous improvement so the idea of buying random coffees year after year, even if they taste good, didn’t really jibe with our philosophy.  I’m proud to say that we now buy directly from Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Bolivia, Kenya and Ethiopia and have launched quality and sustainability projects in nearly all the countries.

We Decide to Use Refrigerated
Shipping Containers

Historically green coffee has always been shipped in regular shipping containers, the same kind used for grains, shoes and other non-perishable products. And although there were a few roasters using refrigerated containers it was the exception not the norm. Phil and I ran many tests whereby we used data loggers to track the temperature and humidity variance inside the container. As you can imagine moving coffee from south of the equator up north, there can be a shift of anywhere from 20-60 degrees C. These temperature variances can be a leading contributor to premature aging in green coffee. So, in an attempt to protect the lovely beans, we started shipping all of our beans in refrigerated containers. It’s these kinds of initiatives that get us up in the morning. We want to contribute to the industry and help craft the science around creating a great cup of coffee, not unlike the great vintners have done with wine.

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McKinley Burkhart Woos Us

Now that we were sourcing and roasting we began to move towards the grand goal of opening our first standalone cafe. It was around this time that we were approached by Walker McKinley of McKinley Burkhart, a very reputable Calgary-based architecture and design firm. At the time we were loosely engaged in discussions with another design firm, but decided to take the meeting anyways. As impressive as their portfolio was, it wasn’t what won us over. Not only did they appreciate what we were trying to do with coffee, they also brought a similar level of passion and dedication to their own craft. Much like Phil and I, Walker and Mark are also perfectionists. It’s made for some intense conversations, but ultimately very fruitful results.

We Decide on a Marda Loop Location, Artistic Tension Ensues

Shortly after that meeting, we secured the space for our first cafe. We knew we didn’t want to churn out lattes like they were coming off a conveyor belt. We wanted a place where people could sit, engage about coffee and savour with more of a neighbourhood vibe. So opening a shop in Marda Loop made a lot of sense. Initially the space was slotted for a Sobeys and they had exclusivity on coffee; fortunately for us that deal fell through. At the time the developer already had another tentative deal but we ultimately won out due to the fact that we were small and locally owned, not a large chain. So with the help of McKinley Burkhart and Jonathan, we began plans to create a space that was noisy, bright, classy and focused entirely around coffee. We had many meetings – many tense meetings – and some outright fights but finally we were ready to begin construction.

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Once Again, I Send Out Frantic Emails the Night Before a Big Opening

On the evening of Friday November 27th, construction was complete and we were ready for business. In the same tradition of panicked pre-opening emails, I once again sent out a late night request begging people to come by. Thankfully on Saturday November 28th, 2009 our first cafe opened to a small crowd, stayed busy all day and has pretty much been that way ever since. It was a banner moment for Phil and I. We had spent six years eating, sleeping and dreaming about creating our own cafe.

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It Seemed Weird At First, But We Decide To Open At Chinook

There was a fellow named Ron who came by the market fairly regularly. We had good conversations around coffee, and our operations, but it never occurred to me that he was actually conducting informal research until we got a call from our broker asking if we wanted to sit down with Darryl Schmidt: the leasing manager for Chinook Centre. Turns out Ron was actually the VP of Cadillac Fairview, the company that owns and operates Chinook mall. He had tasked Darryl (whom we now affectionately refer to as “Schmitty”) with figuring out what it would take to get us in there. After our first meeting with Schmitty it was time for some soul searching. A mall wasn’t where we saw ourselves. We don’t like malls, so it didn’t make sense to open in one; but then we went back to our mission statement. If we wanted to bring great coffee to the masses, we needed to go to where the masses were. We went back to Schmitty with our list of demands. We needed our own entrance so it could feel like our own space.  We needed space for our own seating area. We needed to not be in the food court.  We are not about convenience; we are about an experience so the further people have to walk to find us, the easier it is to engage folks and the more interested they are in what we are doing. We had to create an out-of-mall experience in the mall. Schmitty being the great guy that he is was nothing but accommodating. We opened in September 2010.

