A Thirst for Small-Batch Coffee Roasters

Written by Bryan Lavery

The emergence of London’s small-batch coffee roasters emphasizes the passion that exists for fairly traded, environmentally responsible, and ethically sourced coffee beans. The astounding growth of the burgeoning coffeehouse/cafe niche in the intensely competitive coffee market dominated by Starbucks and Tim Horton’s is nothing short of remarkable.

Lately there has been an unprecedented increase of upmarket cafés that are part grab-and-go café, part bakery, and part casual dine-in restaurant, some of which are licensed. The quest of coffee drinkers for artisanal, small hand-batched roasts with diverse flavour profiles is unmatched. It has been recently suggested that in addition to its other well-documented effects, a cup of coffee will improve your memory.

Hasbeans is operated by the hospitable Smith family, who have been Covent Garden Market merchants for more than 125 years. Their coffee business continues to be hands-on with Paul (third generation), Debbie (fourth) and Joel (fifth).

While promoting the distinct qualities that each coffee bean develops in its natural environment, Hasbeans’ stalwart owners and staff have become a Covent Garden Market institution for their fair trade offerings and personalized service. Hasbeans’ hand-selected and imported coffees are offered as both green (raw) and roasted coffee beans.

The Little Red Roaster was initially opened in 1995 and operated by former restaurateurs Anne and Archie Chisholm of Anthony’s Seafood Bistro. The Wortley Road location became a local institution and was the original café in what became a chain of independently owned franchises. Kendra Gordon-Green purchased the venture in 2002, adding several franchised Little Red Roaster locations in the downtown core, most notably at the Covent Garden Market and at the Central Library.

Entrepreneur Dave Cook started The Fire Roasted Coffee Co. in 2006. He had been roasting his own coffee beans in his garage, and launched Fire Roasted Coffee as a Saturday business at the Western Fair Farmers Market. Cook took over as owner of the market operation two years later and began to build his business portfolio. More recently he opened a flagship café (and his complementary business, Habitual Chocolate) in a renovated heritage building at King and Talbot streets. Just last month Cook opened another satellite Fire Roasted location in Wortley Village, in premises formerly occupied by The Little Red Roaster.

Cook leverages his expertise, networks and knowledge in order to shape a strong and enabling environment for social enterprise. Cook’s core business belief embraces the philosophy of supporting and mentoring people committed to sourcing quality products and invested in their place of origin. In the interest of global justice, Fire Roasted Coffee has established direct trade with producing countries to benefit the producers in a more substantial way.

Fire Roasted had supplied coffee to the nearby Black Walnut Bakery Café but that affiliation recently came to a halt. Cook approached Gordon-Green of the Little Red Roaster to give Fire Roasted a sustained presence and a higher profile in Wortley Village. Cook realizes that this location might have a limited shelf-life, as there are plans to expand Home Hardware into that space in the future. In the meantime, he views the Wortley Road location like a pop-up restaurant where he is able to create a different niche and new identity in the neighbourhood.

Patrick Dunham, the former general manager and lead roaster for The Fire Roasted Coffee Company, presided at the Western Fair Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market location for six years. Working alongside Dave Cook, Dunham traveled to coffee farms learning all aspects of the coffee business from roasting and cupping to selling.

Dunham went to work as a sales manager for Imperial Coffee in February 2013. Wilson and Mandy Etheridge, owners of the Black Walnut Bakery Café, approached Dunham to partner with them in setting up Kingfisher Coffee Company as a wholesale coffee roaster and business. The Black Walnut Bakery Café built its reputation specializing in organic fair trade coffees and teas, seasonal soups, savoury quiches, bread, scones and squares, salads and light meals.

Mandy explained that they were looking for a niche that they felt was absent in the marketplace. “Unfortunately we could not find what we were looking for. It seemed our only option was to create our own one of a kind coffee roasting company.” This coffee roasting company would not only service the café, but would also provide coffee to other business and individuals around the city wanting the same characteristics in their coffee.

Kingfisher’s mandate is to provide high quality coffee blends that are roasted in London and ethically sourced. The company caters to the individual needs of customers and its policy is to demonstrate transparent community involvement. Kingfisher roasts coffee beans in small batches and then blends them to achieve tastes and complexities that Dunham tells me cannot be found in single varietal options.

Sisters Maria Fiallos and Valeria Fiallos-Soliman operate the coffee micro-roaster, Las Chicas del Café, on Exeter Road, which opened in 2005. The Fiallos family has been defined by coffee for generations, starting with their great-grandfather on the family’s coffee plantation in Las Sabanas, Nicaragua. The family was forced to flee Nicaragua in the 1980s during that country’s civil war, finally settling in London, Ontario in 1988. The sisters’ parents were eventually able to return to Nicaragua and re-establish the family’s coffee growing tradition with their mission of “quality, tradition and responsibility.” Today, plantation workers hand-pick, sun-dry and manually bag their annual harvest of dense, flavour-packed beans and send them to London to be roasted.

Charles and Jill Wright recently opened Locomotive Espresso in a building that has been a neighbourhood variety store for 45 years. Locomotive baristas have received strict training in Pilot Coffee Roaster’s Toronto espresso laboratory. Pilot took top honours in this year’s Roast Magazine’s annual Roaster of the Year competition saying, “Pilot’s exemplary marketing practices and dedication to offering quality coffee — evidenced by its education practices and construction of a state-of-the-art coffee-tasting lab — propelled the company to a win”.

Locomotive Espresso opened its doors mid-February looking to fill a growing worldwide thirst for local, independent coffee bars serving the highest quality beverages. Its direct trade beans will be featured along with other “visiting” roasts from similarly skilled roasters. Locomotive is located at the corner of Pall Mall and Colborne at the railroad tracks, in the former Helen’s Variety.

More and more it is worth embracing independents and small-batch artisanal coffee roasters. These types of businesses provide core commitments to quality, relationships and hands-on service. The coffee trade appears to be further inspired to leverage economies with social enterprise and environmental responsibility by their conduct, rather than driving profit by how they market themselves.


Bryan Lavery is a coffee drinker.

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.