Backroads Coffeehouse & Cakery: Life Is A Highway With Plenty of Detours

Imagine stumbling into a café whose owner sees you run down by life’s unexpected hit & run disposition. She reaches out her hand and says, “I feel you. I’ve been there, too.”

Just when I thought London, Ontario was void of any decent third-wave coffeehouses, my hometown pulls a fast one and Backroads cruises into town.

Presenting…

Backroads Coffeehouse & Cakery

[680 Dundas St N5W 2Z4 (London, Ontario, Canada)]

Arriving at the height of summer 2017, Backroads has become a shining beacon of hope for Old East Village (OEV). For anyone who grew up in London, the OEV or anything east of Adelaide St (known colloquially as EOA) for that matter was stigmatized as “sketch city”; complete with old decrepit buildings, broken storefront windows, and gang-related graffiti. This part of town wasn’t a place you would want your mother to find you hanging around. Well thanks to recent and much-needed urban renewal, this area is redeveloping, restoring, and repurposing those old decrepit buildings, welcoming in plenty of millennial-approved establishments: third-wave cafes like Backroads and 10Eighteen, independent art studios like East Village Arts Collective, 100% organic restaurants like The Root Cellar, weekend farmers’ markets overflowing with local goods, and refurbished factory-turned office spaces/craft brewery such as the former Kellogg’s plant. It’s become a blossoming hipster’s paradise: London’s very own Williamsburg.

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Quality of Service:

With 10-year coffee veteran Sarah Levine at the wheel, Backroads has opted for a We Heart the Environment mentality, and why not? Caring about one’s impact on our lovely planet is a natural and sometimes profitable attitude in this day and age. Separate paper and plastic recycling bins are placed ceremoniously by the exit to encourage customers to recycle; instead of plastic stir sticks, metal spoons are provided to encourage the reuse of materials; as well, take-out cups and napkins are made with 100% decomposable paper to encourage a reduction of waste. If Backroads was a car, it would be a solar-powered coffee mobile.

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Quality of Product:

Sarah and her team of baristas are no amateurs when it comes to good coffee. The cappuccino I ordered was made with the deservedly-named Punch Buggy Espresso from Hamilton-born roaster Detour Coffee and was worth every 375 pennies. Giving these beans the TLC that they deserve, they were ground with the sleek ‘n shiny Nuova Simonelli Mythos One Clima Pro and brewed with none other than top-of-the-line La Marzocco GB5. The barista who looked after my order was sweet and darling, but don’t let her pretty face and kind demeanor fool you. She served up an expertly poured cappuccino topped with a delicate foamed milk flower. But the star of the show was Sarah’s handmade dark chocolate cupcake with raspberry frosting. To. Die. For. Did I mention that she’s a cake goddess!?! Check out her Insta here!

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Leading with her empathetic nature, Sarah chose to buy coffee beans from Detour Coffee not just for their amazing product but also for their incredible service. They really care about their clients and do everything in their power to make sure their customers have all the know-how of serving a cuppa joe Detour-style. They even go as far as providing in-house barista training by coffee gurus. Bought a new batch of beans? Don’t know how to brew them? Ryan (@detourbrews) to the rescue! Detour also cares deeply about fair, incentive-driven labour practices, choosing to source their beans through direct trade, which is one step beyond fair-trade. This means Detour spends the time to develop a relationship with each individual coffee farmers and are then each farmer is given full credit for their product: full credit can be found slapped on the bag’s label. It goes without saying that Backroads and Detour go hand-in-hand like a twins on a tandem bicycle.

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Quality of Atmosphere:

Like a classic ‘66 Ford Mustang with a 412 horsepower 5.0 litre engine, Backroads is where the warmth of antiquity meets the incandescence of modernity. Under the floorboards lies a century of laminate on top of vinyl on top of hardwood; the displayed antiques such as a wrought iron Singer sewing table, and vintage brass scales are points of attraction throughout the café; and a stack of turn-of-the-20th-century books invite you to curl up in the upholstered winged back chair and snuggle beside the cozy fireplace. On the contrary, new life is brought in through a smorgasbord of local craftsmanship. A luminous painting placed above the mantelpiece adds a touch of colour to the room while the handcrafted ceramics which encompasses the beverages and baked goods add a touch of energy (@Amy Leigh Art); locally grown plants grace the tables (gifts from landscaping friend); and several wood crafts (a wondrous raw wood window-front bar, adorable tree-trunk-cross-section coasters, and refurbished sewing table turned self-serve station) are marvelous additions to the salon.

