Parlour Coffee, the Exchange District’s original third-wave coffee shop that has been pulling mighty fine espressos since September 2011, has officially changed hands.
Founder Nils Vik –– whom really should be receiving a European football-style guard of honour for his café services… Could we not perhaps arrange a neat row across Main at Bannatyne Avenue where Parlour customers could applaud him on as he makes his way toward an espresso cup-shaped trophy? –– recently sold the business to customer Connor Vogt, a 28-year-old with a business, food and philosophy background, who you’ll read below is the perfect fit.
Parlour has always walked that hip-yet-unpretentious balance, with policies we’ve always adored like no Wi-Fi, friendly skilled staff and of course, above all, excellent coffees that kickstarted Winnipeg’s third-wave café movement.
In the interview below, we learn from Vik what it was like creating a coffee community downtown, a bit about Winnipeg’s ever-evolving coffee scene, and why Vogt was so excited to continue making Parlour the gem it is today.
Q: I moved here from Vancouver in late 2010, and quality coffee shops were not something Winnipeg had many of back then. What inspired you to create this place?
Vik: I only started drinking coffee probably in 2008. I was studying architecture at the U of M. My prof and the studio critic at the time, Neil Minuk, had brought our studio to Montreal, and we would meet every day in the morning at a café. I was always just ordering a water, because I did not drink coffee, and he said, ‘come on, you have to try it. You have to try it!’ So I said, ‘fine, what do you recommend?” I ordered just a long pour espresso with a bit of steamed milk at Café Olimpico, in Mile End. And I don't know, it's like the stars aligned. It was just a magical experience. The weather was beautiful. The sun was shining. The coffee was perfect. And then that right then and there, I wanted to be able to recreate that experience and I just assumed that anywhere that sort of coffee could do that.
But then I would go to other cafés and it wasn't the same. So, then I just kind of went down a rabbit hole trying to figure out what made that so good.
After, I was working with the EQ3 in their product development team and doing quite a bit of traveling around the world. I would seek out cafés in every city we would go to and I kind of became more and more frustrated that every city I went to, I could find places focusing specifically on coffee, and I was curious why that didn’t exist here in Winnipeg.
So, you came to coffee having essentially tried the best coffee you can have. When you opened, was there a bit of an educational process with Winnipeggers, or were there enough people who had lived and traveled abroad that you immediately had your customer base?
Vik: I think it was a bit of both. There was an education component for those who were interested. There were a lot of people were, ‘Oh, I just moved here from Vancouver, or I just came from Montreal. So happy you're here!’ And then a lot of people were just like, ‘I just want a cup of coffee. Oh, this is really good.’ And still a lot of people just couldn't care less about the coffee itself –– they just know it's good, and that's why they keep coming back. So yeah, it was a bit of both. We always tried to remain approachable, because we knew that not everyone was familiar with this style of coffee, but at the end of the day, it is just coffee. And everyone can drink it. And you like it, or you don't. And that's all there is to it.
And how about coffee snob culture, which could be quite cold. I’d say you’ve done a great job in that this place has never felt that way, cold…
Vik: We hope it's not, but I'm sure we've made blunders and turned people off. But that is not the goal. I strongly would apologize if anyone's ever been made to feel unwelcome, because it's been always been the goal, to welcome… And it’s felt like it’s been a real privilege. I feel like we were warmly received by the community and for the most part, everyone who walks through the door is friendly, and hospitable to us as staff. So yeah, it's been a real pleasure.
Vik: Yeah, and then there was also Green Bean Coffee in Clandeboye, Sunstone Coffee Roastery in Headingley, and of course for coffee Espresso Junction at The Forks. Then, after we opened, I was a co-founder of Little Sister Coffee Maker in Osborne Village in 2013.
What has been the most rewarding thing about running Parlour since 2011?
Vik: Honestly, it's just it's been the people getting to know so many different people from all walks of life. Whether they're in corporate law, or a bike messenger and everyone in between. That's been the best –– meeting incredible people who I would have never crossed paths with. That’s what’s nice about coffee is that it brings together so many different people and it's a real privilege to meet so many amazing people.
Connor, Nils was saying that he actually approached you to buy the space, as he got to know you this past autumn when he was back working at Parlour more regularly [Nils and his family had spent most of last year living in Norway]. Why did you say yes?
Vogt: I've lived in this area for over five years and I've always felt that there are many businesses in this area that I benefit from as a resident. And it seems as though I now need to give back to the community that has been my home, and Parlour has been a staple of The Exchange for such a long time.
So, when Nils and I got to talking about it, I felt like I want to keep this place going because I love this place and I know there’s lots of people who have a fondness for it as well, so it would feel strange not to have it around. And I mean, Nils was explaining he's in a new phase of life, and I'm only 28, and he actually started the business when he was 28. So, the stars kind of aligned because we actually only started talking about this a couple months ago and it's happened really fast.
My grandfather passed away a few years ago, and when he died he gave me some money that I’ve been saving since that time. I’m investing that money into here and it feels right. My grandparents were born in the Ukraine and immigrated here in the late 1950’s. My grandfather was in construction and built a lot for the Winnipeg community, so I want to continue that [legacy] and continue to make this place better.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your history with Parlour?
I was only a teenager when it opened, and I think it would have been the first third-wave coffee shop I would have visited. I grew up in East St. Paul, and in my early 20s I went to U of M for business. I then worked in accounting for a bit, then helped my dad run our family business for a few years, which is a small food distribution business. Before that I worked in a few restaurants and I’d fallen in love with cooking when I was around 16 or 17.
I’ve always hosted people –– as a friend I love bringing people together for lots of different things. I've always loved making people feel taken care of. So, this is a fun way to do that in a more public facing setting.
What are some changes you’ll make, or have made already?
The plan is pretty soon we’ll start doing our own baking in house. Baking is a recent hobby of mine, so I’m really looking forward to bringing that to the shop. I also have a love for books, and I want to bring that as an option for people when they're here. So we're going to add, like a second sort of retail situation over here with books.
Do you have any message for Parlour Coffee's regular customers?
Nils has found a way to thread the needle, by bringing a refined coffee experience to Winnipeg that is also warm and welcoming. I think what makes speciality coffee shops special is this meeting of a splendid product with a sense of belonging. Isn’t that why we get together over a cup? Coffee shops are meeting places, they are one of the spaces where the life of the community happens. I hope I can continue to make Parlour a place where people come because it makes them feel the warmth that is possible through humans connecting and caring for one another.
I have decided to not really be super public about things, because for me I want to be here and get to know people firsthand. My folks have always been really good at teaching me that ‘you do what you say.’ And so, I think we trust people when they follow through. We trust people more based on what they do, not based on what they say.
And how about the famous no Wi-Fi?
Right, well one of the other reasons for investing in this place is I feel as though we're so online. So much of our money goes toward the online experience and so much of our global talent goes toward curating online experiences, so the physical world has lost some of our attention. You could be sitting anywhere, but still totally captured by your phone. And it doesn't really matter then what's going on around you, in a sense. And that just bothers me.
I have always found that the more time I spend on devices, the worse that I feel. And so this is kind of a way of reigniting or taking a bit of a stance on that.
So yes, I'm keeping it a Wi-Fi free environment. I think it's the right thing.
Parlour Coffee is located at 468 Main Street and is open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
This interview has been edited for length.