We Part Ways With
The Calgary Farmers' Market

Around the same time design started for Chinook, the Calgary Farmers’ Market announced that it was moving locations. We loved being in the market, loved the energy, the customers, and the vendors (most of them), but because of struggles at the board level there wasn’t an articulate vision of where the market was going, and we decided it didn’t make sense for us to continue on. It was with heavy hearts we said goodbye and parted ways.

We Lose Money, It Sucks

It was 2011. Sales at Chinook were not what we had hoped. We had just closed down a profitable operation at the market and we were losing money at an alarming rate. We hadn’t encountered this kind of adversity before. During those first three years we’d largely made decisions without ever considering the financial implications; our main goals as a business weren’t monetary so it hadn’t felt necessary. But we shortly realized that the sustainability of Phil & Sebastian would require us to pay more attention to how we spent our time and our money. There wasn’t a magic button, or genius insight, we just didn’t panic. Or we didn’t panic a lot. We stuck with what we knew we were good at: making tasty coffee and sharing it with Calgary. We also developed a more responsible approach to our finances. By the end of the year we were close to breaking even.

We Open in Holt Renfrew,
It Works Until It Doesn't

Our overarching goal throughout this process had been to share how great coffee could truly be, so a mobile coffee bar seemed to make a lot of sense. We worked with Aerotech Metal and designed a modular coffee bar that would fit nicely into a trailer. Unfortunately as enjoyable as it was making coffee outdoors at various festivals, the logistics made the endeavour too time and effort intensive to be financially viable. We decided the mobile cafe should act as a semi-permanent installation staying in place for a few weeks at a time. Our first opportunity came at Holt Renfrew, which we were initially wary of. We believe we offer a high-end product, but we’ve always strived to remain approachable. Of course, there were advantages to partnering with Holts, it offered some great exposure and a test of the downtown market. We decided to go for it and two weeks turned into 18 months. But in the end the relationship didn’t make sense. Although the management at Holts Calgary was super nice, our location wasn’t ideal, the store hours and coffee drinking hours weren’t aligned, and ultimately it just wasn’t a perfect fit for our respective brands.

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Folk Fest

One of the highlights of our mobile espresso bar stint was our introduction to the Calgary Folk Festival.  In 2011, we setup our mobile espresso bar at the Folk Fest. It was actually our first mobile event and we barely survived it. We were not really prepared to launch, let alone at an event featuring thousands of cold, coffee-deprived music fans.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed Folk Fest a great deal and our involvement in the festival has grown every year since then and since 2013, we have been the coffee sponsors of the event and have served almost 30,000 coffees in that span.

Our Baristas Kill It at the Barista Championships

We first participated at the Canadian Barista Championships in 2008. It’s a strange subculture of coffee nerds, but as you can imagine we found ourselves very much at home and we’ve been hooked ever since. In 2009, one of our baristas, Ben Put competed in the precursor to the national competition and came in first, much to our dismay he didn’t qualify for finals at the nationals but in some ways it was for the best. It lit a fire in Phil and I and we were determined to help Ben improve. Since then, we’ve been fortunate to enjoy a great deal of success. We have finished second or first in Canada every year since 2010.  In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Ben finished second.  In 2012, we groomed another one of our baristas, Jeremy Ho, helping him win the Canadian Barista Championship. Phil and I coached Jeremy to a 9th place finish out of 53 countries, which we all felt pretty good about. In 2013, we helped Ben get through the hump and he finally won the Canadian Barista Championship.  Another barista from our team, Megan Feniak, placed 4th, making her the top-ranked female barista in the country.  This was an amazing accomplishment for Megan, especially considering she was a first-time competitor.

We Go Back to a Farmers' Market

In 2013 I got a call from Darrell (the old GM of the Calgary Farmers’ Market who along with Bob gave us our start) telling me that he had found the perfect northwest location for us. Of course I was skeptical, but because of our history I took the meeting. He drove me out to a very large, multi-level log house that had once been used for events. The roof was falling apart, there were more than a few dead birds and it had the distinct odor of neglect. I wasn’t sold. Then Darrell started sharing his vision for the property. He wanted to turn it into a farmer’s market, and had long-term plans for revitalizing the entire property. I still wasn’t sold, but agreed to stay in touch. I headed back with Phil by my side a few months later, unfortunately the property was in pretty much the same condition. I believe the term Phil used was ‘gross’, which accurately echoed my own initial impression. Still Darrell’s vision was becoming more and more apparent in my mind, again we agreed to stay in touch. Another month went by and we returned, this time the charm didn’t require so much imagination. We decided to jump on board, we moved the mobile bar from Holt Renfrew and on July 18th opened up at Symons Valley Ranch. It feels great to be back at a farmers’ market and the ranch is quickly becoming a go-to northwest destination.

