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October 01, 2008

In the house: Three coffee houses to visit

Small business and coffee culture keeping city’s inner city buzzing

Michelle Lindstrom

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Who knew an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi would have found a berry that would change the way people lived, or so the story goes.

Like most innocent discoveries, others decided to take it as their own—abetting the bean across borders and oceans into Arabia, Europe, Brazil and the rest of the world.

But it’s about more than just coffee, say the owners of Calgary’s own hot spots, Bumpy’s Café, Good Earth Café and Caffe Rosso. “We wanted to bring things back to the way they used to be,” says Bumpy’s owner John Evans. Maybe not stretching as far back as Kaldi’s time, Evans refers instead to the ’50s and ’60s, when his grandpa, known as Bumpy, had his own autobody shop, food was homemade and good service was important.

“We’re one of the few places that still bakes,” says Evans, claiming nobody really knows how to bake anymore. After being in food service for more than 20 years, in capacities from crunching numbers to a front-line server, Evans saw a lack in quality coffeehouses. “I was tired of going to places and not being able to get a good coffee and good food.” He says people should be able to get both in one location, and have staff know the owners’ names, which he has been trying to do in his community-friendly and retro-style café since August 2005. Bumpy’s must be doing something right, considering the venue won Calgary’s Krups Kup of Excellence this year by “taking coffee to the next level” and making homemade soups, macaroni and cheese, lasagne, muffins and more. 

Evans says the whole process of using the right milk at the right temperature with the perfect shot of espresso makes the world of difference. He swears most people don’t like espresso simply because they’ve never tasted a good one. 

Relating local coffee culture to the evolution of wine, Evans says what was once offered as quality wine—but actually was mass-produced and cheap—suddenly wasn’t good enough for the general public who had become more aware of what quality tasted like. He sees the future of Calgary coffee heading in a similar direction.

Founded in 1991, Good Earth Café’s vision was similar to Bumpy’s. “We wanted an authentic coffeehouse which served high quality food,” says co-founder Nan Eskenazi. “We feel very proud of what we created.” Having expanded across all of Calgary, and into Edmonton, Red Deer, Okotoks, Kelowna, B.C., and soon into Lethbridge and Saskatchewan, this successful husband-and-wife team has been able to hold onto something special. “My goal is not to keep Good Earth from changing, but to keep it true to who we are,” says Eskenazi. 

She says her initial objective with husband, Michael Going, “was to operate (Good Earth) in a socially and environmentally acceptable manner.” This includes using Bullfrog Power—100 per cent wind power—for all Calgary, Red Deer and Edmonton locations as of April; partnering with SCA Tissue (environmental product supplier) to provide all the coffee shops’ napkins, bathroom tissue, towels and hand soap; and using local Fratello Coffee Company, 100 per cent organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee.

“Calgarians are increasingly coffee-savvy because they are well-travelled (and) well-educated,” Eskenazi says. She claims Good Earth responds to customers differently than chain-like counterparts which look for market trends to fit a certain niche, and that’s all customers are offered. “We view our business as something co-created by our customers,” says Eskenazi, indicating a willingness to change items based on customer feedback.

Good Earth’s original scone recipe containing white Bernard Callebaut chocolate and berries has been a huge hit since Day One, as has the broccoli salad, but coffee remains the biggest seller, Eskenazi says. “People still rely on us for high-quality, traditional espresso drinks.” In fact, the Calgary Flames’

organization requested their product be the exclusive coffee drink offered in the Saddledome. This fall season will be the first full hockey season as the sole coffee supplier to caffeine-deprived fans.

The newest indie-coffeehouse (of the three) to join Calgary’s scene is Caffe Rosso. Named after the Italian words meaning, Red Café, this quaint coffee shop with crimson décor opened last November in the middle of a construction zone. The Ramsay Exchange is a huge City of Calgary project incorporating office, retail and residential spaces in which owner David Crosby says, “just became a unique opportunity” for him, for his first entrepreneurial undertaking. 

Crosby has noticed more indie coffee shops over the past year or two. “We’re seeing a much better product than ever has been out there before,” he says citing new coffee beans, latte art and different brewing systems. “I think it’s a great thing.”

Caffe Rosso’s products of fresh bread, muffins, scones, paninis, coffee and other tasty offerings have created some very loyal customers. “We fit different niches with different people,” says Crosby. Although another company provides the fresh mix, Caffe Rosso staff bakes a new batch of muffins each morning, and gives any leftovers to the food bank at day’s end. “I’m trying to create a welcoming atmosphere where people know your name and know your drink,” says Crosby. He stresses customer service to his staff and says it’s tough with the current city labour shortage, but he doesn’t want Caffe Rosso to be a place to just “get shoved through.”

“Coffee is not just a wake-me-up anymore,” Crosby says. It appears to be true in all three locations where you’ll find business meetings, families and friends eating lunch or large groups of athletes meeting for an after-run snack only a table away from each other. The coffee community seems to have a good hold on people with little protest, but rather a few “yums” and “ahhs” heard.  

Perky Facts

  • The word coffee comes from the Arabic word for wine (qahwah), and not Kaffa, in Ethiopia (Abyssinia), as is often said.
  • Coffee has been known as a beverage for about 700 years, before that it was considered a food.
  • The worst punishment for drinking coffee was being sewn into a leather bag and tossed alive into the sea. Pope Clement VIII was the first to baptize coffee and make it a Christian beverage.
  • “Coffee smellers”—usually wounded soldiers—were employed as spies to smell out unlicensed coffee roasting during the coffee monopoly in Germany.
  • Cowboys were said to make coffee by putting ground coffee into a clean sock, immersing it in cold water and heating by campfire. They would drink from tin cups when brewed. 
  • Part of the wedding saw Turkish grooms promise to always provide their new wives with coffee. Not doing so could be grounds for divorce. 
  • Though often called coffee beans, they are actually berries.


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