Susan's Super Citizen Showcase

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Nick and the art of making coffee at Continental

Nick AllanAt Continental Coffee on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, it hasn't hurt business to have a Starbucks right across the street for the past 12 years.

“If anything it’s helped us in that it’s got more people drinking specialty coffee,” says Continental Coffee manager Nick Allan, who was only three months old when his grandma Anita opened the family café in 1979. “You get people opening up to the idea of espresso and the idea of having a specialty coffee and then they try ours and it’s better than Starbucks and it’s cheaper – so why would you go to a place that’s more expensive and not as good?”

The Continental tradition dates back a few generations to the town of Pietragalla, Italy where Nick’s great-grandfather’s grandmother served coffee to villagers seeking their morning perk. In 1926, his great-grandparents moved to Canada, and it is their Canadian-born daughter Anita (Nick’s grandma) who decided in 1979 to leave her job at the Commercial Drive branch of the Bank of Montreal and return to her roots in the family coffee business. And I am so thankful that she did it because Continental serves the best coffee ever – rich, full, soul-satisfying flavour with no trace of bitterness… My single-shot Americano with steamed milk is like… words elude me! ooh ahh… mmmmm… I’ve tried all the cafes on Commercial Drive in the past dozen years, and while there are a lot of good ones with appealing atmosphere, Continental reigns above them all!

(Let me digress for a moment to clarify something you might be wondering about… Nick’s last name: “Allan” doesn’t sound very Italian, does it? Well that’s because his grandma married a Scotsman and took his name. The Italian side of the family has the last name of Grippo.)

Anyways – back to the story… The reason Continental makes such awesome coffee at such a great price is because: a) they roast their own beans and b) Nick’s dad Rick and his uncle Jordan have been practicing the art of bean-roasting for more than 20 years after learning it from their great-grandfather. A few years ago, when they upgraded to a 12-kilo roaster, they moved their roasting operations out of the café and into their Burnaby warehouse. This made more space for the café, which now offers free, wireless internet to their sipping patrons. All coffee made and served at Continental is fair trade organic as are most of their beans to go.

“We do our own roasting and that takes out the middle man and gives us a bit more control over what happens in the cup,” Nick says. “It also allows us to charge a little bit less. I mean we could charge a little bit more and get away with it, but I don’t think we have to. We can afford to sell it for that.”

Many cafés start out in business with the mistaken idea that it’s easy to produce good coffee.

“It’s not as easy as just: ‘You buy the coffee, you roast it, and you brew it.’ It is an art form and it takes a certain amount of skill,” says Nick. “You have to know what you’re doing. If you look around at other cafes that are doing well – they’re producing coffee that’s better than Starbucks. If you’re producing on par or somewhere below, I think those are the cafes that are going to have problems. If you look at top notch cafes around Vancouver, we’re all doing well and that’s because we’re producing better than they’re producing.”

At 27, Nick has been working at Continental since he graduated from high school. He took over the manager position about three years ago.

“I’ve gone to school too, but I always ended up coming back here because it was what I knew and there’s nothing like being your own boss,” he says. “I can probably say that for me, being on the bar roughly every day for the past 11 years, I’ve probably had more coffee experience than 99.9 percent of the baristas in the city because most people don’t have this job for 11 years. And I’m passionate about it; I want to make the best cup that I can every time and I think that that shows.”

With an impressive memory for names, Nick guesses he knows the first names of about half the people he serves each day. During each fleeting interaction at the counter, he checks in with his regulars and keeps up to date with their news of life.

“My favorite part is getting to interact with people and getting into these two or three-minute relationships where you learn about their day and you learn how they’re doing and you kind of start them off with what ever it is. I don’t know – maybe it’s like overstating what I’m doing – but you’re getting them started on their day,” he says. “I do care for people and I think it kind of shows. It’s not a phoney kind of thing and I think a lot of people appreciate that. When they come in and I ask how they’re doing, I genuinely want to know – and if they’re not doing well, tell me and I’ll try to give you a coffee and hopefully that will make it better.”

One challenge of the job is the occasional need to deal with unlucky people who’ve had the misfortune of being whacked in the head with the bad manners stick.

“They tend to treat you like you’re somehow less than human because you’re standing on the other side of the counter – like you might as well be a coffee robot or a trained monkey. They don’t even treat you like a person. But those people thankfully are few and far between and I don’t even get them every day,” Nick says. “It’s just if the line-up at Starbucks is too long, they’ll come over here or they’ll drive up in their SUV and they’ll drive away once they have their coffee.”

