I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Name: Sam James
Job: Owner of Sam James Coffee Bar and Sam James Coffee Pocket.
For Sam James, being his own boss has several benefits. “If someone says to me, ‘I don’t like that you are listening to rap music,’ I can say, ‘Well, I don’t like that you’re not listening to rap music!’” he boasts. It’s this independent streak that motivated James, formerly a powerhouse barista at both Manic Coffee and Dark Horse Espresso Bar, to strike out on his own.
At the ripe young age of twenty-seven, James owns and operates both the Sam James Coffee Bar at 297 Harbord Street, and the recently launched Coffee Pocket at Bloor and Clinton streets. He humbly entered the service industry five years ago as a dishwasher at a downtown restaurant and took it upon himself to learn how to use its manual espresso machine after hours. “I was saving for a trip to Barcelona,” he says. “When I went there, I got so into drinking coffee. I had never appreciated it before, but all of a sudden there were these really nice coffee bars that I was hanging out in.”
James was bitten by the barista bug, but when he returned to Toronto, the only job he could get was working as a janitor. Finally, a friend noticed that Cherry Bomb on Roncesvalles was hiring and recommended that he apply. While working there, James met a student on the subway who had formerly worked at coffee mecca Caffè Artigiano in Vancouver. “He would come by late at night and school me on making espresso,” James recalls.
While James was honing his skills at Cherry Bomb, he started to feel restless. “I wanted to open my own shop. At that point, the only machines you could get here were Elektras, which you could do nothing on. I thought, I can be at the cusp of something totally new in Toronto.” From there, James did stints at Manic, Jamie Kennedy’s café Hank’s, and Dark Horse before opening his own space.
Although the Pocket, James’s second coffee location, has only been open for two months, the place is already bustling with customers, all of whom he appears to know by name. One regular comes in to give him flowers, another to discuss a hip-hop album. James has hand-picked everything in the small shop, from the chicken-coop light fixtures to the vintage milk jug that serves as a trash receptacle. Grinning from ear to ear, he’s pleased with his latest venture. “It’s been great,” he says. “I get to decide exactly how cool I want this place to be.”
Torontoist: How do you approach your work?
Sam James: For me, customer service has always been about keeping it real. You don’t have to suck dick to make coffee, you know? I just can’t bring myself to serve people in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable to me.
When I won the Barista Championships, I decided wanted to do something new. I went and worked for Jamie Kennedy, helping him open his café next to the wine bar, which was a good departure from just working in a coffee shop—I met a lot of people in the restaurant industry. It was awesome, but I started craving just making coffee again. So I moved on to co-manage Dark Horse on Spadina and Tomas, who was part of my team at Manic, came with me. It was another chance to build a power crew.
When did you start seriously thinking about opening a Sam James coffee establishment?
As soon as Dark Horse opened, I thought, as much as this is awesome, I can do it even better. I started looking for places back in April 2009. At first I though I should pick a very busy location, but then I thought, I don’t want to pay ten thousand dollars in rent to deal with Bay Street douchebags. At first, I was really stressed out about opening—it was ten grand for a machine, plus startup costs. I got laughed at when I went into CIBC to ask for a loan; they were like, ‘No way are we going to give you money!’ But I had some savings, and then I borrowed the other half from my mom. I didn’t have to spend a ton of cash—I just spent it wisely.
Both of your locations are in very small storefronts. Why did you decide to have shops without seating?
When I’m at work, all I want to do is make coffee. I don’t want to have to scrub toilets (because of limited seating, neither location is required to have a public bathroom). Also, it isn’t cost-effective to have seats. A muffin and a coffee is less than five bucks, and you can’t pay the rent on a big place with lots of seating for that. Plus I just want to make the best coffee—if I have to split my focus, that would suffer.
How did you go about building a staff?
I hired Emma, Tomas, Chris, Melissa, and Nick, who were all part of my old crew at Manic. We’re all on the same page—I have the freedom to talk to them without condescension. We have an adult relationship, but we also have fun. The people you work with are often the closest people in your life. You have to depend on them, and they depend on you. [Managing people well] was a bit of a learning curve for me; even before I was in a position to criticize someone, I’d always tell them if I thought something sucked. But I’ve learned to be more direct and nice. I’m not going to be offended if I hire someone who can’t meet my high standards. I’ll only be bothered if you disrespect those standards.
What’s the hardest part about running your own business?
Paperwork, definitely. It’s so boring, and there’s no way you can make it fun. You start crunching numbers, and you realize how much the government is fucking you over, how it takes from small business to fund corporate tax cuts. I love working in the store, having hands-on time with coffee and customers, but there’s a lot of other stuff I have to do (James is behind the counter at the Bar on Thursdays and Saturdays, and the Pocket on Sundays and Mondays). There’s banking, payroll, checking inventory, research. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t go into the shops to check up.
What makes your coffee stand apart from other places in Toronto?
A lot goes into it, from texturing milk properly to having the right consistency with espresso. When I wanted to open the Bar, I was lucky enough to find a great used machine: a La Marzocco, made in Florence. It’s the only kind of machine I’ll use; it’s durable yet makes supreme espresso. I get all my coffee from Toi, Moi, & Café in Montreal, which has beans from Costa Rica and Ethiopia. When I’m at work, I’m constantly tasting the espresso, to monitor fluctuations. Things have to be adjusted in response. I start off every shift with an espresso or two, and then I’ll usually have a cappuccino. If I’m at the Harbord location, I’ll try the drip. Sometimes I have five to ten coffees in a day!
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
There was a period after I left Dark Horse and before I opened my own shop when I was really bummed out with the Man and the system, and I was really considering going to work for my friend as a barber. There’s nothing better than getting a haircut—it’s therapeutic. But this [gestures to the shop] I get to do on my own terms. I don’t have to make any sacrifices to my vision.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.