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Unique coffee shop is a horse of a different colour

JUSTIN SAMANSKI-LANGILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>James Magnus-Johnston (from left), Lauren Kroeker-Lee and Kendra Magnus-Johnston stand behind the counter of Fools & Horses’ second location, at The Forks Commons, which opens Monday.</p>

JUSTIN SAMANSKI-LANGILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

James Magnus-Johnston (from left), Lauren Kroeker-Lee and Kendra Magnus-Johnston stand behind the counter of Fools & Horses’ second location, at The Forks Commons, which opens Monday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/6/2017 (1238 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It’s the curious and catchy name of the place that suggests it’s not just another corner coffee shop.

Fools & Horses.

And when one sips their lattes — or looks at their co-op business model that is socially and environmentally responsible — something becomes obvious about the five business partners, all in their early 30s or late 20s.

They may be workhorses, but they’re no fools.

The five partners, who each hold 20 per cent interest, are James Magnus-Johnston; his wife, Kendra Magnus-Johnston; Ben Gillies; and two women who co-manage the Broadway location and are about to take on the operation of a second shop at The Forks Common. The women are Lauren Kroeker-Lee and Amy Bortoluzzi, friends with a choral music connection.

The driving force behind what is much more than a coffee shop — and not just because they also serve craft beer from the tap but will have different alcohol options at The Forks — are pals Ben and James. Ben is just back from graduate studies at Harvard and MIT, and James, the oldest of the five at 35, has a master’s in economics from Cambridge University.

As I was saying, they’re no fools.

None of that has much to do with how they came to select the name. Its origins go back to James’ time studying in England, and a British sitcom he saw called Only Fools and Horses.

We’ll get back to that.

But there’s something more important first; their business model saw them open the shop by investing $10,000 each and carrying the rest collectively as debt.

"We couldn’t have done it without each other," James said as we sat in the Broadway and Edmonton location, a well-windowed room with a diverse collection of "suits and toques," which is how they all imagined it two years earlier when Fools & Horses opened. They also imagined it sourcing local produce and buying everything they could from local suppliers. It’s one local business helping other small local businesses.

But the bigger, foundational concept came from what James teaches and preaches.

He lectures in political studies and social entrepreneurship at Canadian Mennonite University, where he’s also the director of the school’s Centre for Ecological and Economic Resilience.

He’s a proponent of a concept known as triple bottom line economics, the three being social, financial and ecological.

"So you try to manage all three bottom lines."

And do it with that co-op twist.

Since James teaches the concept, he saw an opportunity to do more than talk about it.

And test it.

"If it’s such a good idea, let’s give it a shot," he recalled thinking.

"I like to blame Ben for why this started," James added. "He’s so enthusiastic."

That is how it really did start, when they chose the downtown corner for a coffee shop.

"I used to work across the street in an office and there was never a good coffee place," James recalled.

Then, three or four years back, James and Ben were driving past a former Money Mart location at the corner. The building had "for lease" sign.

"I said, ‘Ben, this would be a really good spot for a coffee shop.’ He said, ‘Yes, of course. We have to do that.’ "

James calls Ben "a serial entrepreneur" who’s driven by optimism. Ben operates the Winnipeg Trolley Company with another partner.

"He pushes us," James said. "He pushes us forward."

But how did they choose the name Fools & Horses?

James said it went back to his time at Cambridge watching Only Fools and Horses. They riffed off that title, partly because it was a fun name meant to invite a wide and diverse group of customers to join them.

"But the other thing is the sitcom was about people living in public housing who start businesses to get out of public housing," James explained. "And keep failing. So I thought, that’s kind of a cute reference to what we were trying to do. We don’t earn a lot of money. But we’re going to use it to try to start this foolish thing and who knows what’s going to happen?"

As I mentioned earlier, what’s going to happen next — starting Monday — is Fools & Horses will open a second location in The Forks Common, the high-traffic, reimagined food court, which, by a happy coincidence, celebrates its first anniversary Friday.

One of the central reasons the team of five "horses" can do that is because they have pulled together, plowing the profits back into the business, even as they pay their staff what James calls living, sustainable wages.

"We’re nearing the finish line," managing operations partner Lauren said on Thursday, as she did final preparation for opening day at The Forks.

Actually, as a business and as a business model, Fools & Horses is far from the finish line.

It’s just at the starting gate.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

 

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History

Updated on Thursday, June 8, 2017 at 8:15 AM CDT: Corrects reference to partners' ages

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