Nick describes another challenge of working with the public, which will probably sound familiar to anyone who has ever worked in the service industry (or been sneered at by crabby workers who seem to hate their jobs).

“If I’m having a bad day or if I’ve broken up with a girlfriend or whatever it is – I didn’t sleep the night before – I have to be as happy and ‘on’ as those days when I am naturally feeling outgoing. It can be a challenge not to project it onto someone else when I’m having a bad day,” he says, describing the cheerful influence he gets from the people around him. “When I first get here, I have my coffee and kind of get warmed up and ready to go – and even if I’m having a bad day, usually some one will come in and say: ‘That’s a great coffee’ or they’ll usually say something that’s going to get me in a good mood – even on those days when I don’t necessarily feel like being here, which everyone has.”

Nick plays ice hockey and mixed martial arts in his off-hours. “It’s my nice relaxing time to get my service industry angst out on the ice or over in the ring,” he says with a laugh. “I try to get to the gym as much as I can – especially at this time of year to burn off some of the chocolates.”

And speaking of “this time of the year” – I’d like to wish a Happy Holiday to you my dear readers. Thanks for checking out my blog and please do let me know if you would like to be or suggest a Super Citizen for 2007.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for the ultimate coffee experience, please do visit Continental Coffee at 1806 Commercial Drive (at 2nd Avenue). Be careful though – it’s addictive…

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Cycle mechanic Lisa Marie loves her job at OCB

Lisa Marie Froese

For some people, cycling is not a choice. Many low-income people rely on their own pedal power because cars are too expensive. Others are cycling activists who want a sustainable, non-polluting form of transportation. Our Community Bikes, on Main Street in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, exists to serve this group of commuters and reduce the negative effects of car culture.

“It caters to a demographic of people who use their bike for function because they can’t afford cars – like me!” says OCB bike mechanic Lisa Marie Froese, who pedals her way around the city in all seasons. "There are political reasons behind riding my bicycle and not having a car – because of how addicted everyone is to oil and the fact that they kill people over it. I’m not saying it’s the be-all end-all of revolution but I think it’s a conscious decision. I feel like it’s a pretty sustainable way of getting around. It's also good exercise, and it wakes me up in the morning when I have to jump on my bike and go.”

Here’s some info from the OCB website:

OCB is fully self-funded by revenue from the sale of reconditioned bikes, sales of new and used bike parts and components, the rental of shop space and tools for people wishing to repair their own bikes, bike repair services, and workshop fees.

Our goal at OCB is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and foster sustainable communities by encouraging people to use bicycles for transportation in the Greater Vancouver Regional District. Our dedicated staff and volunteers do this by:

  • Providing tools, workstands and guidance for those who wish to repair their own bikes (and thereby becoming more self-sufficient commuter cyclists)
  • Reconditioning donated bikes and parts destined for the waste stream
  • Offering courses in bike repair and commuter cycling (in the shop and at workplaces)
  • Donating bikes to local organizations in need including the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development and sending bicycles and parts to developing countries [Guatemala, Cuba, Togo]
  • Offering work experience and occupational therapy to volunteers from social service organizations and high-schools (JobStart, Greater Vancouver Mental Health Association)
  • Offering a full repair service with used and new parts and accessories for commuter cyclists

Lisa Marie started at OCB as a volunteer and became an employee a year and a half ago after learning the trade with funding from the Canadian Hire-A-Student program, during a break from art school. The 25-year-old, who shares a home and studio with her artist roommates, paints, draws, and makes stained glass. She’s been living in Vancouver for four years, after growing up in Manitoba and Ontario, and then “moving around a bunch in the U.S.”

She says OCB offers a degree of freedom unlike any other job she’s known.

“It’s not a really hierarchical space as far as there being a boss, and I think there needs to be more spaces like that. When I started working there, I learned more self-motivation and how to give myself direction. We can make decisions and initiatives in the space and make it our own,” she says. “It’s more of an autonomous space whereas my other jobs were more hierarchical and I was being bossed around by people, and I don’t want that in my life.”

Existing staff have their say when the shop considers new employees.

“Everyone, before they get hired, gets run by all the other people working there. It’s really important that we all get along; otherwise it’s not going to feel like a positive place for people to come into,” she says, explaining that OCB aims for an equal number of women and men on the payroll.

Despite this atmosphere of gender equity, OCB staff still contend with customers who question the female mechanics’ judgement.

