FOUNDERS | John Baker of Boxcar Social
Boxcar Social ushered in a new café concept to Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood in 2014 and has since become a prime hotspot synonymous with quality. Boxcar is the joint project of founders John, Alex, Joe and Chris – each bringing unique backgrounds together to create a haven of curated coffee, beer, whiskey and wine all under one roof. What can you expect to find when stepping into one of four Boxcar locations around Toronto? Nothing short of outstanding beverages, alongside an educational experience to surely bring you back for more.
We got in touch with founder John Baker to give us the rundown on Boxcar’s conception, why educating customers on product origins is a part of the philosophy and what it takes to be successful as a small fish in a big pond.
How was the Boxcar crew formed? What special qualities does each partner contribute to Boxcar Social?
The idea for Boxcar was a long time in the making. I had spoken to my partner, Joe, about an idea of marrying a high-quality cafe program with a bar program with an equal focus on excellence through product curation and rotating options. At the time, though, we were young and had little in the way of money to follow this idea. Four years later, when we were in a better position financially and with greater experience in the industry, we made the leap and started building out our first location in Summerhill. At that point, Joe introduced me to Chris who jumped on board as a partner with experience in architecture, design and build and we continued to build out the space. Chris then introduced us to Alex who initially came on in a consulting role to help develop our coffee program but quickly became a partner in the business.
What was life like before venturing into wine? What formal education do you have? Are there any beneficial takeaways from this time to help you in running a successful cafe/restaurant?
When I graduated university, I moved to California to enter the wine business on the production side. After two years in Sonoma, I moved to Calgary to begin importing wine to Alberta for a few years before leaving that to go back to school for my MBA. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a part of the retail aspect of the business but decided to go into the finance industry before making the jump. My formal education is all in business. Alex has a substantial amount of formal sommelier training and along with our GM, Gerardo Diaz, are in charge of the wine program for all locations. Alex has a degree in economics and spent the majority of his post-university career in the coffee industry primarily as a consultant.
The restaurant industry is traditionally very competitive, what gave you the confidence to succeed?
We believed in the concept of Boxcar Social, and the desire for the Toronto market to want to experience new products (coffee, wine, beer, whiskey) that isn’t generally available. We were all also prepared to work as hard as it takes to succeed in the industry and didn’t want to just rest on our business’ underlying concept for that success. Part of our philosophy is to constantly change and evolve what we offer to consumers and in doing so our entire business has had to change at a pace that’s much quicker than most in this industry. Competition is, of course, fierce, and in order to stay ahead you must evolve and be better every day. Complacency is what kills most businesses in this industry and it’s something we are very conscious of.
When Boxcar Social opened in 2014, the idea to pair coffee, wine and whiskey tastings was relatively new. How have these programs affected your business? Has your clientele changed, become more knowledgeable or picky?
Over the years our business has changed from simply being a cafe/bar hybrid with a focus on product curation, to more of an education-based company. When you offer products that customers aren’t familiar with, it’s our job to educate the customer on what they are consuming. Over time, our customer base has grown to trust our ability to curate and recommend interesting, high-quality products and this has become a very large part of our value in the industry.
What benefits does Alex’s understanding of coffee and your knowledge of wine add to the business?
When our entire business is based off educating and curating, it’s imperative that we are experts in those products. Alex’s background in coffee has been the backbone of Boxcar’s brand, and the expertise we have throughout our entire company in all products we carry are incredibly important.
Boxcar Social has grown into four, separate locations. When did you know it was ready for expansion? How do you choose locations? Do you have a favourite location?
Our plan was always to open multiple locations in a very short time frame, and the success of our Summerhill location certainly made that plan more possible. We worked incredibly hard and used any profits from each location to finance the next, so it was a very wild, fun, and stressful few years! Each location offers something different in terms of design and product offerings so it’s difficult to say which is a favourite of ours. Summerhill always has a special place in our hearts though. As for how we choose the locations, that has been slightly more reactive than really doing a full market analysis. If a space becomes available that we can envision designing into a Boxcar, we’ll do the research on the neighbourhood, run the important numbers and take it from there. We’ve generally taken a shoot-first mentality with a lot of our expansion ambitions. It’s not for everyone, but we believe in our concept and understand the need to jump on opportunities when they arise.
The food scene in Toronto is hot! What are some cool trends you’ve seen in the past 1-3 years and which ones need to die?
The best restaurants in the city are all ones that focus on delivering a good product and creating a great atmosphere in which to enjoy it. Trends come and go, but the businesses in this industry that last are all built on those fundamentals rather than offering a one-dimensional product(s) that simply follow trends. It’s not to say that trends should be ignored, they very much should be followed (local ingredients, low-intervention wines, craft producers, etc) but done so without losing sight of what your business represents, and the fundamentals that it’s built on. Coloured lattes and charcoal anything are ones that could probably go away now.
What advice would you have given yourself in your first year being a restaurant owner?
Your brand is the most important asset you possess in this business. Everything you do should be with the mindset of how it represents and reflects on your brand. Building a thriving business from a revenue standpoint is only the beginning, and as you build awareness around what you’re doing, constantly think about how to unlock the true value your business possesses beyond dollars and cents.
Top three drinks to order – your favourite, not the houses’
We all gravitate towards wine when we go out, so I would say wine for alcoholic beverages. For coffee, black drip coffee or a flat white. I realize those are all things we sell as well, but we generally only sell what we like.