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Last Remarks:

Backroads didn’t have the easiest beginning and required taking plenty of backroads before opening day. Delayed construction, discouraging customers, long commutes, and dishonest contractors, the setbacks seemed endless, but evidently this wasn’t Sarah’s first time experiencing life’s many unexpected twists and turns, and has since mastered its terrain.

Life doesn’t always go as planned… and that’s ok! The important thing is to keep driving and enjoy taking the backroads… and why not with a coffee in hand and a fresh-out-of-the-oven cupcake on the seat next to you!?!

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Comfort Rating:

five out of five

5/5

Helpful Coffee Tips:

Ten benefits of direct trade coffee:

  1. Prices are flexible and agreed upon by the farmer and the buyer
  2. Ensures the farmer gets paid a fair wage despite the highs and lows of the market of the buyer’s country
  3. Revenue goes directly to the farmer and not through a co-operative
  4. No Fairtrade licensing fees
  5. The Fairtrade Foundation doesn’t take a cut of the profits
  6. Increased demand encourages higher quality crops
  7. Producing higher quality crops is an incentive for farmers
  8. Chance to build relationships with the farmers
  9. Benefits the farmer’s community (e.g., employment opportunities)
  10. Opportunity for the buyer to invest in the farm

Now go out and impress people with your random coffee knowledge.

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Go ahead! Take the road less traveled.

Journey Update: To Quit or Not to Quit

Il faut toujours viser la lune, car même en cas d’échec, on atterrit dans les étoiles.

~Oscar Wilde

(Always aim for the moon, then even if you fail, you’ll be among the stars.)

QUIT:

It’s a simple four-letter word, but when it happens, causes us an insane amount of distress, not to mention, inherent disapproval from our mothers and unspoken disappointment from our friends. It can be quite a dramatic event when we decide to quit something. “OMG! You want to leave your xyz!?!” Yet despite our guilty conscious, we’re not likely to pass up on a well-deserved quit. After some consideration, we quit schools, we quit jobs, we quit hobbies… we even quit people! Don’t like your job? Not happy in your relationship? No problem. Just quit! Toss that stress from your life! All power to you.

I’ll admit it! I’m a quitter. In fact, I’ve quit so often that it’s become kind of a past time of mine. As soon as something requires too much time or energy… *BOOM! “Peace out, mothaf*ckas” for example, I put together six memorable times I’ve quit something (or someone) and why I thought it was a great idea at the time:

  • High-school chemistry class (culprit: too difficult) *definitely had a major meltdown after this quit because at the time I wanted to become a sports doctor (I know, weird, right) and chem is a must-have.
  • Playing clarinet (culprit: stage fright) *my grade 9 teacher made us perform solo in front of the entire class for the final exam, which is basically a death sentence for an introverted-omg-my-hands-were-shaking-too-much-to-play-properly-despite-having-practiced-a-million-hours-beforehand-and-I’m-getting-anxiety-just-thinking-about-this teenager.
  • Teaching English in Japan (culprit: lack of inspiration) *there’s only so many times I can hear “see youuuuu” from students before I start to question my impact as a teacher. Haha… silly kids! o.O
  • Running/Swimming/Cycling daily (culprit: exhaustion) *I’ve always liked the idea of doing a triathlon. It’s definitely doable… it’s just so exhausting to train for. *newsflash*
  • Living at my parents’ house (culprit: not enough independence) *independently owned and operated since 2009, baby!
  • Numerous romantic relationships (culprit: all of the above… lol) *boys are weird and stupid. Duh.

Gosh! Now that I think about it, I’ve even quit this blog… it’s definitely been a year since my last post. Oops! Although, there’s nothing like a really good quit! It’s such a relief to let something (or someone) go after an intense internal struggle, and in return, focus on something/one new. I mean why continue putting your precious time and effort into something/one that starves you of energy and happiness!?! Seriously, what’s the point? If whatever you are pursuing doesn’t bring you satisfaction nor contentment, why struggle for it? Quit.

Just to recap for new readers, after I quit teaching English and left Japan in August 2015, I set out on a new adventure: to learn about the world of coffee, become the queen of baristas, and to eventually open my very own café with the aim of helping my fellow traveling souls. Simple enough, right? Hahaha, too bad that having dreams are a b*tch.

A year of wild globetrotting and hectic job searching passed by, and soon it was November 2016. After countless rejections, I finally scored a job at the French franchise: Columbus Café, finished a one-month training program in Reims, and started at the brand new café at the Marché Rungis in the suburbs of Paris. Life got crazy and I honestly couldn’t find the time to write since then. So, what has been happening?