“Working in a trade as a woman is pretty difficult. Sometimes people come into the store and ask to speak to a mechanic, even when I’m behind the counter. The men working there are all really aware of that. So if people second-guess the women who are working there, they’ll just look at them and say: ‘What she said. She knows what she’s doing.’ They really support us on that, and I think that’s really amazing,” she says. “It’s the first time people have been really conscious of that in a job that I’ve worked at.”

For more information on shop services, courses, and volunteering, visit:

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Construction industry needs more folks like Stu

Stu MacDowell
“Help Wanted” signs hang on the gates of construction sites all over Vancouver. It’s a well-known fact that construction companies are scrambling to find enough workers to keep up with the pace of our booming B.C. industry. But what does it take for a newcomer to break into the business? Does “the new guy” always get razzed by the more experienced workers?

“It depends on the type of personality they are,” says construction worker Stu MacDowell. “If they’re not willing to try, then they’re going to get harrassed until they get chased out. If you’re willing to try and give it a shot and work hard then you’re going to survive. People can see through that – and people in the construction industry are definitely real people. They’re not fake and they don’t like fake.”

In August, 2004, Stu moved to Vancouver from Oakville, Ontario, where he’d been working for a dozen years doing landscaping construction. “I wasn’t a cow – I didn’t cut grass,” he says, with a chuckle. “I came out here looking for a job. I figured construction would be the best way to get a decent-paying job. I had much experience doing all kinds of things, so I put it all together to do what I do now.”

Stu describes his decision to leave high school in Grade 11. “I said: ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m bored.’ And I went to work.”

He took a job at a courier warehouse and soon became “lead hand on the floor” while also doing the landscaping in summer. At 24, he took a job at a machine shop and became a supervisor within a year. I asked him how he got such a speedy promotion.

“I figure things out very quickly,” he answers with confidence. “And I have an incredible amount of patience. I had a younger brother and sister and had to deal with them. My mom was always telling me: ‘You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to be patient’ – and she drilled it into my head."

A month after his arrival in Vancouver, Stu had a full time job with Golden Globe Construction, for whom he still works as a deficiency technician. In this role, he fixes all the little details that weren’t completed in earlier phases of a construction project – installing electrical sockets, soffits, flashing, siding, and anything else that was missed along the way.

“With Golden Globe, they’re consistent and they always pay – but some of these people will promise you the world and give you sawdust. It’s good to stick with one company,” he says.

I asked Stu about the range of pay for construction workers.

“The wages have gone up a little bit because of the demand,” he says. “Generally a labourer will start out around 13 or 14 dollars an hour for a non-union company – and it averages between 20 and 30 for anybody else. Ticketed carpenters are making 26 upwards – 26 being the low end for a ticketed carpenter.”

To top up his income, Stu sometimes does weekend projects installing interlocking stone and retaining walls.

“What helps me pay the bills is the side jobs. My job at Golden Globe is enough to survive, but not enough to live. Unfortunately in this province it takes a lot of money to live. You can survive – but for living, you’ve got to put in the hours,” says Stu, father of a baby girl born in October.

Interestingly, the mom of Stu’s child is also a construction worker. Stu and Sarah met on the job – and now, along with their baby and Sarah’s six-year-old daughter, this new family shares a home in East Vancouver.

“I chased her down relentlessly,” he says with a laugh, agreeing with my half-joking comment that he must have had a lot of competition with so many men and so few women on the worksite. "I won the prize - sometimes I wonder why, but I did."

Returning to seriousness, I asked if it “creates any sort of weirdness” when there is a woman working amongst so many men on a site.

“It depends on the personalities of both the men and the women involved. If you get these hard core stick-in-the-mud men who aren’t willing to adapt and accept, then there’s going to be problems. And if the woman’s a militant feminist, then you’re going to have problems too. They both have to be willing to bend and accept,” he says, adding that there are a lot more female construction workers than there were 10 years ago.

When he’s not at work or spending time with his family, Stu can be found riding his downhill mountain bike at Whistler or Mount Seymour.

What does he like most about his job?

“I like the variety – the fact that I get to do different things and go to different places. I’m not stuck in the same spot all the time," he says, describing the sense of pride he gets from a job well done. “Construction can be very satisfying, especially when the job is completed and you stand back and look at your work and say: ‘I had a hand in that.’ It’s a good feeling.”

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Camille Baker: Clothing swap hostess extraordinaire

Camille Baker
“They’re sort of like a new version of the Tupperware party of the 50s and 60s, or the lingerie party of the 80s, or the showers that women do for weddings and babies,” says Camille Baker, who’s been hosting clothing swaps for a network of girlfriends since 1993. “It’s just a different kind of home-based social activity – similar but with a different face.”

