This is a city where creativity and community go hand in hand. In this series I’m exploring the local businesses and spaces whose collaborative natures make them more than the sum of their parts.
At Iconoclast Koffiehuis, you might come for the coffee but you’ll stay for the conversation. Owner Ryan Arcand is committed to creating a space where real, genuine people can cross paths, meet up, and start talking. And if his own interactions with his patrons are any indication, it seems to be working — when I arrived for our interview, Arcand was deep in conversation with a patron and greeted many others as they came and went.
I was drawn to Iconoclast for this series on collaborative spaces because I had heard about so many different things going on in the space — including things that had nothing to do with coffee — and I sat down with Arcand to find out what made this coffee shop different from others.
Iconoclast coffee as a brand was first imagined by Arcand when he worked at Planet Organic after moving here from Vancouver in 2007. He already knew that he wanted to take some of the skills he had earned working in an independent wine shop and start his own coffee roasting business. Originally conceived as a retail model to be sold in organic food stores, Arcand later shifted his focus to restaurants and cafes. He built up a reputation for excellent coffee beans and gathered a loyal following of restaurant customers, all committed to high-quality local food and drink.
In early 2014, Arcand opened the coffee shop that you’ll find — with a little effort — on 105 Avenue and 118 Street, tucked between Oliver Square and the St. Joachim cemetery. Look for the large garage doors, closed in winter but wide open in summer, and a small sign letting you know you’re in the right place. Once inside, don’t be daunted by the heavy grey curtains surrounding the door; push your way through and you’ll find a space that, if not exactly cozy, is certainly interesting and inviting.
The coffee roasting still happens in the back of the large open room, but the focal point is definitely the coffee bar, a large square island with plenty of room to pull up a stool and chat with the barista or fellow visitors. This and other touches, like a long communal table and a ping pong table, emphasize the social nature of the shop. The first time I visited was for a Creative Mornings event and the space had an excellent flow, both allowing for a large crowd and giving a sense of intimacy at the same time.
When I asked Arcand why he settled on coffee for his business, his answers were at first quite straightforward. He talked about the coffee habit he developed while living in Toronto in his early 20s where he would stop for a latte and a pastry every day at an Italian gelateria in the neighborhood. Then he went back further to his parents’ routine of brewing two pots of coffee a day and how important it was for them to always have coffee on hand, though it was never fancy, always Folgers or Maxwell House. This is the first time the word “ritual” comes up and it seems to be an important one. Arcand explains, “I’d say it was my family that really familiarized me with the ritual of drinking coffee. Maybe it’s that sort of unpretentious coffee idea that I’m coming back to now, as a roaster.”
As roasting coffee turned into serving coffee, the ritual, or tradition, behind the drink seems to have taken on even more importance. The seemingly strange word koffiehuis in the shop’s name comes from a practice that Arcand has experienced first hand: “We use the Dutch word for ‘coffee house’ because the Dutch have still alive today, in my opinion, a wonderful coffee tradition of stopping in the course of the day, stopping everything, brewing coffee, and sitting down and having a coffee and a cookie or a piece of cake and talking. For me, the greatest attribute coffee has to offer us is that it’s a time we can take to sit down with someone and take a break.”
Arcand sees the space he has created as a gathering place for the community, somewhere to stop in and take a break, and an alternative to other so-called public spaces where people are cut off from each other.
“They’re public, the doors are open, but they’re not communal in a sense that you’re being introduced to new people and you’re sharing yourself and having challenging discussions with people who are sharing themselves. I wonder to what extent that’s happening. And my hope and my aspiration for our space is that that can happen.”
This vision evokes the introduction of coffee to European culture, when all important discussions about philosophy, art, science and politics were happening in public rooms over a hot brew. Arcand says he sees coffee culture as a growing phenomenon, a force that is social, political, artistic and intellectual. And he says he’s excited about the opportunities for connection and collaboration that being a part of that culture bring, especially in a city like Edmonton.
When I asked Arcand how he likes Edmonton he at first seems hesitant. “It’s growing on me,” he allows. “Edmonton is not an easy city.” Compared to Toronto and Vancouver, he found that the suburban feel of the city made it seem a bit sparse socially and initially made it hard to find like-minded people. The harsh climate didn’t help either.
The more he talked, however, the more he seemed to light up as he described the ways that he has seen the city change over the last few years, and the ways in which it is still changing. The new downtown developments, the booming job market, the growth of urban hubs and communities, and the surge of independently owned restaurants and other businesses have all made this a very exciting city to be in right now.
And then there’s that special something that Edmonton seems to have when it comes to starting a new venture. This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned in this series the unique opportunities and access that living in this city provides, and it won’t be the last. Arcand says he believes that starting his business with nothing and building it up to what it is today would not have been possible in Toronto or Vancouver.
As he puts it, “If you build a space, Edmonton will come. In fact, they will help you build the space.” Arcand says that when he started telling people about what he was working on, he found people to be more than eager to offer their time, their expertise and their connections to help get the project off the ground.
To give me a example, he puts his hands on the beautiful wooden table in front of us and tells me that the wood it’s made from was given to him in exchange for use of the space for a fundraiser. Then Rob Willms, the local steel sculptor who also worked on the impressive bar, built the frame. Some friends at IZM furniture lent him their jointer and planer to prepare the wood and then the coffee house staff sanded it down. They ended up with a polished, functional piece that suits the space and cost almost nothing besides labour.
This collaborative effort says a lot about how the space has evolved and will continue to grow. While coffee roasting is the backbone of the business, Arcand’s interests are diverse and he is always open to new ideas for the space. As he describes it, “Really my interest is to do real things with real people so it’s pretty wide. It’s not just about coffee.” The coffee bar is only open until 5 p.m. most days, with the space available to rent for events in the evenings. They also service coffee equipment for their restaurant clients and are hoping to one day invest in a cocoa roaster. But with such a large building, there is plenty of potential for more.
A collaboration with Red Bike is in the works, as evidenced by the two bikes hanging from the walls. Arcand says he hopes this will lead to a convergence between coffee and cycling culture, and contribute to the growing popularity of both. In the summer the garage-style front doors open up and cyclists can ride their bikes right into the space.
A local food producer is thinking about renting out the kitchen space (The Local Omnivore food truck was using it for a time but have since moved out) and a well-established artist might be renting some space to store equipment and work out of. When I ask how he finds people to work with, Arcand emphasizes that they usually come to him. Rather than going out and seeking people to work with, he has found that a better strategy is to build something great that people will want to be a part of.
“I want to have that conversation until there’s not a lot of space left. People bring in their own energy, their own gravity and sincerity and value to the space and what I’m doing. And that’s worth something to me.”
Have some ideas you want to share? Looking to connect with some like-minded people? Iconoclast Koffiehuis may have what you’re looking for. At the very least you’ll get a great cup of coffee.