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Canada – Coffee Nation!

We can thank Starbucks. Canada didn’t have much of a coffeehouse culture until the Seattle-based behemoth opened its first Canadian outpost at the Seabus Skytrain Station in Vancouver on March 1, 1987 and introduced us to a new world.

By Jane Auster

Photography by Brandon Gray

How times have changed. Today the coffee café dominates the Canadian landscape, brewing business in all corners. And there is a growing emphasis on quality roasting, professional presentation, and gourmet menu to accompany their cup of joe.

As Darren Tristano, executive vice present of Technomic, said in his look at Canada’s café segment, “Coffee cafés have carved out a dominant niche in the industry.…Coffee cafés boast remarkably high patronage: 62 percent of all consumers visit at least weekly.”

Here are three operations capturing Canadians’ java dollars. 

Analog Coffee

The name says it all.

Analog Coffee. It’s about the old way, the hard way, the way things were meant to be. It’s about an artisanal approach to coffee and the coffeehouse that has made Analog Coffee one of the most talked about cafés in Calgary, if not western Canada.

Analog Coffee is the retail face of Fratello Coffee Roasters, a family-owned business that has been in the Prefontaine family since the ‘70s when Starbucks had not yet even teased the palates of coffee drinkers with their grande, venti caffeine concoctions.

After 30 years of supplying fine roasting and beans, the Prefontaines discovered that their wholesale clients knew who they were, but the end drinkers had no idea whose coffee they were consuming. It was time to go public.

“We always wanted to do our own café and talked about it for 10 years,” says Russ, who runs Fratello with his brother Chris. After testing their concept by opening a stand in the Calgary Farmers’ Market in 2011, the Prefontaines went full café last year in one of the city’s busiest sections, promising an entirely different coffee house experience.

And it is, starting with the dynamo espresso machine, called, kiddingly at first, The Slayer, featuring pressure profile technology first created and introduced by the Prefontaines.

Reflecting Analog Coffee’s commitment to the old, good ways, The Slayer mimics the traditional lever espresso machine. “At Analog Coffee, we are hand pouring, hand-making our coffee and offering a better environment for our coffee … with some theatre. We are carrying that story to the end cup,” says Chris

And along with the end cup, diners are enjoying artisan baguette sandwiches and fresh-baked scones, biscuits, and more.

For the Prefontaines, food is the next frontier as they import Fratello’s philosophy to their latest venture, Corbeaux Bakehouse. Here again, they’re working with the top of the line, in this case culinary director Keith Luce, former pastry chef at the Clinton White House.

“Bread is really starting to develop across Canada, with interesting bakers and bakeries, lots of experimentation with grains, sourcing from farmers, and bringing back the original heirloom varietals that aren’t available anymore,” Russ explains.

Corbeaux will become the supplier for the cafés and offer food to match the quality of the coffee. “We are raising this bar so damn high,” he enthuses. “Like we do always, we go extreme. We’re not doing this just so we can make bread, we want to freak people out with the quality of our bread, pastries and all of our food offerings.” And the Prefontaines will.

Aroma

International coffee powerhouse aroma espresso bar roared into Canada seven years ago after establishing itself globally with a distinct difference. In addition to focusing on baristas, brewing, and just the right café ambience, aroma raises the culinary bar on the food front, offering a menu range with more than a little hint of the Mediterranean, inspired by its roots in Israel.

“What sets us apart is the fact that we have a full kitchen and offer food, not just wrapped food in a refrigerator.All of it is specially made to order,” says managing partner Anat Davidzon, who has worked with aroma espresso bar since the first Canadian location opened in Toronto’s trendy Annex. “The nutrition and integrity of the food we sell are a big advantage compared to the other coffee shops in the market. The world is going this way, because it is a healthier approach thanks to the integrity of the ingredients.”

One sign of the success of their approach is that other coffee shop franchises are beefing up their food menus and paying a lot more than lip service to diners looking for more than just a great brew.

Now numbering 21 locations, mainly in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as a thriving catering business, aroma espresso bar is beginning to look outside Ontario for new homes. What will not change is the focus on gourmet coffee and food, supported by an emphasis on design, décor and ambience.

“We are consistently reviewing our menu to capture the taste of the local palate, to stay unique,” Davidzon explains. “The aroma twist is different from the regular market. We are constantly on top of what is going on in the market.”

aroma’s customers say they want food that can stand on its own, not necessarily as an afterthought with their java. And they crave the different tastes on offer, like the cheese bureka, a savoury Bulgarian pastry with feta cheese, or the sweet potato lentil salad featuring roasted sweet potato, served on a bed of arugula with black lentils, granola, red onion and goat cheese, and tossed with a lemon and olive oil dressing.

“These are not your typical offerings, not what you would necessarily put together at home,” says Davidzon. “People are more adventurous and looking for something different when they go out.”

La Baguette

Classically trained French chefs Sonia Ratté and Olivier Dutil have brought a decidedly French flavour to La Baguette, their café business in ski-centric Revelstoke, BC, since arriving from Québec nine years ago.

As head chef and sous-chef at Woolsey Creek Cafe they converted a coffee house into a fine dining restaurant before deciding to open their own venture. That first La Baguette was so successful they opened two more locations, combining coffee shop, deli, bakery and catering. One location, downtown, is permanent, while the other two outlets are tied to the ski hill in Revelstoke from December to April.

Unlike the operators of other coffee houses, Ratté and Dutil started with the food. “The coffee is no more important than anything else,” explains Olivier. “But everything must be of the same quality. We are chefs who got into the coffee business.”

He and Sonia treat their coffee with respect. Staff receive six months’ training before they are allowed to use the espresso machine with customers. And Ratté and Dutil use a high quality roaster – 49th Parallel in Vancouver – for top quality beans. As Olivier says, “You can make a good coffee with bad coffee, but you can also make a bad coffee with good coffee!”

The attention to quality means that even simple food dishes, like the panini sandwiches and popular breakfast wrap, are a cut above. Fresh breads and pastas are made using top-quality ingredients. Beef comes from local farmer Greenslide Cattle. Flours are organic, many imported from Italy and GMO-free, and the bakery uses a special variety of salt from France in the breads.

For the ski crowd, there are heartier dishes like chili and burgers, all accompanied by the fresh baked goods.

Coffee brings in many of La Baguette’s customers, but it is the food that keeps them coming back. “Before, people would often order a coffee without even looking at the menu,” says Olivier. “Now we have a coffee culture with people willing to try something else.”

To learn more about brewing success, visit http://coffeeteashow.ca/