Bird of Good Omen

I pulled over on the Herring Cove Road today for a brief date with a unique machine. It’s badged as a “CMA Spa,” ownership provenance unknown, festooned with spouts and knobs, and cased in glistening stainless steel. At some point the past it was converted to run on propane, making it the only off-grid gas powered Italian espresso machine on the Loop, and probably anywhere. Like me, the thing is from the 1980s. I found myself forming an instant bond with the thing, especially after taking a sip of my espresso. Privately, I nicknamed him Jittery Boy.

“It’s so rare,” says Chantelle Buote-Shanks with a certain dreamy pridefullness. It makes a serious coffee, and the propane power allows her to “be in the middle of nowhere, out in the woods, and make espresso.” She’s also feeling the bond. That’s good, because that kind of pair-forming is necessary when you own the joint. Chantelle is shacked up all day with the Jittery Boy in a beat-up turquoise travel trailer, manufacturing date circa 1969, a weathered piece of kit from the days when travel trailers were smaller than most modern cars. The trailer is also a unique machine, and it’s name is Raven Espresso Boutique.

The Boutique is mobile, but weekday mornings it’s strategically located on the Halifax-bound side of the Herring Cove Road, in the parking lot of the Golden Age Center, a spot that’s easily triangulated by being roughly in the middle of the three Tim Horton’s locations that dominate the Spryfield coffee market. She’s parked there for her seven-to-eleven AM workday, slinging coffee and a curated selection of snacks, with the part-time assistance of Mat Lemieux, while also setting up for weekend shifts at the Spryfield Farmer’s Market and down in Prospect as well.

I peek inside to see how small it is. It’s best described as cozy, especially if you say the word the way your aunt might say if when viewing your new bachelor apartment for the first time. With strained positivity, I ask the business partners if they ever get cabin fever.

“No, it’s fine, we go camping all the time,” says Chantelle. “We’re also love-partners,” she explains. I feel a certain relief for them. But I probably could spare the pity; they’re here by choice. The trailer is a serendipitous bit of good fortune that came their way after they’d been trying to nail down a location for a coffee shop in the Spryzone. Two spots fell through right away, and the third negotiation – a six month affair with a snarl of complications tied into parking, commercial zoning, and a last-minute strategic business decision to just keep it small – had just went bust when the trailer came to their attention via Facebook. It was cute. Chantelle likes cute. They bought it.

“I’ve been surprised at the community reaction. People are just so happy” to see the coffee trailer, Chantelle told me through the petite service window. As I was sipping my espresso, a car parked and two women hopped out and came up to the window. The told Chantelle how excited they were to have something like this in the neighbourhood. She didn’t seem bored to have heard this repeated again, though maybe this was just game-face professionalism. She’s worked as a barista, in her words, “forever,” but when I pressed her for detail she was able to narrow it down to fifteen years in the coffee biz. She fired up Jittery Boy again, got to work on some Americanos.

Meanwhile, I chatted with Mat about the venture. He also said the reception had been “incredible,” which is probably quite relieving to them, because the two are committed to Spryfield for immediate future. They live here, “because it’s cheap and has a community feel,” says Mat. And the coffee trailer evolved out of those circumstances: the low overhead and minimal travel time lets the Raven sell a Java Blend roast for cheap, and also provide an admittedly delicious looking egg/cheese/bacon looking pastry looking thing from low-volume artisanal downtown bakery, Tart & Soul.

Mat notes that there aren’t many circumstances in which you can run a profitable business and “still get out at two or three in the afternoon” which helps to “keep the work/life balance in check.” As a business plan, it’s one that might be hard to duplicate anywhere outside the Spryzone, even if you were willing to “take a chance with a quirky style,” as Chantelle puts it.

Chantelle’s customers had driven away with their Americanos. She joined us in the parking lot. The espresso machine rested in the trailer, reheating its water reservoir. I asked Chantelle and Mat if any customers ever used the pair of benches that adjoined the parking lot, arranged in an optimistically inward-tilted catchment for imagined chats with casual benchmates.

“Nah. No bench activity yet,” said Mat. As a card-carrying Spryfield Community Association member* I withheld my disappointment. Maybe we’ll have to flip the benches around to look at the coffee shop, so you take part in the real interactions happening behind you in the realm of my new friend Jittery Boy, instead of surveying a windswept stream of traffic on the Herring Cove Road. Seems like an appropriate measure to me, especially after I asked, why the name? What’s up with the Raven?

“You don’t see them very often, you mostly see crows,” Chantelle said. “When I moved to Spryfield, I saw ravens all the time, and they symbolize new beginnings and good omens.”

* The SCA business card I’d handed Chantelle by way of introduction has a picture of a bench on it. As our saying goes, “we love benches, because we’re not going to stand for it.” BTW the back of the business card has a blank entablature specifically so you can write in your name and email, my fellow Venturesome Members, if you would also like to claim the prestigious status of being a “card-carrying” member.