SOURCE: City Life
By Restaurant Talk: Owner and founder Diana Olsen’s Balzac’s cafés are a place where everyone feels welcome.
Besides technology, perhaps one of the biggest changes in our culture over the last 30 years has been the rise of, and ubiquitous presence of, “coffee culture” as part of the daily fabric of our urban lives. Could anyone have imagined in 1990 the popularity and transformation of traditional coffee shops into the high-end cafés and meeting places of choice they are today?
Or how the once-simple phrase of “A cup of coffee, please” has morphed into a 15-second descriptive of exacting science, temperatures and personalized ingredients? In many ways, the coffee café has become the modern equivalent of the village square, where people gather to connect, gossip and discuss issues of the day.
One of those who actually did imagine this social sea change, and acted upon it, is Diana Olsen, founder and president of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, now with 16 popular cafés with a distinctively French-inspired thematic located throughout Ontario, with two new cafés recently opened in York Region.
While she loves many cultures, Olsen’s imagination for Balzac’s cafés was sparked by her observations of the grand cafés of Paris, while immersing herself in French culture, with time spent as an au pair at age 19 and 1.5 years in France after earning a degree in French literature.
“I was a tall, gangly blond woman in Paris, but I wasn’t a fish out of water when I hung out and read in cafés; I felt as if I had a place,” says Olsen in a recent interview with City Life. “I could observe the world and the city, and all of my spare time was spent in cafés, where everybody feels welcome. That was the goal with my cafés: to make everyone feel welcome, and where anybody and everybody feels part of something.”
Starting any business can be a risky venture, especially in the economic volatility of the mid-1990s, so before Olsen opened her first café in Stratford, Ont., in 1996, she did some market research, but she mostly relied on her vision and gut instincts that she could bring something different to market which could flourish.
“Most of the cafés in Ontario were generic in nature, and I wanted to be inspired by European cafés, with café chairs, marble tables and iron-table bases. And I didn’t see that in Ontario,” says Olsen. “And no one was roasting their own beans, so I bought a roaster and took a bean-roasting course in San Francisco. And part of the Balzac difference has always been that we roast our own beans.”
From that modest beginning in Stratford, Balzac’s is now a staple in some of downtown Toronto’s trendiest neighbourhoods, which Olsen knows well from her home base in Mimico, by Toronto’s lakeshore. Balzac’s Toronto locations include the Distillery District, Liberty Village, on Market Street and Powerhouse Street, within the Image Arts Lab at Ryerson University, the Toronto Reference Library, at Billy Bishop Airport and the UP Express, near Union Station. Olsen’s selective growth strategy has taken Balzac’s to some of southern Ontario’s most notable small cities, including Niagara-on-the-Lake, Port Dalhousie, Kitchener, Guelph and Kingston.
Today, the impact of coffee cafés is used by sociologists, economists and city planners as a measurement of the health and vitality of some neighbourhoods and regions. If a town or neighbourhood attracts an upper-market café, chances are that it has a dynamic, mobile and well-paid population living within it. That is certainly the case in York Region, with Balzac’s two new cafés: one at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, located at 200 Apple Mill Rd., and the other in a charming white heritage clapboard cottage, located at 10499 Islington Ave., in the Village of Kleinburg.
“As is the case in most of our locations, landlords approach us, and that means it’s a good location, and the landlord feels it can work,” says Olsen about the expansion into York Region. “It’s an extension of some of the smaller towns that really embrace us, and Kleinburg is quintessential Balzac’s, which resonates with our brand, and [the] Vaughan [location] is a modern, unique space with high ceilings — and we delivered on both counts, as it all ties together.”
Located at the heart of the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, this Balzac’s is bright, spacious and contemporary in tone, yet still containing such French café touches as tiled flooring and traditional café tables and chairs. In the quaint Village of Kleinburg, Balzac’s completely restored the Arthur McNeil House, turning it into a sanctuary café snuggled amid tall trees between two streams of the Humber River.
There is a palpable feel to a Balzac’s café that is different from other coffee cafés: warm, comfortable and communal, and that has always been a part of its approach to the business. Every café is specifically designed to reflect the cultural nuances and historical significance of each location. That and a reputation for outstanding quality coffee and products are what make Balzac’s stand apart in the café category.
Balzac’s sources its beans from trusted growers in the equatorial zones of Central and South America, Africa and Indonesia. When asked what comes first, the bean or the ambience, Olsen says it’s probably a little of both.
“We’re focused on both aspects and do a lot of research and source our beans very carefully and also do a lot of tastings to ensure quality control,” says Olsen. “We then try to let the location inform the look and feel of each café, so it’s a mix of French café with the neighbourhood feel. I do all the design and love learning about the area or building we’re going into. It’s the fun, creative part of my job.”
Balzac’s coffee is sold across Canada and available at Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys and Whole Foods, and it is delivered through Grocery Gateway and Well.ca. Customers can also download the Balzac’s App on the App Store and order ahead for quick pickup. It’s all part of North America’s continuing fascination with coffee culture, which, to an informed observer and active participant, such as Olsen, shows no sign of going away.
“Cafés are that third-place phenomenon, as it’s not work and it’s not home and it’s not expensive,” observes Olsen. “It’s an affordable luxury open to everyone, and you get a sense of belonging in taking a break from the stress of the day. There’s something about a busy café that has a certain energy, and you can get those 10-minute breaks in your day, or sit for one to two hours, and it can be spontaneous.”
Operating a “people-gathering” business during a pandemic has certainly been challenging, but Balzac’s has continued to serve its faithful customer base with enhanced safety protocols and innovative ideas. It roasts its own beans, so people can enjoy them at home, and the wholesale and e-commerce side of its business has experienced tremendous growth during the pandemic.
Named to the 2019 Globe and Mail’s listing of Canada’s Top Growing Companies, Olsen sees a promising future for Balzac’s due to the quality of its products, its locations and the strength of her team of approximately 160 employees.
“COVID-19 changed any rapid expansion plans for the time being, and it’s tough to ensure anything,” says Olsen. “But the key to our success is the employees. Our people just went above and beyond during the pandemic, and it was amazing to see them step up. Pivoting in business is a lot of hard work, but I have an amazing team.”