Customer Spotlight: Dark Horse Espresso Bar
We sat down with Will, General Manager of coffee giant Dark Horse’s Geary Avenue Bakery Location, and head of inventory & distribution for their six-franchise Toronto corporation. We chat about the the past, present, and future of coffee and his involvement in Toronto’s flourishing coffee scene.
May I start with a bit about your background; where did it all start for you?
~ Where did it start for me? Coffee’s the only thing i've ever done, I started when I was 14, so roughly 11 years ago now. I was interested in coffee before there was any sort of quality coffee; back in small town of Ontario before ‘coffee was cool’.
How did you get into coffee in Toronto?
~ I actually moved to L.A. for a bit, decided I want to become really serious with coffee, then moved back to toronto. I’ve been involved with multiple cafes in the city pretty heavily; I was at Boxcar [Social] for almost a year doing some of their inventory control and that sort of thing but it’s very different from what I’m doing now.
That’s awesome, how long were you in Los Angeles for?
~ I was in L.A. for about a year, just after university. I worked in the summer, saved up a bunch of money, and just took a bunch of time off supporting the coffee scene out there.
Did you do any additional travelling as well?
~ Well I drove the entire way there so I took about 2 months driving, then spent rest of the time just hanging out in L.A.
That sounds like a great way to get some a real-life coffee experience! How long have you been with Dark Horse and what do you do now?
~ I’ve been with Dark Horse about a year and a half now, managing about 8 months at this location. It was just decided that I will handle all the ordering, inventory, and dealing with suppliers, so in this case that includes ChefHero.
What does your day-to-day management look like?
~ Coffee requires a period of resting before serving, so you basically have to plan your inventory ahead of time in order to let your coffee rest. So if I want to use this coffee in a month I then need to begin resting and testing it around now, a month early.
Is each varietal different with their resting period?
~ For varietal not necessarily. It’s more - coffee is at it’s best between a period of 7-25 days after roasting, that’s when it’s the most flavourful. That sort of goes for all coffees, so it’s just a matter of keeping ahead of that.
~ “Now I do the same thing our in-house JJ Bean, but not necessarily with the flour and baked goods, as obviously flour doesn’t need that much rest.” He says this last straight-faced with a slight smile, and I almost miss the joke before we have a good chuckle.
You’ve mentioned a few brands so far: who do you use currently and what are your favourite beans?
~ We only use JJ Bean, they’ve locked us down. As far as varietal and as far as Dark Horse goes, we stick to very mass appealing styles of coffee. We go with a lot of chocolatey, sweet profiles rather than offering complex floral stuff that really starts delving into roast profiles and how processing affects these things. We use a blend right now which is mainly South American making it really sweet. It mixes well with milk which is really what we go for because that’s what a lot of our clients go for - simpler blends you can just add a bit of milk to. Plus JJ Bean is a very easy coffee to ensure the quality is going to be consistent across all 6 locations, which is really nice.
Do you purchase all the beans here then have then shipped to each location?
~ The coffee is purchased by each individual location manager ordering their own for coffee beans. We have one manager who runs 3 locations, then individually myself and another run the east-side ones; I’m here at the Geary Avenue Bakery,he does the Canary & Riverside locations, but we all take it upon ourselves to do this. D[iego] is our main manager (like a head of operations), so our intenvories are CC’d through D just so he knows what’s going on. This is under Ed and Deanna who own and operate the business.
About Dark Horse:
Do you find having a different individual purchase and choose what’s to be featured in-store, makes each Dark Horse location unique?
~ Yeah definitely! The Spadina location changes their espresso quite often for example, and our Downtown location gets really busy because there are a lot of very coffee-centric people in the business and financial districts. Mitch’s location uses a lot of South American, single origin blends, here we really focus on consistency, so we each have our own different style which isn’t always obvious to the customer.
That must be pretty nice to have that kind of freedom though right?
~ For sure, and I like to do one shift at Mitch’s store per week just to get a nice change. His espresso is always different from mine so it works out nicely. I’m sure it gives our customers a little break travelling between various parts of the city too. I know we have one client Partisans which is a large architecture firm in the building, but whom also have a downtown office near our Spadina location, so they get to enjoy various sides of our business.
What are you featuring here at Geary Avenue currently?
