Toronto is a city on the move. The population is growing rapidly - a 6.2% increase since 2011 - with a burst of new businesses, including a large amount of exciting new tech start-ups. In fact, Toronto's technology sector boasts over 14,600 companies employing about 159,000 people. Toronto is busy, time-poor, tech-obsessed...and in need of a good cup of coffee.
Before now, that meant a stale cup of filtered coffee from your local cafe chain. Toronto wasn’t short on these: the coffee was fast, hot, and pretty average. For some residents, this was fine - but for local coffee aficionado Chris Nguyen, it was a gap in the market he was ready to fill.
He felt there was an opportunity for a boutique coffee store with a special focus on both sustainability and high-quality coffee technology – somewhere you could get a cup of coffee made with careful thought and passion, accompanied delicious food.
And so Strange Love Coffee was born.
Bringing mindfulness to coffee
Chris lived in Japan for a short while, and his partner David travels regularly with work. For both of them, the global obsession with coffee was clear - as was the opportunity to bring it back to their hometown.
“I have watched the specialty coffee trend blossom across the world,” says Chris, “but it wasn’t happening in Toronto in the same way.”
At first, they toyed with the idea of a restaurant, but as first-timers to the hospitality game, they wanted to launch with something more commercial. A coffee shop was a natural choice, particularly in their local area of creative industries such as architects, tech companies, design studios, and advertising agencies.
The idea was simple: create an environment where customers could slow down. The boom had sped up the dining experience, but Chris wanted to restore a sense of peace and mindfulness to the act of drinking coffee.
“It forces people to slow down, just by the nature of espresso,” says Chris, adding that the time it takes to create the perfect brew is a great opportunity to educate customers on what they’re drinking, and where it come from.
A new type of coffee drinker
Chris had noticed that around the world - particularly in countries such as Italy, Australia, and Japan - specialty coffee had become a booming industry. It was a fine art; one that was dependant on standout local roasters, high-level training, excellent machinery, and sustainable farming practices. Moreover, the customers were different: they were genuinely interested in and wanted to know what they were drinking, and where it had come from.
It’s now been a year since Strange Love Coffee opened in Toronto, and Chris has noticed a significant shift in his customers’ interests. When they first opened, he remembered, the average customer just wanted a basic Americano. These days, nearly half of his customer base are willing to experiment not only with coffee brews such as espresso and flat whites, but also different roasts. A new type of coffee drinker was emerging.
Molecular food pairing
With a science and technology background, Chris wanted to take his cafe to the next level. More than just the perfect coffee, he also wanted to match it with the perfect food. So, with the help of his French pastry team, he experimented with molecular food pairing to create irresistible combinations.
The pairings range from the kooky (white chocolate and caviar) to the more classical (coffee and freshly made croissants), and they add a kitschy spin to the average coffee routine.
“We felt like food pairing bridges the gap between what is commercial, and what’s interesting and exciting,” says Chris. “We think that it’s all about pairing great experiences with great produce.”
High tech coffee
Chris’ passion for science extended beyond just food pairings as he has, and continues to, explore the technology of coffee production.
Chris serves up lead-free coffees with his hand-built Italian Dalla Corte machines. They are the only machine to have ALL of the parts (including all the machine welds) certified to be lead free. The Dalla Corte also uses up to one third of the energy to do the same job as a traditional machine.
According to Chris, a perfect tasting espresso requires constant monitoring of grind and brew settings to counter the fluctuating temperature, humidity, and air pressure through the day. Their grinder and espresso machine are connected and programmed to calibrate every 10 espresso shots to Strange Love's exacting extraction recipes.
Something in the water
Chris notes a coffee machine is like a ‘tiny science experiment’, with the four variables being heat, pressure, time, and water. The first three elements are controlled by his machines, but it is in the fourth element - water - that he’s found to be an exciting opportunity for improvement.
“Water is a no brainer,” says Chris.
“It makes up 95% our beverages - especially in Americanos and brewed coffee, which are our top sellers. People seem to pay a lot of attention to how we prepare our milk, but there’s this whole other component of water that generally doesn’t get looked at.”
Put simply, water is the magical ingredient to getting the best possible extraction from your coffee. With the right proportion of minerals and chlorides, at the right temperature, coffee will taste richer and smoother. It’s a complicated process, but one that Chris is committed to perfecting, saying that it’s the key differentiator to his competitors.
Reworking the coffee shop culture
With time spent during university working for big chains, Chris was able to see first-hand the type of structure that is typical of hospitality businesses. He decided to flip the hierarchy on its head, and adopt a more modern structure for his staff.
“I aim to be like a tech start-up,” says Chris, “with merit-based principles and a flat structure. My one requirement is that my staff are as good at customer service as they are at making coffee.”
With 12 staff on board across his two stores in Toronto, Chris says that his people-first approach has attracted people who have a real passion for coffee. And his plan seems to be working: all of his Yelp reviews online have pointed to the excellent service at Strange Love Coffee. “We’re the friendliest people you’ll find!” laughs Chris, adding that their venue is a ‘haven’ for local coffee lovers.
Flexibility to grow and adapt
Silver Chef was the obvious choice for Chris when he was designing Strange Love Coffee. Unlike other first-time business owners who generally look for the cheapest buy-in options, Chris knew that his high tech offering would the best of the best, right from the start.
“We were looking for pretty specific equipment,” says Chris, “but also needed the flexibility to swap and change if we needed to.”
With experimentation at the core of their business, Strange Love Coffee didn’t want to commit to a lengthy contract or hefty bank loans. They wanted to be up and running right away, with the process around changing equipment to be equally as swift. Silver Chef continues to support them one year on, with constant support on their options when it comes to the machinery.
It’s hard not to see Strange Love as an industry leader in Toronto. Their carefully chosen selection of coffee, expert food pairings, and high-tech and fully sustainable equipment is showing them to be an exciting face in the Canadian coffee scene.
Unafraid to take risks and always on the lookout for new opportunities to evolve their offering, there’s nothing strange at all about their passion for great coffee. Except for maybe the white chocolate and caviar; we’ll have to get back to you on that one.