Q&A: Sam James on opening up an indie coffee shop in the financial district

Yesterday, The Grid revealed some interesting news for coffee fans in Toronto. Espresso guru Sam James is set to open a third location of his eponymous shop, and he’s opening it in the financial district. More specifically, he’s opening in the knot of tunnels that is PATH, beneath the Sun Life Financial building at 150 King Street West. We caught up with him to talk about the new location. 


I think many people are surprised by your decision to open up on the PATH. I was surprised to hear about it. But I know you’ll never sell out, that it’s physically impossible for you to sell out. So can you tell me about your decision to open up in that location?
I think it’s a smart decision. After I opened the Coffee Pocket [a tiny, takeout-only spot at Bloor and Clinton], I realized that it was very limited in what it could do by its size. So I thought, if I did a third location, how would I do it in a way that made more sense? How would I make it more efficient, more effective and able to produce more and be an all-round smarter business?

Will we be seeing something along the lines of the Pocket?
It will be closer to Harbord, but it will definitely be unique. It will look a lot like the Pocket, but it will feel more like Harbord. The physical size is closer to Harbord.

No seats, not my style.

How about the menu? Will it be a standard Sam James menu?
Yeah, it’ll be a super limited menu. I’m just doing exactly what I do, but making it for the biggest audience in the city. Where else can you put a shop that’s not played-out as far as the neighbourhood goes, somewhere totally untapped and unexpected?

What kind of equipment are we looking at?
I’m actually going to be running two machines out of the space. That’s going to really help with moving that kind of volume. We’re physically setting up two coffee shops within one space. I’ll be running La Marzocco Lineas that have been custom built with updated GB/5 group caps, like the one at the Harbord location. The same water filtration system.

We’ve talked about the expansion conundrum before: you want to expose as many people as possible to good coffee, but then there’s the issue of spreading yourself too thin. Are you worried that that’s going to be a problem?
Quality control comes from the top down. If you can’t get to those stores, if the locations are randomized and spread out and inaccessible, then you can’t be there to make an impact or see what’s going on or advise. But these locations are all fairly accessible for me. I can get to them on the subway or on my bike. Between these three stores, I’m going to have about 13 staff, and that’s not a lot. It was interesting opening up the Pocket, because it was a very nice way for me to test expansion without jumping head on into doing another full location. I’ve had two shops now for over a year, and they’re both doing well, and I think the coffee’s better than it’s ever been. So I’m going to give it another crack.

Do you see yourself having to make any compromises at all? Will this still be the kind of place that if you haven’t pulled a perfect espresso, you’re going to dump that espresso?
Yeah, that’s what we do. If it’s too much for someone to wait in line, there are plenty of other coffee shops around. There’s a Tim Hortons, there’s a Starbucks, there’s an Aroma. And that’s what makes them them, and that’s what makes me me. I’m not going to serve a shitty product just to move lines faster. I don’t intend to do that.

How much time did you spend exploring PATH, getting to know the area and finding an ideal spot?
Dude, I’ve gotten lost in there so many times. It’s like a maze. But I have a pretty good feel on it now — I know when I’m going north or south. I wanted to see what the best times were down there, when the most people where walking by. I talked to a lot of people who work down there. A lot of my current customers come to my shop on the way to work and ask me, “when are you opening up downtown?” I think I had a lot of misconceptions about downtown before. I thought it was super uptight and conservative. I thought it wasn’t my scene. But the more I talk to people down there, for every douchebag there’s like 100 regular people who just happen to work in finance. The financial district in New York City is crammed with businesses; in Chicago, Intelligentsia has locked down the financial core. And Toronto’s financial district has nothing, but there are a ton of people who are looking for something good.  

Do you see yourself expanding more in the future? Is there a limit for you?
As you grow, obviously it becomes more difficult to manage more and more staff. But I see people doing it in other industries. There are restaurants — single restaurants— with 40-50 people on staff, and they make it work. So if they can do it, I can do it. I don’t want to say whether I will or I won’t expand more at this stage. I like to make my decisions very measured and thought out. There are other things I’d like to get into before opening more stores, maybe roasting, but it’s hard to say right now what I will or won’t do.

Will we see the same kind of indie vibe? Same kind of music?
I plan on it. There’s nothing in my lease that says I can’t play music or that I can’t wear a T-shirt. A lot of businesses down there suffer through ass-kissing and mediocrity because they feel like they have to. I’m not trying to have an attitude about what I do, I’m just trying to make good coffee. And I’m going to do it my way.

The newest location of Sam James Coffee Bar is tentatively slated to open in February of 2012.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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