~ We’re about to start a new pour over here using an Ethiopian called Chelva. It’s a beautiful Ethiopian coffee that’s really strawberry-forward, it’s amazing. When you taste it initially it tastes quite like strawberries, then about a week later it develops a bit and you get like a hint of sandalwood and oaky flavours, it’s really quite interesting. It’s got to be my favourite coffee at the moment and we’re about to start it on pour-over tomorrow once I let it rest a bit as we’ve just gotten it in.
Would you say it’s your favourite coffee of all time?
~ I’d say it’s my favourite coffee of all time
That was quick!
~ I’m an African coffee-lover, I like the complexity of it, and this one in particular is really interesting. It’s amazing that you can taste the strawberries yet still be drinking coffee, and can relate it to something in your (or even the coffee’s) past.
Do you think Toronto is on the verge of making a positive or negative shift in the coffee & cafe industry?
~ I’m pretty ingrained in the coffee community as far as cafes in Toronto, and feel we have a pretty strong coffee community forming. We’re starting to have around 1 or 2 get togethers per month with many different baristas and cafes getting together. Last year I think we had maybe 3 in total; since January we’ve had 5. It’s nice because it’s not just Toronto baristas but people from Ottawa and other parts of Canada come to participate in latte art contests, meet-ups, and discussions, which is really amazing. I think people are starting to realize there’s not necessarily that much competition in coffee, the market is huge with room to share. Everyone is allowed to have their own unique perspective of what they think the ideal cup of coffee should be. Like i’ve said, we like very simple, sweet coffees, but there's also an opportunity and no judgement being passed for people that want to do a $12 pour-over. That’s a little out of our league but it’s starting to exist in Toronto, with people really appreciating what each other can do rather than competing, which is a nice thing. We’re at a point now where it’s not so crazy to see two coffee shops on the same block: there are thousands of people that walk by here everyday and we can both survive and earn a good living.
I’ve heard a lot of the same things from other cafe owners as well: that there’s room to share and everyone has a unique niche. Indeed, what you’ve told me you have on special has been completely different from other cafes in the city.
~ Yeah exactly! For example, I have a friend who runs Page One [Cafe] and it’s all about “latte art”, people go in there and they get latte art and it’s great! We’re all sort of just appealing to slightly different markets and it’s great. There are people doing really innovative & interesting things like Light Cafe like where instead of adding milk they make their milk into cotton candy then pour their coffee on top of it - it’s very cool
Ok I have to try this!
~ It’s super interesting and it adds a subtle sweetness without adding sugar
Do you find this is also creating a conducive environment for innovation as well?
~ It’s funny you say that! Going on right now is the SCA: Specialty Coffee Association Championships being held in Ottawa today actually, and it’s really cool to see some of their stuff. I saw on Instagram a Hale coffee rep has a siphon machine, which is like a burner with a glass bulb on top that you heat up, but he’s got it filled with like tangerine juice or something to infuse the flavours. There’s a ton of innovation happening right now, people are really pushing each other to do better and it’s awesome, especially with alternative milks. There was recently a latte art competition at a spot on Bloor and they had sweet potato lattes. Here I have a habanero hot chocolate that I make and it’s pretty great.
Sweet potato?! Is it like a puree or something similar? How do you make your habanero hot chocolate?
~ I’m not sure, they must just puree it then mix it in, but it’s awesome. For my habanero hot chocolate, I reduced it down, made a habanero simple syrup with demerara sugar and roasted habanero pepper, charred another ½ a habanero, made a hot chocolate, added a bit of the syrup with a streak of cinnamon across the top, then placed the charred ½ a pepper overtop. It’s sweet, spicy and balanced, and it’s delicious!
How Does ChefHero Help?
It sounds like the perfect way to warm up on a chilly afternoon! I have just a couple more questions, don’t want to take up too much of your time:
Has ChefHero made your life any easier managing inventory control for 6 busy locations?
~ Well pricing has always been fantastic, especially on milk and dairy which is what we look for the most. One great aspect is being able to review what I’ve ordered long after I submit it, I often don’t get that feature with ‘The Other Guys’. In addition the 20 minute pending period to be able to edit your order is great because sometimes I’ll go check and we’ll have a fridge full of eggs, then 20 minutes later they’ve used every last one. It’s nice to have a little bit of time to make those adjustments without feeling like i'm pestering anybody. Like when you call someone three times for the same thing I feel pretty….stupid.
Do you find you are able to get help over the phone as well as through the application?
~ For sure, and when I do call it’s nice to get the same person almost every time, so you kind of start to build up a relationship with the order desk. Like I must have spoken to Aaron so many times that I feel a little less awkward when I do have to call to get help with an incident.