We Open a Location in Mission,
It Serves Booze

We’d known for a long time we wanted to open a location in the charming Mission district. The vibe of the neighbourhood felt like the right fit. So when we had to opportunity to open on what is known as the Maxwell Bates block, named after the local artist, we jumped. We reunited with Walker and Mark from McKinley Burkart and got to work. When we began designing the Mission cafe, we were intent on creating a completely different cafe experience.  We were tired of the fast food model of cafes where you “order here” and “pickup there”.  We had, and still have, a good idea of how to change this.  Unfortunately, rent on 4th street is ridiculously expensive and the space required to do what we want to do is simply too much for this location, so it may have to wait until another day (hint, hint: Simmons). We had long since toyed with the idea of serving a small, curated menu of wine and beer and this seemed like the right time to do it. We worked with our friends Elliot and Matt from Highlander Wine & Spirits and Eric from Dreamwines to create a small menu that fits with the cafe — elegant, approachable and tasty. We didn’t want to become a bar, we just wanted to add another dimension to the evening vibe, and so far we’ve done exactly that.

We're Taking Our Time on a Downtown Location

Downtown Calgary is an interesting place.  For the most part, the foot traffic is concentrated to the +15 network, which is full of cafes and coffee kiosks that are based on convenience and speedy service, most of them with little regard to quality and experience.   We get it, downtown people are working, they are busy and they are in a rush, the mostly don’t care where the coffee is coming from, who grows it and whether it tastes like mango or pear.  We have never been or will ever be about convenience.  We’ve always been a destination and that’s the hope for our one-day downtown cafe.  We’re looking for character in the space and we don’t need to be the most convenient cafe in downtown, it needs to be right.  Unfortunately, there are only a few spots that meet the criteria in all of downtown, so we will wait patiently until the day comes when these character spaces become available.  Until then, we’ll be staying out of downtown.

Turns Out The East Village
is Pretty Cool

In January 2012 we got a call asking if we’d be interested in opening a cafe in the East Village. Our initial reaction was “Not interested. We need people to have a cafe.” But we decided to swing by and check out the neighbourhood. During our tour of the East Village, we drove by the Simmons building and something instantly clicked, and we knew we wanted to be part of it. It had been in the back of our heads for some time to combine a roasterie with a cafe and this felt like the perfect fit. But the space was bigger than we needed for even that, so we decided if we were really going to turn the Simmons building into a place that attracted people from morning until night, we needed to call on a few friends. That day, I called John and Connie from Charcut, and Aviv from Sidewalk Citizen and asked them to come a look at the space with us. Within five minutes everyone was onboard. Together we submitted a proposal to the city that envisioned the building as a concept cafe, roasterie, bakery, deli and restaurant, a deep-knit collaboration between three partners allowing us to offer a completely unique culinary experience. We’re now in the design stage and so far it’s proven to be a tricky endeavour, all three partners have to balance their individual needs with the common good of the space but we’re all excited with how it will come together and are really looking forward to seeing the role the space plays in shaping the neighbourhood.

When we designed the Mission cafe, we really wanted to reinvent the cafe experience and this will be the goal at Simmons: to make customers slightly uncomfortable.  I don’t mean that in a rude way, but we want to push customers out of their comfort zone so we can all share in a new experience.

The Crystal Ball

I don’t think either Phil or I are entirely sure about what the future holds. What we do know is that for both of us this has always been a labour of love. We’re engineers and coffee lovers first, and businesspeople second. Along the way the bumps on the road have taught us to keep an eye towards sustainability, but for the most part our focus is where it’s been since day one, creating great coffee and sharing it with folks that appreciate it. Despite our growing business we still get to spend an inordinate amount of time being coffee nerds, which is exactly how we like it.