Many of us who have lived in Stratford, Ontario feels a kinship with Balzac’s, now a 13-store enterprise across Ontario that started with a roastery and café on Stratford’s main street.
My connection goes one step further: when we moved to Stratford, we bought Balzac founder Diana Olsen’s house.
At the time, she was exploring opening a second Balzac’s in Toronto and had moved to the big city. She decided she would sell her Stratford home and, shortly thereafter, opened the second Balzac’s, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.
Every time I go into the Distillery Balzac’s, I think: “my money (ok, the money I borrowed from the bank) helped this place happen.”
The café is within an 1895 building originally built as a pump house; it has exposed brick interior walls, two floors of seating and a massive central chandelier, and is the largest and most elaborate (so far) of Balzac’s outlets.
There is the original in Stratford, six in Toronto, one each in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Guelph, Kitchener, Port Dalhousie (pronounced da-LOOZ-ee) plus the latest two in Kingston and Waterloo. I’ve been to the original, all the ones in Toronto, plus the outposts in Niagara and Kitchener. The business headquarters and roastery are now in Ancaster, a community near Hamilton. Each outlet gets its own branding image and tagline. Two more branches are set to open in 2017: one in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto and a second in the nation’s capital, Ottawa.
Olsen, who grew up in Vancouver, moved to Paris at age 18 as an au pair and a year later returned to her home city to enrol as a French literature major at the University of British Columbia. In a 2017 interview with UBC’s Trek Magazine, she recalled being intimidated at first in Paris “but, when I went into cafés, there was a cross-section of people, and I felt accepted.” The grand cafés, in particular, captured her imagination, magazine author Deborah Reid notes, “and their influence can be seen in Balzac’s signature interiors – the zinc bars, encaustic floor tiles, classic Thonet rattan bistro chairs, and vintage coffee paraphernalia Olsen collects from brocante markets in France.”
As a student, Olsen became a fan of 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac, who would eat a light dinner around 6 p.m., sleep until midnight, and then get up and write through to the morning, drinking coffee in large quantities. After graduation, Olson travelled again to France and began thinking of setting up a coffee enterprise, inspired by Parisian cafés, back home. She enrolled at the West Coast Coffee Specialty Institute in San Francisco to study coffee roasting and production; after operating a coffee kiosk in Toronto, she opened her first store and roastery in Stratford.
You can barely go a block now in a city like Toronto without running into an “artisanal” or hip coffee shop. That wasn’t the case in 1996. From the beginning, Olsen has used organic milk and sourced organically grown coffee beans. But there’s a casual friendliness about Balzac’s too, more homey than hip: the Stratford location provides colouring books and crayons for kids and, until the health inspector authorities decided otherwise, dogs were welcome inside (they now get a water bowl and doggy biscuit treats at the door).
Olsen got a measure of fame across Canada in 2011 when she appeared on the CBC entrepreneur-funding contest show Dragon’s Den .
At the time, there were five Balzac’s locations. Dragon venture capitalists Arlene Dickinson and Bruce Croxon were impressed with her pitch and invested $325,000 for a 20-per-cent stake in the enterprise. With the additional funding, Diana was able to open more outlets and move into the competitive grocery store market: Bags of Balzac’s beans are now available at many specialty grocery shops in Ontario, as well as at larger chain stores such as Zehrs and Loblaws.
As I write this, I have a bag of Farmer’s Blend Balzac’s coffee beans in the cupboard – it’s one of Diana’s “marble roasts”, meaning she puts together a mix of beans from pale (light), amber (medium), and stout (dark) roasts. Sure, there are hundreds of brands of coffee beans out there I could buy to enjoy at home – but none feel like home, in quite the same way.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen