The rise of the indie coffee mini-empire

The rise of the indie coffee mini-empire

Dark Horse's new Queen and Euclid location keeps it real (Image: Jon Sufrin)

For Toronto coffee lovers, 2011 started in much the same way that 2010 finished: with further proof that the indie coffee craze shows no signs of slowing down. A third incarnation of Dark Horse opened at Queen and Euclid on January 2nd, joining Lit and Crema B Espresso as burgeoning mini-empires, with three locations each (a third Crema location is in the works). All of this, of course, raises the question: with indie cafés thriving due to their personal touch and attention to quality, will expansion mean selling out?

Dark Horse co-owner Deanna Zunde admits that operating three locations can leave her feeling spread a little thin. “It’s like being a parent with three children,” she says. But the key to avoiding the corporate, cookie-cutter pitfall, Zunde says, lies in making sure each location is tailored to its neighbourhood. It’s also about hiring knowledgeable, loyal staff to maintain quality.

Other players on the indie coffee scene see it a little differently. Nobody would dream of chiding shops like Dark Horse for their success, but Matthew Taylor, co-owner of Leslieville’s Mercury Espresso Bar, says that when he and his partner tried expanding, quality suffered. “We had people coming in and saying they preferred one location over the other,” he says. For him, that was unacceptable. Mercury’s second location shut down after about a year —“It was open six months longer than it should have been”—partially because the owners wanted to take back their quality control.

Sam James, having recently expanded to Bloor Street, is familiar with the expansion conundrum. At half the size of his minuscule first location, his new Coffee Pocket is quite literally just that, a pocket—no seats, no tables and no Wi-Fi. As a result, he’s able to focus on the coffee, which was exactly his intention in the first place. He also makes sure to work closely with all of his staff, which he says is crucial.

(Image: Jon Sufrin)

Bulldog’s Stuart Ross is hesitant about the idea of expanding. He doesn’t rule it out completely, but after about eight years on Granby Street, Bulldog is still one of a kind. “How could I be in two places at one time?” he says. “Maybe, if the moon and the earth and the sun were all lined up, and everything was perfect, I’d do it.” His assessment of Toronto’s coffee scene is that it’s nowhere near saturated just yet.

As for Dark Horse, it’s managed to keep out incursions of Starbucks culture for now. The new location has the same menu and the same indie decor (which, for Queen West, means reclaimed everything). We even watched as one tattooed barista dumped out an espresso he wasn’t satisfied with. Try seeing a Starbucks barista do that—but then again, even Starbucks began with a single location.