Interview with Green Beanery Cafe founder, Larry Solomon, on what makes his cafe stand out
By Michael Wacholtz for The Annex/Parkbench.com
How would you describe Green Beanery Café?
Green Beanery is a coffee shop, roastery and equipment store that has the world’s largest selection of coffee beans. It’s also one of the funding sources for Probe International, with all of the profits from the café and coffee business going to support the activities of this charity.
What was the original impetus for the business?
I love coffee. I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2004 about home roasting of coffee and one of the roasters was rated tops in the reviews. I bought that for personal use, and my experience of roasting my own beans was incredible. I compare it to the difference between freshly squeezed orange juice and that stuff you get out of a can. One of the things I do in my association with Probe International is look for funding avenues. Over the years we’ve been successful in starting various businesses and I thought coffee might be a promising one. To begin, we ordered a sack of beans, like you would see Juan Valdez put on the back of his burro and we sold those over the internet. It sold quite quickly, and we grew from there. We expanded from selling beans, to roasters, and it just kept growing and growing. Initially we were doing everything out of our offices on Brunswick, but it was getting too big. You’d open a cabinet drawer and find bags of coffee beans, so it was necessary to ensure that file folders for our research staff were not being replaced by bags of coffee.
How did you find opening your current store?
Initially we were an entirely online enterprise. The café came later, and there were some bumps along the way in that process. For example, in trying to save some money, we tried to act as general contractors ourselves. That took some extra time, but the real challenges we found were dealing with the city bureaucracy. Everything required permissions from them, which affected every aspect of opening our small business and we didn’t expect the delays to be so extensive. But we eventually opened our doors and haven’t looked back.
And what do you get as feedback regarding the customer experience you have created at Green Beanery?
The ambiance is a highlight. People also love our array of coffee paraphernalia. They like our extensive variety of coffees, and that all the profits from the business go to help a Third World environment and development charity, Probe International.
Any interesting plans for the future?
We’re planning to have evenings at the café where speakers come in and discuss topics like international development, nuclear power, mass transit and the TTC, power rates, things of that nature that are local, national and international. The speakers’ perspectives won’t all dovetail with those of Probe International – we’ll often have competing perspectives, to let the audience understand both sides of an issue. The timeline for this to launch is sometime this spring.
No one gets to where they are by themselves. Any inspirational role models in business or life?
Jane Jacobs was a founder of our foundation, so she’s been an inspiration not only to me but also to the entire foundation. Margaret Laurence was another inspirational director and she was very feisty; she and Jane were quite the pair. Dai Qing, a Probe Fellow, and really the whole Chinese democracy movement have also been inspirational to our foundation as well.
Why the Annex for your business?
It’s near our office. We believe in the area and love it. The Annex is a great place to invest. We knew it wouldn’t go downhill over time.
Any favorite things about the Annex you want to share?
It’s just a terrific neighbourhood. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I’ve been here since 1982 both living and working here. I like all the shops, the architecture, the high density. It’s a great neighbourhood to walk.
Why do you think it's important for people to shop local?
I wouldn’t say it’s important to shop local – I see nothing wrong in patronizing shops in different neighbourhoods or different countries – but I do believe it’s important and wonderful that we actually are able to shop local. It means the Annex has the variety, the diversity of enterprises in our neighbourhood that makes it possible to shop locally. We need to maintain and keep that variety in the Annex.
If there were one thing that you could change about the Annex, to make it even better than it already is, what would it be?
I would de-regulate. I would not put all of these obstacles in front of business owners. The city’s tax regime and regulatory structure is making it difficult for the non-chain stores to survive. We need these small businesses and upstarts to have a vibrant city. We need to remove the roadblocks that prevent them from thriving.
Interview conducted by local REALTOR® Michael Wacholtz