As I dragged my sleepy self into one of our local cafes last weekend, the sound of someone ordering a “double decaf soy vanilla latte extra hot with no foam”, or some variant of that slightly exaggerated description, surprised and intrigued me. This isn’t something I would ever have expected to hear in our little city; maybe on the corner of Queen & Robie’s Starbucks, but not in Sydney. It wasn’t that long ago (pre-Bean Bank years) that coffee was just a single black caffeinated drink to a lot of Cape Bretoners. You would commonly find it at the sadly missed Japser’s family restaurant on a Sunday morning, or in the drive thru of Canada’s coffee giant we know as “Tim’s”. But now we are surrounded with a delightful array of successful cafes that provide a variety of gourmet coffee for a variety of people.
An article in one of What’s Goin On’s early issues discussed the opening of our first cafe, the Bean Bank, and what it may bring to the coffee consumer. (Hill of Beans by Ken Chisholm – WGO 3, August 1995) Reading Chisholm’s witty article from fifteen years ago got me wondering about how the growing cafe culture we now have in our small city came to be. Have we become the coffee snobs Chisholm predicted? So I grabbed my laptop, picked up a coffee, and I put my caffeinated brain to work.
For starters, many of our newly acquired cafe’s are much more than just a stop to “soup-up” our energy for the day. They have become hubs in our community. I know that many times I’ve stopped by the Wentworth Perk not so much in need of a caffeine kick as a conversation or two with some coffee-sippin’ regulars. For a lot of Cape Bretoners the cafe is a place to chat, catch up, reminisce, plan, or think quietly and critically. It seems our cafes have provided us with a better chance of getting a good chat in on our way to work, and I believe that this is making the local cafe just a little more attractive than the rush of the drive thru in morning. Being the friendly community we are, I believe the cafe is extremely complementary to our way of life here in Cape Breton, and not only for the folks from the arts or academics scene. And this, I think, gives the Cape Breton cafe culture a good shot at sticking around.
The Coffee Shop has always been an important tool for the student. Less concerned with a particular cafe scene, our students need wifi, a study space, collaborative space and, most importantly, endless access to caffeine. Cape Breton has a growing university community with students that have come from all over the world. Unlike Tim Hortons, many cafes like the Bean Bank are being utilized on daily basis and are an effective alternative to the students’ woodsy campus. It is easy to assume that our student population has had a hand in the success of many of our Cafes.
I am aware, though, that not everyone in our community feels a part of, or a connection to, this cafe culture. I am even more aware of my bias, being someone who would typically flock towards an artsy fartsy cafe. So I will try to keep in mind and take into account the many perspectives I gained from fellow community members, different and alike.
A cozy new favorite of mine for a coffee and a chat is the Ugly Mug in Sydney River. They serve some darn good espresso and always with a smile. These two lovely shop owners seemed to have mastered the comfortable feeling of having a cup of tea in your girlfriend’s kitchen. The warm environment at The Ugly Mug is also providing a welcoming feeling to a wider variety of community members, detaching itself ever so slightly from the snobbish stereotype of the cafe, or what Chisholm refers to as “coffee snobbery”.
Charlotte Street’s Downtown Nutrition has an impressive smoothy bar and what I believe to be the smoothest coffee in town. Like the Ugly Mug, it is breaking from the tradition of the stereotypical snobby cafe environment in its own way. It is a health store and cafe across from a gym, selling protein products and workout gear. Their friendly jock-like baristas are all very well trained in espresso making. It’s not a “hipster” serving you your soy latte–an unexpected contrast. I found my whole experience there to be charming and refreshing. DT Nutrition is providing a cafe environment for the gym-goer, the person who may not have ever felt the urge to visit the more artsy-style cafe. Not to mention, their owner Wayne Miller, personally asks his customers what they would like to see on the menu. Good business and for a good change.
Places like The Ugly Mug and Downtown Nutrition that provide an alternative cafe for more people in our community have played an important role in the growth of our coffee culture. They welcome new community members into their business and provide a place to try a new coffee in an environment that complements their interests and limits that feeling of exclusion many locals have experienced. I’d like to think that much credit should go to these cafe owners for the expansion of Cape Breton’s espresso drinking scene, and for strengthening our small business community.
I don’t believe the influx of cafes in our community is solely due to a trend of drinking the most local or organic products. I genuinely think it is a profitable business that complements our way of life on this island, and the increasing number of students populating our community. I have heard many times that this trend will pass. I think it’s only beginning, and we will see many more developments among our cafe culture and our local businesses.
Or maybe Chisholm was right and we are becoming coffee snobs (myself included), doomed to a life of caffeine jitters and snobby caffeinated debates! But, if cafes keep opening and providing the right environment for a variety of folks, and we’re drinking affordable espresso because of high competition, we just may all become one big happy community of coffee snobs.
Let’s just not turn into this!