Now it’s September 2017: two years since I parted from Japan and a year since I arrived at Columbus Café Rungis. I’ve returned to my old Canadian stomping grounds and have a little time to reflect on life in the coffee industry. To tell you the truth, I wanted to quit every day. E.V.E.R.Y.D.A.Y. Because working in France as a barista in a newly opened café is both a dream and a nightmare, and here’s why:

The Nightmare:

  • My boss: was, at times, very difficult to work with. You might have heard of the stereotype that the French are horribly cheeky, cynical, and haughty. Picture the flamboyant chef from The Little Mermaid. Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but as much as we hate to admit it some stereotypes are hidden under a blanket of truth and my boss was no exception to this stereotype français. Call it cultural differences if you must, but he thought it was perfectly normal to make jokes about my weight. If I munched on a cookie during my break, he’d chuckle and nonchalantly tell me to be careful of becoming fat because then our customers will stop coming to our café. He said it was just sarcasm after I called him out on his obnoxious humor, but still WTF, he totally overstepped our employee-employer boundaries. As for his pessimistic tendencies, he would refuse to acknowledge even our small victories; for example, one time I told him we raked in our highest revenue to date (which is a huge deal for a new business), another time I told him we sold out of our signature ice-teas, but he dismissed them with a “It’s nothing. We can do better.” I realize that keeping a business alive is astoundingly stressful, but you’ve got to have at least a sliver of optimism and positivity, or else you’re going to drown under the pressure and never feel content with your accomplishments. Above all, the hardest part of working alongside him was the shame in watching dollar signs gradually embezzle his sight. Because of his fixated concern of being financially successful, he slowly lost his love for the coffee world, shut out the joy being part of this world created, and became blind to its beauty of bringing people together. His obsession became so prominent that he kept tabs on the surrounding restaurants and would throw tantrums if he perceived them to be more successful than his cafe. Of course business is business, but when one’s happiness is fully dependent upon the amount of revenue coming in, one’s mood will inadvertently fluctuate like a middle-aged woman going through menopause.

 

  • My customers: could be critical at times. They were my ever-vigilant audience, and I their dancing marionette. Honestly, it was as if my every move was on display purely for their amusement, which undoubtedly, created an unhealthy cycle of stress, anxiety, and insecurity, which then, effected my work efficiency. Things got messy! If I changed anything about my appearance or if I looked tired or unhappy (heaven forbid), some of my customers would make a stupid comment about it. I couldn’t dress as I normally would and I dare not show my true emotions. Basically, I couldn’t be myself. So every hour on the hour, I felt the need to check and re-check my clothes, my makeup, and my smile, aiming for that delicate balance between sweet and sexy. In the end, it was rather emotionally taxing having to market myself all the time. “Dance, barista, dance.”

 

  • My experience: hadn’t always lived up to my expectations. Before I landed my first barista job, my mind swam with images of laboring in hipster-perfect cafes, alongside eager-hardworking coworkers, while making Instagram-worthy lattes, for my pleasant-considerate clientele. In reality, I worked at a café where coffee goes to die. Columbus Café is basically the “Starbucks of France”. Neither the baristas nor the customers cared how good ‘n tasty the coffee was, as long as it was served instantaneously upon ordering. So, there was no time or reason to add those pretty hearts and delicate flowers on top of our lattes. There was no time to explain the difference between brewing methods or the difference between coffee beans. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” and frankly, no one cared. As for my coworkers, I personally watched 10 hired girls up and quit since the café’s inauguration (Nov 2016). I don’t blame them. Working as a barista can be monotonous as hell and the pay is abysmal. If you’ve ever worked in the food industry, you’ll know that we spend more of our time cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets than creating anything earth-shattering. We work afoot for more than 40 hours a week and come home with a paycheck that barely covers the rent. It’s a little disheartening. And then to top it all off, you have to deal with the ridiculous requests and expectations of our customers. “Can I have the cheese sandwich without the cheese?” “I would like an iced coffee with an ice-cube… just one!” “Oh are you closing in 5 minutes!?! Ok I’ll order a meal with a dessert and a coffee… for here.” Sometimes you have to laugh to stop yourself from crying.

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Of course, it wasn’t all horrible bosses and ridiculous customers.

The Rainbows & Unicorns:

  • My boss: despite his horribleness, relied on me to keep the café running even when he wasn’t around, and within 4 months, I was promoted to assistant manager. From taking inventory to balancing the cash register, my boss took the time to teach me almost everything about owning a café. When I first arrived in France, it took 6 months of job searching and countless rejections before I was offered this job. While other café owners were afraid to hire a foreigner, my boss gave me a chance.

