On becoming an Entrepreneur in Canada

This is the second article in a series of upcoming articles that reflect upon Entrepreneurship and pioneering Coffee Roasting in Toronto, Canada

The eighties were brimming with franchises.  As an independent store, and new entrepreneur in Canada, we hadn’t yet earned the trust of the general public and this meant we needed to find ways to entice people to come through the front door.

Our signage was small and the lettering of The Coffee Tree produced some wishful customers.  The letter T in the Tree resembled the letter F.  On more than a few occasions, a clever, elderly Ukrainian man would wander in and ask for the coffee Free, as if trees and coffee could be free on Bloor St!

“Gonna getta goodie?” we’d ask customers in line as they looked for a sugary treat to enjoy with their coffee.  Trays of lemon poppyseed muffins, Nanaimo bars and Italian cannoli carefully placed under bright halogen spot lights looked irresistable.

On slow days, and there were many of them, we would pull short espressos and carry a tray outside to offer the little cups through car windows to drivers waiting at the traffic lights.  You may be surprised to learn there weren’t many takers; people had a fear of espresso that it was too strong and bitter.

So, as an entrepreneur in Canada, how did we market?

Our best marketing tool was a sandwich board that we could write in chalk on both sides.  We thought we were so clever writing things like “Break your Chain Habit Here” and “Cappy Hour Wednesdays 4-6pm”.  With no regard for the environment, we propped our front door open to make it easier for people to see and come in.  You could order a glass cup and saucer of a 6oz filter coffee for .70c and get a refill for .30c.  The only milk we carried was homogenized 3.25%.

Our 3 sizes of take-out cups had our logo printed on them and were made of styrofoam.  A full box of cups weighed a lot less than the paper cups we use today and there was no need for a heat-resistant sleeve.  Lids were flat not domed.  Iced coffees and Americanos were not on the menu or on people’s lips.  Possibly the only variation I recall was to add a flavour shot of “orgeat”, Torani almond syrup to the Café au Lait, calling it Almond au Lait.  It may have been an early indicator of the popularity of almond milk.

Once inside, we built the excitement around the Jabez Burns sample coffee roaster which was at the front and surrounded by seats facing in to allow the Master Roaster to “educate + entertain” while roasting.  The coffee roaster was small enough to keep us roasting coffee beans throughout the day.  The cracking of the coffee beans, the smell of the coffee and the conversations it sparked brought more and more people to our business.   Our hours were long, opening at 7:30 am and closing at 11 pm weeknights and midnight on Friday and Saturday.  And we were open on Sundays when no one else was.

We had a Hoshizaki Sushi display case on the counter filled with fruit pies and creamy cheesecakes to pair with our coffees and cappuccinos.  It was unusual in those days for a restaurant to have an espresso machine and we all remember how poor the coffee tasted having been sitting around in a pot for hours already.  Specialty coffee and dessert was a treat to enjoy after a movie at the Humber theatre (yes, the one that’s just been taken down).

Coffee in CanadaThe favourite drink was our signature Café au Lait served in hand made bowls by local artist Carolynn Bloomer.   She put our logo on each bowl and also created a line of exquisite espresso cups and saucers in our branded colours – robin’s egg blue, mauve and charcoal grey.

Our uniforms were long sleeve collared shirts in turquoise with coffee bean buttons and we had custom suspenders with our logo pieced into them on the back.  It was stylish and outdated even in those days but super fun!

The packaging for a pound of coffee beans was a glossy custom printed 1lb bag that described the connection between fresh roasted coffee and great taste.  People always commented that ‘coffee smelled better than it ever tasted’ and we set out to correct the myth knowing that Toronto and Canada had been getting away with a stale product since the invention of bulk coffee distribution.  We had endless comical discussions about using the word smell vs aroma.

On our walls were painted a series of free form textured artwork in iridescent colours by local artist Joel Masewich.

The high stools were funky, the counters long and angular and most of the seating was one continuous “Smoking” section.  Eventually we had to paint over Joel’s art because the cigarette smoke had yellowed all the walls and couldn’t be cleaned.

  Susan aka the “Bean Queen”



About the author: Susan Bate
Nothing beats enjoying my morning coffee in the great outdoors