Collaborative Spaces: The Carrot Coffee House is a cornerstone of community development

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.

carrot coffee house

Volunteers running the coffee bar. Photo by Carrot photographers

The Carrot Community Arts Coffee House is a project of Arts on the Ave, an organization started by Christy Morin in 2005 that is committed to revitalizing Alberta Avenue (118 Avenue from NAIT to Northlands) through the arts, and turning it into a hub for community and creativity. In its early days, organization members decided they needed a place to meet and a physical presence on the Avenue itself. At the time the high crime rate in the neighborhood meant there was nothing open on “the Ave” past 6 p.m. and no place for the community to gather. They decided to open a volunteer-run, not-for-profit coffee house, with a six-month trial run to see if it was feasible. Eight and a half years later, it’s still going strong.

The mission of the Carrot is to create a hub for the arts and to bring people in the neighborhood together in a space where they can feel comfortable. Says Morin, “What the arts does I think is bring back the soul and community to spaces. I think we’re all creative in different ways and being able to be in a creative environment just stimulates more creativity and more conversation and engagement with people, and gets us to start seeing each other and hearing ideas and building together.”

It wasn’t an easy road, but as is often the case in this city, the community came together to make it happen. With only a small grant to pay for an espresso machine, the group sought out mismatched furniture from people’s basements and garages, and leftover paint. They had to completely makeover the space and relied on volunteers to put in new flooring, paint and create display cases.

Carrot Coffee House

Artist performing at the Carrot. Photo by Carrot Photographers

When the space finally opened and they hosted their first musical show, Morin says that she and another board member sat there with tears in their eyes. “It was more than a collaborative effort. It was people’s hearts, and giving, to make this happen.”

Today the Carrot is indeed a comfortable space to hang out in. A gallery wall displays curated art by a different local artist each month, cabinets contain artisan goods for sale, and depending on when you visit you might be able to take in a poetry slam (last Thursday of the month), a touring or local musician (Friday nights) or an open mic (Saturday nights). There are plenty of groups that meet regularly — like Babes in Arms on Friday mornings, which gathers parents of the community to chat and support each other — as well as classes and workshops to be taken.

According to Morin, “Some people will walk in and say, ‘Oh! My grandma had that table!’ And [they’ll] go sit and feel really comfortable.” The large dining room tables are conducive to meetings and to making new friends.

And then there’s the coffee. When I think of not-for-profit “cafes,” I think of watered-down coffee and cheap tea. That’s not what you’ll find at the Carrot. Jeff and Joanne Linden of Credo Coffee are good friends of the Morins and helped mentor the Carrot team in choosing what they believed to be the best coffee available: Intelligencia, a high-quality, direct-trade bean that is delicious and socially responsible. People come from as far as Sherwood Park to enjoy a good latte, or a high-quality tea and some locally baked goods.

“There was a big discussion about it, right when we started the coffee house,” Morin says. “A lot of people said you know, people aren’t going to come to this neck of the woods for that cost of coffee. And after being around for eight years, most certainly they are.”

Apart from the cost of the coffee, Morin says the board had other reservations about the coffee house in the beginning: “It’s the only vote that was not unanimous. It was a real risk.” 

Carrot Coffee House

Artists performing at the Carrot. Photo by Carrot Photographers

Part of the risk was whether they could sustain a volunteer workforce, however it turns out that it hasn’t really been an issue. “We’ve only had to close the door of the Carrot I think twice in many, many years because a volunteer is not able to pull a shift.”

Morin describes a time when a local photography group was meeting at the coffee house every Wednesday. When they found out there wouldn’t be a volunteer to keep the doors open that night, two of them asked to be trained as baristas so that they could work the shifts and open the space for their group.

The Carrot seems to encourage this spirit of stepping up and helping out, and many more projects have been birthed between its walls. The Deep Freeze Byzantine Winter Festival is a prime example of something that came to be after a group of people gathered over coffee. The organizers were grumbling about winter when they decided to create something that would make it better. Other festivals and groups, like the Circa Irish Festival, the Bloomin’ Garden Show and Art Sale, SkirtsAFire herArts Festival, and the Mummer’s Collective were never formally affiliated with the Carrot but came about because of their connection to the space and the community.

The success of the Carrot has spread to other neighborhoods and even other parts of the country, with people calling Morin and asking how they can start something similar in their community. Morin says that it’s the connection to the larger organization of Arts on the Avenue that makes it work for them. Any money they earn goes right back into projects for Arts on the Ave, with the two feeding off each other.

Locally, the coffee house has made a very discernible difference on Alberta Avenue, as creativity and resilience seem to radiate out from it. New businesses and organizations have opened and moved close to it, and families call to find out where the festival grounds are and where they should be buying houses in the neighborhood. As more people become involved with the Carrot’s mission and feel ownership of the space and the neighborhood, more good things are bound to happen.

“The Carrot isn’t the only thing that’s brought new people to the neighborhood, but it most certainly has become a rooted cornerstone for the community. It’s almost become home for so many people,” Morin says.

Carrot Coffee House

Artist performing at the Carrot – Photo by Carrot Photographers

There is always something new going on at the Carrot. It acts as a musical venue for the Deep Freeze Festival, happening Jan. 10 and 11 (and still looking for volunteers!), and will do the same for the Kaleido Family Arts Festival in September. In February they will be hosting events and art celebrating Black History Month; check out thecarrot.ca for a full listing of events, and to volunteer. Baristas are always needed (though you will need to commit to one four-hour shift every two weeks), as are people with technical experience to help with sound on Friday and Saturday nights, and people who can help out with assorted maintenance tasks. And if you have something you’d like to try at the Carrot, let them know. They’re always open to new ideas.

Overall, it seems the reach of the Carrot has surprised even its founder. Morin expresses her deep gratitude to everyone who comes to visit the Carrot and Alberta Avenue.

“I didn’t expect that I would be leading a group in this capacity and it’s really humbling to be able to have people come out and support with their hands, their hearts, their time. You really have a different perspective of life when you’re involved in this type of movement.”

About Stephanie Medford