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  • My customers: despite their ridiculousness, taught me about true French culture, and I don’t mean haute culture and hors d’oeuvres. The French, like most Europeans, are quite social, and in fact, they look for any opportunity to gather together and talk. Working the morning shift, I witnessed their longing for community come to fruition. Every morning without fail, people come together with one or two colleagues for a coffee. They talk about their families, last night’s game, and the latest political fiasco. It lasts only 10 or 15 minutes, but nevertheless they take a moment to connect with each other before they’re engulfed with the stress of work. There’s a real sense of community among the French, and within this connectivity is where the fantasized happiness truly exists.

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  • My experience: despite its disappointments, was a culmination of lessons learned, and were nothing short of extraordinary. It’s one thing to learn a theory at school, it’s an entirely different matter experiencing that same theory in the real world. For the past year and a half, I’ve had the pleasure of jumping head first into the revolutionized world of coffee. At first, I acquired a barista certificate from the Canadian Barista and Coffee Academy in Toronto and then additional latte art training from Café Lomi in Paris, Next I was also fortunate to pass a 1-month internship at Caffe Ficini in Rome, where I received my first ever behind-the-counter experience. And finally, I was hired as a barista at Columbus Café in the Marche International Rungis, and was quickly promoted to assistant manager after 4-months of very early mornings and hard work, all the while managing my café inspired blog and social media empire: Kaeru Domicile. Now with millions of espressos pulled, thousands of lattes poured, and hundreds of pages written, I’m left to ponder how incredible and once-in-a-lifetime these experiences actually were. I mean… I was on a billboard at one point. lol

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Quicker than I thought, my roller-coasting time in France has come to an end; a year and a half of nightmares, rainbows and unicorns. And now I’m left with the question: do I delve deeper into the café world in hopes of realizing my 生き甲斐 (purpose) or do I QUIT?

I know what mon amour would say, “TOUJOUR PLUS – ALWAYS MORE!”

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Quitting will never subtract experiences from your life. This accumulation of skills and knowledge will always be a part of you.

Journey Update: Three Days. Three People. Three Hundred Boxes.

It’s 3-o’clock in the morning and you can’t sleep. You lie awake in bed and absentmindedly listen to the late-night traffic outside. You hear a garbage truck and a few transport trucks drive by. You think to yourself, “Wow! It must be difficult being a garbage man or truck driver; having to be working at this ungodly hour.” But remember that there is a badass barista out there serving those motherfuckers’ first-morning coffee.

~ Coffee Thoughts

With Paris ahead and Reims behind, it was time for Life to offer me her newest challenge. And… oh my… she never disappoints!

I arrived at Marché International de Rungis on Wednesday (Nov 2nd) morning to find a mountain of boxes in front of the newly built Direction Coffee [aka Columbus Café & Co. Rungis]. Too curious to resist, I peeked inside the café – the smell of fresh paint and sawdust still in the air – and found it completely empty. No tables. No chairs. No coffee machines. Nothing. And then, I looked back at the mountain of boxes…

And so began Jonathan’s (my boss), Émilie’s (my co-worker), and my 3-days of blood, sweat, and tears of sheer frustration and exhaustion (all of which were had a plenty). Every table and every chair was assembled and arranged. Every cupboard and every fridge was stocked and inventoried. Every machine and every gadget was placed and programmed. Little by little, Direction Coffee began to transform into a functioning coffeeshop.

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On Saturday (Nov 5th), the entire staff assembled for the first time. One chef, one barista, two vendors, and the boss. Definitely a team of misfits, but with one thing in common: we all love to smile – a killer attribute for captivating customers. (No picture of l’equipe exceptionelle because we were too busy… you know… working.)

As if life wasn’t challenging enough, she presented us with another disastrous day to challenge through. Monday, (Nov 7th) was marketing day, and so, this team of misfits trekked around Marche Rungis to hand out free merch. Seems easy enough, except that life is a b*tch and decided to send us a snowstorm. And not the cute, fluffy, first-snowfall type of snow, but the shitty, rain-mimicking, slush-making kind. Urgghhhhh… THIS IS THE REASON I LEFT CANADA! Ten hours of walking through sleet with soaked shoes and frozen fingers, while towing thousands of mini muffins, gallons of Americano, and an infinite amount of Columbus-logoed thermoses… C’etait BORDEL ! [bordel (fr.) = disaster] The other five hours were spent cleaning and preparing the café for Opening Day. Yup! We worked a 15-hour shift with only 2 hours of sleep. Life is grand.

