Customer Spotlight: The Alternative Cafe
With a passion for creating custom caffeinated beverages, and over 10+ years in Cafe Management, Salem and Nelson Sanchez know their coffee. We sat down with The Alternative’s Salem to discuss their business, favourite coffee varietals, and current trends in the Toronto Cafe Industry.
Where did it all start for you guys?
[Salem Sanchez]: Alone, I have over 10+ years management experience at Starbucks where they’re all about customer service, so this aspect of the business is very important to us. That’s where our heart is, for both my brother and I, so I’m always asking the customers what they think of the products or where they go for coffee. That’s huge for us because we can have all these ‘fancy decorations’ but we know it’s the customer service that brings people back.
I also run our Instagram account which allows me to tie in featured products to our promotional materials. I like connecting with other people, cafes, and coffee reps through Instagram. It allows me to get an accurate picture directly from the market.
Can you tell us a bit about your business & what features you have running right now?
[SS]: Our almond croissants are being featured right now; we rotate our croissants each week to be featured as they’re a key selling item. Our walnut cookie is also very popular!
Apart from the regular business, we also carry a line of rare and specialty coffees for take-home consumption. We recently launched a points and loyalty card program, it’s been working out well and every day we have at least 1-2 people that signup.
“Even for our existing customers who just get a coffee every single day, it’s nice to provide a small bonus every now and then.”
What kind of impact do you think technology has on your business?
[SS]: Well, we’ve been with you guys since the beginning, and it’s been working really well roughly 8-9 months. Ritual has been really good for our business. Since I got here business with them has been pretty steady; more so than some of the others. We also just introduced UberEats before Christmas. I definitely see the time, money, and recurring value of the points and application systems.
“We find it doesn’t hurt our existing business, but instead is a nice additional sub-market of traffic we wouldn’t normally be exposed to.”
Currently, what’s the biggest obstacle to growing your business?
[SS]: Staffing for us; we can’t open as many new locations as we want because it would just kill myself and my brother. My brother got sick last week and that meant an entire week of open-to-closes until he felt better. Couple that with my travel time, as I live out of town, and it would just be too much. We want amazing customer service people, that’s one thing I always look for in an interview.
What are your favourite coffee varietals right now?
[SS]: Right now I’m into experimenting with a Japanese-style cold brew, and a lot of fruity, sun-dried, naturally processed coffee beans. Time + heat takes away from the natural flavours of a coffee. This Japanese-style of brewing is meant to expose the real, raw flavours of the coffee making it smoother and sweeter than the average. You’re able to really taste the different notes within it.
Where do you source your coffee from?
[SS]: In regards to sourcing, this is actually a Pig Iron branded Colombian sun-dried coffee. It’s smooth and sweet, without being too strong or bitter. It has bright pineapple and blueberry notes that finish with a hint of cocoa. Usually, coffees that taste this fruity and balanced originate from Ethiopia or Kenya as these regions are the main producers of sun-dried coffee.
“By combining the African sun-drying process with the South American coffee bean, you get quite a unique flavour profile.”
Have you always worked with Pig Iron to source your coffee?
[SS]: No actually, we’ve been with Hale since day 1. They’re pretty aggressive about “not being just coffee”, and have helped us not only with sourcing the product, but with training, packaging, and repairs as well. We were originally going to collaborate with Hale to create our own in-house white label coffee, but it didn’t work out and we’ve been more than happy with what they provide. I love to experiment with coffee so I’ve just recently added that Pig Iron Colombian as well.
So say you wanted to add a new coffee supplier or bean, how would you go about sourcing?
[SS]: Now if we need anything we just ask our ChefHero sales rep for the product and they’ll source it and a vendor for us as opposed to just Google searching. Like for example we just asked our rep for vanilla syrup; he sourced one and physically brought it to the store for us to sample. I was pleasantly surprised, it was pretty impressive! If there is something I see somewhere else, I’ll do the work of trying to find it myself, but if it’s something small, we have a problem, or we’re too busy with other aspects of the business, being able to have a waiting team of people to help you is really helpful.
How many suppliers do you typically work with?
[SS]: It varied at the beginning because we were just starting out, probably 4 or 5. Now with you guys, we use about 3 dedicated suppliers.
What enabled you to make the shift from 5 to 3, consolidation?
[SS]: Product sourcing actually, just the human interaction of “I need this,” “Ok I can get that for you!” and it’s that simple. [Running a small business we’re doing everything from ordering to cleaning the floors, so anything that enables us to save time by ordering our full array of products is incredibly helpful.
Are you actually able to order everything from ChefHero?
[SS]: The majority of it yes! We still have a few things we’re working on, but the biggest one was the croissants, which are very popular. Being able to consistently source our top selling items has been a huge thing, one of the stepping stones to getting us onto the platform.
How long does it take you to submit an order from start to finish?
[SS]: It’s endless. I remember my brother was trying to source something and it took a whole week of hours and hours of calling different suppliers, getting told no, and then in the end still wasting money on packaging. Connecting with the suppliers is one thing but actually purchasing from them is another. Altogether it must have taken more than 7-8 days to get the product, it was very stressful.
And now if you have that problem again, what do you do?
[SS]: Now we just call you guys and you figure it out! Within a day or two it’s good unless it’s something big like croissants haha. All the little stuff we know we can depend on you guys.
"Now we just call you guys and you figure it out!"
You mentioned experimentation before, what’s been your favourite experimentation thus far?
[SS]: Thus far? Frappes. I’ve just finished creating a tumeric frappe that I’ve been actively looking for at other cafes, but haven’t found it yet. It took me a while to create the right density and balance of flavours, but I think we’ve nailed a completely new one! We found a supplier who specializes in tumeric so all of their products are of premium quality.
Yeah I’ve seen tumeric lattes, but never a frappe!
[SS]: Yeah it’s awesome when we nail it on the first try, and I’ve only just created that one. A little while ago I created an earl grey frappe. The challenge with that one was figuring out how finely to grind the tea leaves.
Do you still taste the tea leaves in it or you grind it all out?
[SS]: So I actually just took earl grey tea, ground it up pretty fine and put it into a frappe. Too fine and the drink becomes gritty, too large and you’d get a leaf in your teeth. It’s a very subtle little aftertaste of earl grey but you can’t really taste it. If you’ve ever had a vanilla bean frappuccino, that little tinge of an aftertaste is very similar but this is made all natural with none of the synthetics.
After a few more samples of his specialty creations, we left inspired with our taste buds buzzing!
For featured products and information on their points program, keep up with The Alternative by following @TheAlternativeCafe on Instagram.