How Parkdale Has Become an Independent Coffee Mecca
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How Parkdale Has Become an Independent Coffee Mecca

With the closure of the "Drake You Ho" Starbucks, the neighbourhood is now a haven for indie caffeinators.

Mohammed Binyahya (left) and Tariq Al Barwani, the owners of Plentea, a tea bar that opened in Parkdale two months ago.

Mohammed Binyahya (left) and Tariq Al Barwani, the owners of Plentea, a tea bar that opened in Parkdale two months ago.

On a sunny Saturday morning, customers walk into a bright loft space, where rows of jars with tea leaves, herbs, and dried fruits decorate the wall.

The tea shop is lit up by morning sun and smells of various spices as the owners, Tariq Al Barwani and Mohammed Binyahya, carefully prepare hot drinks with each ingredient. They greet the customers as they walk in, some of them by first name.

“We were pretty picky about where to open,” says Al Barwani of Plentea, a tea bar that opened two months ago at the corner of Dufferin Street and Queen Street West in Parkdale. “We wanted it to be a local, Canadian, Torontonian business,” he says. “And people are very supportive of independent businesses in Parkdale.”

The pair picked one of the best spots in the city: these days, Parkdale is known for its stretches of mom-and-pop stores. And for independent coffee and tea shops, corporate presence is at a minimum.

In fact, the neighbourhood’s closest Starbucks, famed for its “Drake You Ho” graffiti tag, closed its doors in February after more than a decade in business.

The building located on 1092 Queen Street West, at the corner of Dovercourt Road, after its Starbucks logos have been removed.

The building located on 1092 Queen Street West, at the corner of Dovercourt Road, after its Starbucks logos have been removed.

According to Rick Matthews, partner of Dorset Property Corp. who owns the building on 1092 Queen Street West, Starbucks decided not to renew their lease this year. The closest franchise location is now at Queen and Ossington.

A smaller coffee chain has already rented out the space and is hoping to open by June, Matthews says. While Matthews won’t confirm, one of the neighbouring business owners says Natrel Milk Bar by java u, a Montreal-based coffee company, will be moving in.

For someone like Al Barwani who takes pride in incorporating real ingredients, family-based tea recipes, and creative flare, having less Starbucks in the area is not all that bad.

“As you walk down Parkdale, there’s Plentea, Rustic Cosmo, The Tenant, The Tempered Room. They all have their own feel. They’re all cool in their own way,” Al Barwani says. “If you look down the street, it’s easy to the eyes because it’s not picking up the typical logos and colours you’re used to seeing.”

Currently, Parkdale has no shortage of unique independent cafés, including Jinks Art Factory that is both a cafe and a tattoo shop, and The Tenant, which offers a community space. Capital Espresso, behind its large open space, has access to a hair salon.

Café culture is part of the social aspect of a community, says Anna Bartula, executive director of the Parkdale BIA. “It’s a social business,” she says. “You bump into the same people and you have your 15-minute conversations every morning, and there’s something really personal about that.”

Bartula has lived in Parkdale for more than three decades, and she has seen the neighbourhood change throughout the years. While there are stylish cafés that popped up the recent years, she says there will always be the “not-too-shiny” coffee shops that offer gathering spaces to the marginalized persons in the community.

Bartula adds there were rumours of Starbucks looking to scout a location on Queen Street West a few years ago, where The Tenant is now located. In the end, the closest Starbucks to the area that opened recently is on King Street West, east of Dufferin Street.

People take a quick glance inside the site of former Starbucks on 1092 Queen Street West, where it remains an empty space during construction.

People take a quick glance inside the site of former Starbucks on 1092 Queen Street West, where it remains an empty space during construction.

Some may be against franchises moving into the area, but it’s ultimately up to the building owners to decide who they rent their spaces to, she says.

Residents seem happy to indulge at the neighbourhood’s independent brewers.

“People are more inclined to give to businesses where they can meet the owners and know who they’re supporting, rather than big corporate entities,” says Alex Tran, the co-owner of Capital Espresso who grew up in the neighbourhood. “It’s a place to meet friends, a way to meet like-minded people.”

Al Barwani, a newer member of Parkdale’s business scene, knows all about connecting with others over a cup of drink.

“We don’t take a tea bag. We take the time to put the tea and milk,” he says. “It’s very social. It’s a way to bond.”

Photos by Julienne Bay.

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