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Today [Tuesday, Nov 8th) was our official Ouverture. Killer coffee was made by moi and served by my cutie cute coworkers. We had Columbus’ espresso blend and an Ethiopian filter on tap in addition to hundreds of muffins, paninis, bagels, sandwiches, cakes, and various other pastries. Today was only a little bordel. We were missing a few things (a float for the cash register and apple juice for the smoothies), but all in all, the day was a success.

Seeing Jonathan go through this process of opening his first coffeeshop has been an exceptional and irreplaceable experience. I only moved the boxes into the café, but he planned, ordered, and organized their arrival. And placing orders is only the tip of the iceberg. Then, he has to overlook the hiring of staff and tackle the endless pile of paperwork that goes with that – bureaucratic bullshit at its best! Not to mention dealing with building leases, electricity bills, meetings with the architects/ electricians/ painters/ plumbers, etc., and non-stop calls from the Columbus head office. Opening a café is no easy feat – not in the least.

My hands are scarred, my body is bruised, and my mind is completely exhausted, but I have a little clearer idea of what awaits me in the (hopefully, near) future when I decide to open my own cafe. But for now, I’m beyond pleased to help Jonathan realize his dream of being a café owner. And together, we will forge a new path for Columbus, allowing this 2nd wave institution to become a 3rd wave phenomenon.

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My prized possession: Pink Lady

As always, thank you for reading and following me on my journey.

There is no “try”. Do. Or do not.

Want to see me in action with my Pink Lady?

Monday to Friday 3am to 9:30am

Direction Coffee [Columbus Café & Co. Rungis]

Halle  Bio – 3 Avenue des Savoies, 94150

Marché International de Rungis

Île-de-France, France

Journey Update: Armand, Motherf***ers, & Nazi Panty Jokes

The greatest risk of all is to risk nothing at all

September 16, 2015

Japan adventures behind me; European adventures ahead.

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September 16, 2016

European adventures behind me; Paris Café adventures ahead.

What a crazy amazing fantastic phenomenal year it’s been!

I left Japan with this crazy idea to open a café for expats who love breakfast & coffee as much as I do, and decided to start my pursuit of knowledge in Europe. With help from my new-found friends and support from my friends back home (i.e., Canada & Japan), I explored most of Western Europe for 3 months, returned to Canada for a little bit, wandered around Paris for a few more months,  visited my family in Germany for awhile, and worked in Italy for another while. Each place I visited and each person I met taught me a little more about this awesome world and the beautiful people who live within it.

This past year, I had incredible once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I’ve wandered the streets alone at night, slept on couches of locals, drove with strangers, danced until the sun came up, fell in love, broke a few hearts, started a social media empire, learned a little more about myself, overcame my fear of being alone, witnessed institutionalized racism, benefited from white privilege, started some bad habits, started some more positive habits, ate sheep guts, became vegetarian (well… pescetarian because… sushi), took barista courses, received numerous job rejections, packed & repacked my bags, and seen some f*cked-up things, which I can only tell you about in person (and you must swear that you won’t tell my mother). #ZeroRegrets As of now, I have negative funds, but you know, money will come and go, but experiences last forever.

Fast forward one year, I’m back in Paris and ready to start a new chapter in my life; a chapter that is a little more stable. I will still be living out of a suitcase (because a traveler is always ready to move on without much notice), but this time I can hang up a few of my shirts and leave my toothbrush near the sink for more than just a few days. After 6 months of searching around [& running away from] Paris, I finally found a job as a barista & roaster at Café Columbus. Training starts tomorrow (Sept 26)…

行きましょう!!!

As always, thank you for reading and taking this journey with me.

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Original poem below.

Life is what happens while we’re waiting for life to happen.

Traveler

We come.

We go.

We wave hello.

We kiss goodbye.

Our lives are always in transition.

We climb.

We fall.

We explore paths untread.

We discover places unknown.

Our feet are always in motion.

We plan.

We get lost.

We miss trains

We get lost again.

Our hearts are always up for adventure.

We meet.

We share.

We sleep on couches.

We hitchhike with strangers.

Our bodies are always ready for a challenge.

We inspire.

We aspire.

We discuss together.

We ponder alone.

Our minds are always open to possibilities.

We dream.

We wanderlust.

We face uncertainty.

We overcome our fears.

Our souls are always yearning to know more.

“Don’t you miss your home?

Don’t you miss your family?”

“No,” we say

We travel the world, but we are never alone

And we are never lonely.

The world is our home.

Everyone we meet is our family.

With passport in hand and bags always packed,

We whisper into the wind,

“See you in the world.”

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