Passersby on this section of Carrall Street in Gastown, with Nelson the Seagull and Rainier Provisions scant steps away, are often stopped in their tracks by what they see in an enclosed front window. The front door, leading into a somewhat narrow entry hall and then on to the cash register and the main seating area, is to the left. But the window allows a full view of the process of making chocolate, and the two people who do all the heavy lifting are often there, stirring, whisking, pounding, and, most of the time, smiling too.
This is the reality of East Van Roasters, where Shelley Bolton guides the operation along with guile, patience, and a lot of work. Merri Schwartz, who was the pastry guru at King Pacific Lodge in days gone by after stints at C and Quattro, now plies her creativity and highly developed expertise to making things to eat here. The pair work as if in telepathic communication, and they also train and guide a whole team, most of whom live at the Rainier Hotel, in which this café is in fact located, and most of whom are living under the auspices of the PHS Community Services Society. That means all the trainees at East Van Roasters are women who have faced serious challenges, oppression, and tribulation in their lives. The work they do here clearly elicits some joy and satisfaction on their part, which it should.
“None of us would want to do this if we weren’t actually doing something unique, and of the highest quality.”
But Bolton, who in a previous life worked as a set designer in the local film industry, has some other things on her mind than the charitable foundations of this place. “None of us would want to do this if we weren’t actually doing something unique, and of the highest quality,” she asserts. The workspaces here include a Loring coffee-roasting machine; the PHS purchased the unit from the manufacturer in Santa Rosa, California, but only had to ship it from the Vancouver Convention Centre, where there was a unit in town for the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Bolton does have a slight twinkle in her eye, adding, “We told them it was for a very good cause and made sense for both sides.” Coffee beans from small, organic co-op farms are sourced and imported by WestCoast Coffee Traders, a local, small business. Roasted at East Van Roasters on Monday mornings, the beans for sale as drinks or in bags are uniformly excellent.
And then there is that other bean, the cacao. East Van Roasters sources the raw cacao beans and does everything on premise, from drying and winnowing through roasting and on to making fine chocolate delicacies and arguably Vancouver’s best hot chocolate. The pods are shipped from small farms and co-ops in Peru, Madagascar, and the Dominican Republic. Working with other artisan, bean-to-bar chocolate makers means East Van Roasters is able to share farms and sources, and thus encourage direct trade; that phrase “bean to bar” is to be taken literally. (Even this city’s absolute finest chocolate makers use chocolate that is already refined, although it can be as esoteric as possible.) What Bolton and Schwartz are doing here is going right back to the most basic steps, almost all of it involving painstaking manual labour, to get those precious cacao beans out of their cocoons and into the roaster. The entire working area is glassed in but open for viewing. Customers need not hang outside at the front; they can come in, enjoy their drink and chocolate, and observe the proceedings. In some ways, it can inspire a new appreciation for all the hard effort that goes into making such products.
So, with its original tile floors, tables made from salvaged wood from the walls of the old Beacon Hotel, chairs from a defunct bingo hall, and that Loring doing double duty, this place is oozing quiet charm at every step. This business is built in part to provide gainful, self-empowering employment to the women residents of the PHS. That is true enough. But the charitable act you are performing when you patronize the place is also for yourself, in fact. These folks, led by Bolton and Schwartz, are making some of the finest chocolate in the land, with plenty of tea and coffee too. So go ahead, be kind to yourself and pay them a visit.
UPDATE March 2018: Rainier Provisions has unfortunately closed shop.