Dark Horse Frontrunner
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Dark Horse Frontrunner


When is the new Dark Horse opening? For a fragment of the coffee-obsessed populace, the tease of a West Side Edition of the beloved café on Queen East became a mild obsession. The buzz began in January on Twitter, when word spread that co-owners Deanna Zunde and Ed Lynds would be expanding to a second location. (Zunde was surprised when asked back then for some more information on their plans. “We only took possession of the space a couple of days ago!” she said.) Delays caused by a stalled permit from the city turned the launch into a tantric exercise for devotees and, on Tuesday, the doors flung open at 215 Spadina Avenue.

“Some days we wonder if we are doing the right thing by opening another café in this economic climate,” said Zunde in January. Case in point: a Starbucks had failed nearby in Chinatown. However, on opening day, people streamed in and out, leaving few empty spots among the forty-something seats in the space. Zunde and co-owner Ed Lynds, both running around working the espresso machine and clearing tables, seemed surprised by the hectic pace. There’s no lack of competition—south of the coffee shop stand Lettieri, Le Gourmand, and Starbucks, while a Tim Hortons is nestled in Chinatown—but none have the rabid following of Dark Horse. In fact, the café’s expansion during a recession may have been a perfectly timed move.

Owners Ed Lynds and Deanna Zunde.

When competition is retreating or weakening during a downturn, companies in a stronger position can take advantage by being more aggressive and grabbing a bigger share of the market. “We wanted to open a second one while we still had the momentum and the energy of the first one,” says Zunde. “Coffee culture is still in its infancy in Toronto, and opening a café is our way of furthering that growth. The independent cafés are really in a position to capture the attention of the consumer because Starbucks has taught them the basics of what Italian coffee is all about but has lost the quality somewhere along the way.”
Zunde speaks of quality in terms of the coffee itself, but her comment could also refer to the atmosphere found at the big chains. The words that come up again and again with Dark Horse (or Manic, or Ezra’s Pound, or so on) are “local” and “community.” The original Queen East location is known for its large communal table, and they are also found at the Spadina café. In addition, the laid-back feel has also translated well, as we can imagine sitting for hours brainstorming new ideas with friends. Even better, while—like the East Side Edition—it had its share of guys with laptops and pram-pushing mummies, there were also tables of students and couples just finished grocery shopping in Chinatown to mix it up. There’s an emphasis, says Zunde, on not being “clique-y or pretentious.” To boot, instead of the barista snobbery at some places (rhymes with pet mule), the owners are planning public coffee cuppings with customers to not only share with them how roast level, grind level, bean origin, and freshness can affect taste, but to also further their own coffee knowledge.
The new location was specifically chosen to be part of the Robertson Building, which houses the Centre for Social Innovation. (The CSI provides a space for entrepreneurs and start-ups to interact and work on social causes.) Zunde hopes Dark Horse will parallel the vibe of CSI: “It’s a place where ideas happen and flow, and if you are open to it, you can really feel that energy.” Add Lynds, “When we heard the space was free, we couldn’t give the chance up.” The sentiment seems reciprocated: already, the tech community is scheduling events at the coffee house. Today, for example, if you’re a PC, Microsoft’s Joey De Villa holds a “Coffee and Code,” where you can grab a cup of coffee and ask him anything and everything Microsoft. Says De Villa on his blog, “It’s a gorgeous place with a lot of promise; my only real complaint is that it wasn’t around when I lived in the neighbourhood. I’m looking forward to hanging out there often.”
Photos by Andrew Louis.