Al Dawson calls it "radical optimism."
Despite daunting statistics and raised eyebrows from local businesses, Dawson and his wife took a leap of faith Wednesday, opening a coffee shop on Waterfront Drive.
"Isn’t that what businesses do, anyway? We risk our life’s earnings on pipe dreams because we love what we do and the people that we do it with."
Winnipeggers can now enjoy fresh cups of home-brewed and locally roasted coffee right next to a view of the river at the second instalment of Harrisons Coffee Co. — named after Dawson’s first family dog, a soft-coated wheaten terrier whose picture greets guests on the walls of his café.
"It's not just a coffee shop to me — it's everything to me, my family and for those who know what an independently owned business can do for our community" — Al Dawson, owner of Harrisons Coffee Co.
"He was very loved and misunderstood, much like most businesses in the city."
Open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. over weekends, Harrisons touts itself for having a complete staff of 18 employees, working shifts at both locations of the café.
The Waterfront location — complete with local artwork, socially-distanced countertops and family-friendly tables — can host up to 10 people at a time, with space for more on picnic tables and grassy benches at the Stephen Juba Park facing the coffee shop.
Harrisons’ first location in The Forks continues to be a centrepoint to produce the café’s speciality: fresh-roasted coffee beans sourced from farmers in Canada and the U.S. to make large pots of hot java and cold brews.
And while the new location is just getting started, it not only packs a punch on the same made-to-order coffee drinks, but also sells ice cream sandwiches and baked goods for patrons.
It all started when Dawson finally decided to leave "Onterrible."
The father of two spent years working corporate jobs in Ontario, with his two daughters and wife living hours away in Winnipeg. He’d visit them every six weeks, just to share quick glances and short moments over the weekends.
Last year, he told his wife he couldn’t do it anymore.
Dawson packed up his bags, took a flight to Winnipeg and soon began his passion project: Harrisons Coffee Co.
"That struggle is very much a fabric of our business," he said.
"My family has seen me bleed tears and sweat, losing sleep night after night to make this happen. So, of course, today they wanted to be here to commemorate what we finally accomplished."
But getting here wasn’t hard just because Dawson and his wife paid "every single penny" for their business out of pocket; neither was it because they continue chipping away their lives’ savings, still unable to make a profit.
It’s because of COVID-19, which forced the family-run business to close its doors just months after they opened their first location at The Forks in January.
And yet, Dawson also cites the global pandemic as the reason behind that "radical optimism" to open a second storefront as active cases of the coronavirus continue to spread across the country.
"Those days of sitting at home, thinking endlessly and looking at our finances invigorated us to keep pushing — for us and those that depended on being employed with us."
In fact, he says the pandemic also invigorated his landlord to get on board with an accelerated opening for the coffee shop on Waterfront Drive.
Dawson attributes much of that to Ottawa’s emergency aid program, without which he thinks they wouldn’t have survived.
He now wishes those emergency economic incentives to continue from the federal government, but hopes that Winnipeggers can keep pushing for local businesses like his to thrive even without depending on them.
"It’s not just a coffee shop to me — it’s everything to me, my family and for those who know what an independently owned business can do for our community."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.