Every few months, one of Camille’s clothing swap invites appears in my email inbox. With a dozen years of experience under her stylish belt, Camille has developed a list of rules to keep everyone swapping smoothly:

  1. Bring clothes you don’t wear anymore but still value;
  2. Bring clothes in good shape, which you would try to sell or give to friends – if you bring good stuff, you’ll get good stuff;
  3. If you don’t have clothes to bring, please still come anyway – someone ALWAYS brings four bags by themselves;
  4. Bring your girlfriends – the more people, the more clothes, the more clothes, the more fun;
  5. Bring munchies and drinks (alcohol or not) if you want;
  6. Please stay around to visit and meet other women – this is an opportunity to have some female time, which many of us have less and less time to do;
  7. Also: it’s not nice to pre-view clothes before we start, so please wait until enough women have arrived and everyone has a fair chance to get the ultra gems.
  8. ****Recruits with cars are always needed to take the remaining clothing to the Downtown East Woman’s Centre - giving to the most needy women in the city.
At the age of 12, Camille experienced her first community clothing swap outside at a picnic with a group of hippie families in the Slocan Valley, where she spent her summers living with her dad (who incidentally was not a hippie). With this memory in mind, she decided to try out the concept at her own home in Vancouver with a group of girlfriends.

“When I first started doing it, it was absolutely self-preservation. It was like: okay, we’re all poor-ish or have money occasionally and when we have a chance, we can go out. A lot of people at that time were going to Value Village,” she says. “At the time, we all were going over to each other’s places with small bags of things and saying: ‘I’ve got this bag of things I’m going to give away, but before I give them away do you want to have a look at them?’ So I thought: ‘why don’t we just get a whole bunch of women together like that and make it a party?’”

Everyone arrives with their bags of clothes and sorts them into piles in the living room: the pants pile, the skirt pile, the shirt pile, etc. We retreat to the kitchen to share food and conversation for a while, waiting til everyone arrives and lays out their offerings. Each swap is a totally different experience, with guest numbers ranging from about six up to 40. I missed the 40-person event, but Camille says it got pretty crazy and was hard to get near the clothes.

Often we are strangers to one another and every time there is at least one new person.

“I like that we’re all sort of different, but this thing that brings us together is these heaps of clothing,” Camille says, estimating that about 60 percent of her current wardrobe has come from the swaps. “There’s always so much for everybody to explore usually and I find people get into conversations with each other spontaneously – and I really like that.”

Camille says the topic of clothing swaps was featured in a Georgia Straight article published around 2000 – and it sounds like other gals’ swaps can get pretty mean.

“I read all sorts of things – horror stories about people who had a large number go in and pick fights with each other and there was this really weird nastiness and I’m not sure what that’s about. I’ve never seen that,” she says.

I agree that every swap at Camille's has been friendly, welcoming, and civilized; otherwise, I would get scared and bolt away, never to return! At Camille’s swaps, we sift through the clothes quite gently - no elbows nor fists assisting our selection process. Often we’ll find a particularly charming item and try to find someone who will fit it. With the blinds drawn, we strip down to our underwear and try on outfits, often suggesting items to each other: “Hey! Maybe you'll fit this!”

Now 39, Camille says it’s become more difficult to get people together for the swaps – and for all social events generally – because these days we tend to get busy with projects and those of us with kids often have family events on the weekends. In most cases, our incomes are higher than they were in the past and we have less need to rely on free clothes. Even so, the clothing swaps give us a chance to socialize, thanks to Camille’s unending hospitality.

"I'm at this place where I can't stop now - even though we're at a place where people have more money and less time," says Camille, who is one busy woman herself.

She's working on a PhD in Networked Performance Media at the SmartLab Digital Media Institute in the University of East London, using “all kinds of crazy technology.” Camille also plays in an industrial-electro-disco three-piece known as Ultrapuss, and she's the executive director of her own non-profit, The Escape Artists Society, that promotes live and web-based art and performance events. But no matter how much she has on the go, Camille remains true to her roots as a social animal.

“I think it’s really important to do social activities somewhat regularly because I think it’s just like other things: you’ve got to debrief or decompress – in ways other than watching TV,” says Camille, pausing thoughtfully when I ask why she's enjoyed hosting the swaps for so many years. “I’m into community-building and social activities. I like to have excuses to socialize and I like to create opportunities for other people to socialize – whatever those opportunities may be, whether they’re clothing swaps, dinners, parties, band, whatever. I guess I have some bizarre need to put on events."

Camille’s website is at:

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