At least once a week, I used to drive by a wee grocery store and café on the corner of East 12th and Carolina Street. Though it seemed lonely, its nondescript shabbiness kept me from stopping my car and actually taking a look inside. Instead, as I drove on, I would imagine it as a lovely space where I could pick up some fresh produce, buy a bouquet of wild flowers on a whim, or catch up with a dear friend over a cup of coffee and a croissant.
When I heard that Gooseneck Hospitality had taken over the former Charles Grocery to open a hybrid cafe, I was ecstatic. The little grocery store was going to be reborn. I particularly love hybrid cafes because they encompass one stop shopping, eating, and drinking—often in a pretty, pleasant environment. And while it’s easy for them to devolve into a hodgepodge, done right they make the most of a small space with a coherent concept.
When I chat with James Iranzad, partner at Gooseneck Hospitality, to find out why he was drawn to the former Charles Grocery, I can’t resist telling him my own dreams for the location. He isn’t surprised. “It’s so funny that you say that because, literally, a couple dozen people have said that to me now. We thought the same thing, and wished it would come to life,” he says.
Like me, Iranzad also used to see potential in the location. It wasn’t until his friend Kurtis Kolt, a local wine consultant, told him that it was shuttered that Iranzad decided to take a chance on the corner store. He and his partners at Gooseneck wanted to blend several business elements but had to settle on the right, playful combination. “We’re really good at making delicious food and beverages. And so, the café element was obvious. From the retail side, it was just fun for us. I like finding little stores that have an eclectic, really passionately curated list of things that they sell,” he says.
The result was the launch in June of Oh Carolina, which melds the aesthetic of a retro café, complete with a Coca Cola letterboard menu, with that of an artisanal corner grocery store. The café side sells pastries, like pain au chocolat, as well as light meals, such as pastrami sandwiches with sauerkraut. The shelves and freezer are stocked with specialty items ranging from pork belly dumplings from the Dumpling King to Bret’s camembert chips from France.
Now with a cheerful orange exterior, Oh Carolina features outdoor seating and a collection of planters, perfect for impromptu gatherings or convivial Sunday fetes, like a recent “Sausage and Rosé” event. “The garden allows it all to come together as this beautiful space where people can spend some time,” Iranzad says.
This seamless integration of a cafe, grocery store, and community event space, is what makes a hybrid establishment so compelling. Increasingly, other cafes are popping up that also do more than just sell coffee. Here are four that hit that hybrid sweet spot.
The Garden Strathcona
Stepping into the greenery of Garden Strathcona eases the body into a state of calm. A wide range of vibrant plants, like fiddle-leaf figs and peace lilies, populate the space, juxtaposing natural abundance with minimalist floor-to-ceiling concrete. The café section, located on the right-hand side, serves Agro Roasters’ fair-trade espresso and fresh baked goods, such as oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.
In addition to selling plants, the Garden Strathcona offers homeware and personal care goods, with a focus on local makers. A table displays their house-made hand and body lotions, Nala’s natural deodorants, and fun garden-themed pins and keychains. The shelves are filled with other items for furthering well-being, such as Blume latte blends and bath milks by Well Kept.
A second-floor rentable event space, called the Studio, represents the final component of the Garden’s multifaceted concept. There, amid more greenery and light streaming from floor-to-ceiling windows, yoga classes, pop-up shops, and special events take place.
Caffè La Tana
A visit to Caffè La Tana—the little sister to adjoining restaurant Pepino’s Spaghetti House—invokes the desire for a pace of life akin to the pleasurably slow rolling out of delicate sheets of pasta.
On the café side, customers sip espresso and indulge in sweet treats, like tiramisu cream puffs, while leisurely watching people pass by through a large street-facing window. At the grocery counter, patrons browse for their dinner, picking up fresh pappardelle, Bolognese sauce, and pecorino romano cheese. Other items for sale include Domenica Fiore organic honey, Fabbri Amarena cherries, and house olive oils and vinegars. Meanwhile, the wine shop spotlights Italian selections, such as the 2019 Le Mortelle Vivia and ColleStefano’s Rosa di Elena.
A meal in the bistro, with its black-and-white tiled flooring and plush banquette seating, promises a decadent experience. Marinated olives from sister restaurant Savio Volpe serve as a perfect opener before moving onto seasonally-inspired fresh pastas, like corn and ricotta-filled ravioli in a burnt butter sauce with grilled corn and asiago. Visit on weekends for bomboloni stuffed with vanilla cream to finish.
Marché Mon Pitou
A man strolls contentedly along West 7th Avenue, a french baguette under one arm and a sourdough loaf under the other. He’s just left Marché Mon Pitou, a charming capsule of French café culture transported to the South Granville neighbourhood. Outside, people sit at bistro tables, soaking in late summer sunlight and enjoying brunch items like eggs benedict with smoked salmon and champagne hollandaise.
Inside, emerald green banquette seating hosts additional diners and other customers line up to purchase to-go items from the café display case; turkey and brie sandwiches, cinnamon knots, carrot cake, and tangy lemon tarts all entice. Pair them with beverages like noisettes and hot chocolate.
A central table is loaded with groceries, like artisanal apple cider vinegar from Saint-Martin-de-Juillers in southwestern France, tins of tuna soaked in olive oil from Galicia, Spain, and a hazelnut and cocoa spread from Maison Brémond 1830 in Provence. The shelves to the left contain more bottled and dry goods, like an assortment of mustards and Alpina Savoie pasta.
The Drive fell hard for Livia when it opened two years ago, a love-fuelled project of husband-and-wife team Claire Livia Lassam and Jordan Pires. That initial infatuation has shifted into a loyal affection for the evolving café and community they have created. In front of the side patio, where bunches of blossoms are for sale, customers wait patiently to order from a takeout window. In addition to loaves of country white sourdough, they can order drinks, like sparkling fruit shrubs, and food, like breakfast sandwiches with mortadella. Livia also runs an online grocery and wine shop, selling everything from Bottega Prosecco to house poached raspberries.
The daytime bistro focuses on Italian comfort food that showcases fresh, high quality ingredients. Particularly satisfying is a dish of soft polenta with a poached egg, local mushrooms, and organic swiss chard, or a simple yet well-executed bowl of spaghetti carbonara. Almost magically, Thursday to Saturday, from 2pm to 6pm, the café transforms into a happy hour cocktail and wine bar, serving small bites like baguettes with whipped ricotta, alongside amaro, vermouth, cocktails, and multiple versions of negroni.
Like Oh Carolina and the many other hybrid cafes in the city, Livia has become more than just an intersecting business model, but a place for meeting the diverse needs of customers’ daily lives.
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