‘It was a dark and stormy night. In a galxy (sic) far far away."
So begins Chapter 1 of a collaborative work of fiction currently being written at Strong Badger Coffeehouse. Check that: typewritten.
Brock Peters, owner of the West End hub at 679 Sargent Ave., collects manual typewriters. About six months ago, the 29-year-old barista dusted off one of his treasures and plunked it on a window sill near the front door of his homey, 800-sq.-ft. shop. Next, he inserted a blank piece of paper in the machine’s carriage. Since then, anybody who pops in for a cuppa joe has been welcome to add a sentence of their own to what Peters hopes will culminate in a full-length novel.
"I don’t really have a title for it — I refer to it as The Progressive Story — but it’s really a ton of fun showing younger folks how these old warhorses work," says Peters, running his hand over the 39-year-old portable unit, which he pegs as a Brother JP-1 model.
'It's such a perfect neighborhood for this type of business. Judging by the pretty routine gratitude I receive, I think the people here were really ready for something like this, in their own backyard, so to speak' – Strong Badger proprietor Brock Peters
Stealing a page from The Typewriter Revolution, a blog penned by Xavier University professor Richard Polt, Peters recently hosted an event billed as a "type-in." Customers were able to BYOT — that’s bring your own typewriter — and tap, tap, tap away to their heart’s content. At one point in the evening, Peters issued a challenge, after which he awarded prizes to the speediest typists in the room.
"We had seven or eight people in total, going all at once. It was so cool… it sounded like this little symphony."
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Peters’ parents are from Winnipeg. After getting married in 1988, they moved to Whitehorse, a destination that had been on Peters’ father’s bucket list for years.
"I was about three and a half when we moved back (to Winnipeg) so I don’t really have any distinct memories of that period… just a funny little birth certificate and a document that says I crossed the Arctic Circle when I was one," he says, pausing to wish a regular named Carolin a pleasant evening as she packs her things to go. (Before heading out the door, she reminds Peters she intends to bake him a badger-shaped cake in honour of the shop’s first anniversary, which is just around the corner. "The only problem is it falls on a Wednesday," she points out, "and don’t you think it would be more fun if we celebrated on the Friday that week, instead?")
Peters removes his cap and scratches his beard when asked about his relationship with coffee prior to opening his biz in August 2016.
"There wasn’t much of one of at all, to be perfectly honest. For years, it was just something that kept me alive. I started drinking coffee at Husky service stations during high school band tours so for sure, the bar was pretty low."
Before Strong Badger, Peters worked at McNally Robinson Booksellers. He enjoyed his job, but about three years ago he began thinking he should pursue a career he was "invested personally in." He chooses his words carefully when he begins to explain how the notion of a coffee shop entered his radar.
"At the time, I was kind of struck by a bunch of the so-called, ‘third wave’ coffee shops that were opening up and also, what they were doing for the independent coffee scene in Winnipeg," he says, turning down his in-house stereo system, which is almost permanently glued to a jazz station. "The thing was – and this might be my personal self-consciousness coming through, though others have expressed the same opinion – when it came to some of the places I walked into, I almost felt like I wasn’t cool enough to be there.
"I understood why they were doing their minimal aesthetic, because their focus is almost entirely on the cup of coffee. But at the end of the day, that’s not really my aesthetic."
A voracious reader, Peters had long been interested in the cultural heritage associated with coffee shops. In the United Kingdom, for example, they are "hotbeds of political discourse," where men and women gather to solve the world’s problems, morning, noon and night, he says. The folk music movement owes a large debt of gratitude to their ilk, he continues, citing Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as artists who got their start performing in front of caffeinated crowds in the early 1960s. Summing up, he says it was the idea of what a neighborhood coffee shop could provide – besides hot beverages — that piqued his interest.
Before trying his hand at a place of his own, Peters figured he needed to do his homework. First, he enlisted one of his roommates to teach him the ins and outs of brewing coffee using freshly roasted beans. Next he built a mobile cart out of plywood, which he used to sell pre-prepared iced-coffee drinks to passersby in different parts of the city.
Because the response his cart received in certain corners of the West End was largely favourable, Peters started going for long walks in the neighborhood, investigating properties that might be conducive to a permanent location. It was during one of those strolls when he spotted a "shady, little for-rent sign" in the window of a vacant building that, in a previous life, housed a pizza and fried chicken outlet. He signed a lease for the space in February 2016, took possession a month later and spent until the end of July 2016 in renovation-mode.
Finally, at 7:30 a.m. Aug. 2, 2016, he "kind of quietly cracked open the front door" and flipped his sign over to read open.
"I distinctly remember at the end of that first day being completely wiped. I was slumped over in a chair after being on my feet all day when one of my buddies, who was there for moral support, said, ‘Hey, dude. Don’t forget you still have to cash out.’" (About Strong Badger, Peters’ business tag: it turns out Brock, his given name, is an old Gaelic term for a badger. "I wanted the name of the place to be personal, but I didn’t want it to be personal in an obvious sense," he says, noting the majority of the badger-related souvenirs that dot his walls and shelves are gifts from customers.)
From the get-go, Peters has sourced his coffee beans from Manitoba roasters exclusively. Black Pearl Coffee on Dufferin Avenue was the first company he partnered with. Four others have since come on board, including Clandeboye’s Green Bean Coffee Imports and Sheepdog Coffee Co., a Winnipeg producer that’s only been up and running since February.
"I try to cater to different tastes, but if I have one profile, it’s that I prefer a nutty cup (of coffee) to a fruity cup, and a lower acidity versus a higher acidity," Peters says. "But my house drip is always the same thing; it’s Other Brother Roaster’s Community Blend – they’re based in Winkler — which is an easy-drinking, crowd-pleaser kind of thing."
In addition to the aforementioned typing event, Peters also hosts writing workshops, book launches and small-scale concerts on an on-going basis. It’s a good thing he recently hired his first paid employee because when it comes to his monthly open-mic affairs, there have definitely been occasions when Peters, an accomplished bass guitarist, couldn’t help but jump up on stage, axe in hand, to participate in an impromptu jam session.
Although Peters does have a fair number of regulars who work in the area and grab a coffee to go first thing every morning, he figures 80 per cent of his clientele live within a few blocks of the shop. He and his girlfriend recently moved into the area, too – it takes him 10 minutes to walk to work if he "moseys" – and despite having lived most of his life in Charleswood, he’s definitely fallen for the West End, he confesses.
"You don’t need a car, everything’s close, it’s incredibly diverse… it’s such a perfect neighborhood for this type of business," he says, admitting he still gets uncomfortable when regulars thank him for setting up shop in their neck of the woods. "Judging by the pretty routine gratitude I receive, I think the people here were really ready for something like this, in their own backyard, so to speak."
As for future plans, don’t hold your breath waiting for a second or third Strong Badger to open anytime soon, he advises.
"It’s absurdly presumptuous to say, ‘Oh, it’s not about the money,’ because obviously I need to make money to pay the rent and get by in life, but when it comes to having a chain of successful coffee shops, no, I can’t see that happening. I guess the thing is, I’ve never been out to make the best cup of coffee in town. A good cup of coffee? For sure. But a good cup of coffee along with a good everything else – that’s the real goal."
For more information, or to see what special events are scheduled at Strong Badger Coffeehouse in the next while, go to www.strongbadgercoffee.ca.
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.