8 mins | 2139 words
By: Randy Gaudreau
The challenges of the COVID 19 pandemic forced many businesses to seek out new revenue opportunities to make it through.
In search of programs that could help, Ed Hemphill of Bean Around Town and Pierrette Vezina of Wabano Fine Chocolates found each other and forged a new relationship that would strengthen both businesses – proving great coffee and fine chocolate are meant to be together.
Ed – meet coffee
Throughout his former career as an investment advisor, Ottawa’s Ed Hemphill wasn’t into coffee at all. It was never part of his office experience – all the complaints about bad office drip were left unregistered and generally unnoticed.
But that all changed in 2010 when his wife Heather was presented with an opportunity in Paris. Ed sold his existing business and joined her.
“Up until that point, we were non-coffee drinkers,” Ed confirmed during a virtual chat. “It was really our time travelling in Europe and especially Italy where we said to ourselves, if this is what coffee tastes like, and it’s served like this, then why would you not drink this?”
After they’d returned, Ed started looking for his next business idea. While walking around at a trade show exploring a few options, someone jumped out and offered Ed a cappuccino that would change his path.
“It kind of took me back,” Ed recalls. “I was like, ‘cappuccino? What are you talking about?’”
But it turns out that encounter was the icebreaker that led to a partnership that provided Ed with high-end, super automated espresso machines and sparked the creation of his company Bean Around Town.
Bean Around Town is born
Ed started conducting simple research on how coffee was commonly offered as part of a customer service and client relations strategy. From offices to car dealerships, he studied what people were served and what they accepted; it was worse than he thought.
“It was a real eye-opener,” Ed remembered. From K-Cup to instant packs, everyone was offering coffee, or as Ed jokingly referred to it, “something that resembled coffee.”
“Because I didn’t drink it in the office, I didn’t pay much attention to it,” he explained. “But I always knew everyone always complained about it. So, I was looking at what everyone else was doing, and asking if we could bring something new to the table.”
Bringing something different to the table
What Ed brought to the table was the means to offer employees and clients a truly premium in-house coffee experience through high-end, automated espresso machines, which his company regularly maintained for clients. He also forged deals with local roasters to provide fresh locally roasted coffee as part of the office coffee services package.
His company was solid, but Ed knew that the market of providing businesses with the means to make a great cup of coffee could only take him so far. Ed realized that he needed new, fresh ideas to grow.
Over the years, Ed has attended free Invest Ottawa-run events and webinars and decided to turn to the IO Peer Group program in hopes of working with a mentor that could help him discover ways to build his business.
Ed recalled how peer group conversations in March of 2020 centred around the lockdown conditions and the group brainstormed solutions. For Ed, office employees being sent home to work remotely during COVID restrictions meant he needed to rethink his once successful business model.
And when asked how he planned to adapt; he didn’t quite know how to answer.
“It came around to me, and I said I didn’t know where we can look at pivoting,” he recalled. “But other people in that meeting started offering suggestions saying, ‘Well, what about this? And what about that?’”
The Peer Group session gave Ed the idea to create a website that acted as a curator of fine local coffee that his staff would personally deliver around Ottawa. He already had the existing network of coffee lovers – only now he wouldn’t be delivering it to offices, he would be delivering it to people at home, with an option of signing up for a regular subscription service.
A little variety – and chocolate too?
Ed started to research North American coffee subscription services. He found that many only offered their own coffee, except for the few that stuck out according to Ed, who were
offering a curated selection and variety.
“We put together three different coffees from three different roasters, and there was a lot of interest in that,” he said. “And then I thought, well, what about if we added chocolate?”
Ed remembered how in Europe, everyone from the casual café patron to “the guy running the garbage truck,” would have a piece of chocolate with their espresso, and how coffee and chocolate were offered hand in hand. He wanted to provide that experience to his customers. But that proved to be harder than he imagined.
Coffee and chocolate? Any takers?
Ed started approaching local chocolatiers – and to his surprise, the idea was a tough sell.
“Some didn’t respond at all,” he marvelled. “I wasn’t trying to convince him to take my product. I wanted to look at adding their product into my programming and promote them,” he explained. “It was overall a very nonchalant reaction.”
Frustrated – Ed went back to his Peer Group to vent his struggles and to find a willing partner. According to Ed, Peer Group Leader and Business Advisor Karla Briones knew exactly who he should talk to.
For 30 years Pierrette Vezina worked in long-term care with the City of Ottawa. After retiring, Pierrette, who is Métis, chose to volunteer with the senior program at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health on Montreal Road in Vanier to give back to the community she loved.
Within a few years, she filled the role of volunteer coordinator. But even that wasn’t enough to keep Pierrette busy.
She took notice of the chocolatier skills of a friend’s husband, thinking that learning the skills would enable her to give residents handmade treats during the holidays. She convinced him to take her on as his apprentice and he trained her to make fine chocolates over the next year.
Inspired, Pierrette honed her skills at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute and soon started offering desserts at events, which then led to fairs, and eventually earned contracts. The proceeds from the chocolate sales would go back into the essential programs of the Wabano Centre.
Wabano Fine Chocolates – A chocolate-based Indigenous social enterprise
With the success of her growing business and a drive to use her skills to make a difference, Pierrette came up with the idea to create Wabano Fine Chocolates as a social enterprise within the Wabano Centre. Through the treats sales, Pierrette could raise money for programs and help provide opportunities and training to those who face barriers to employment.
“I’ve been very lucky,” said Pierrette, “I’m a volunteer and I said that I’d like to start a chocolate company as a social enterprise, and they gave me that support to try things out.”
“And maybe it doesn’t work,” she added, ‘but they gave me that that confidence, and that’s what the centre is all about. They supported me, and that’s what they do for the whole community.”
What she and her team of volunteers make aren’t ordinary chocolates. From handmade and hand-painted beavers and hens to birchbark syrup and Saskatoon berries, many of the chocolates feature Indigenous ingredients and come with a card attached that has teachings about how the designs and creations tie into their culture.
“If we can showcase the wonderful work that Wabano does through the chocolate that’s one of our main goals,” said Pierrette.
“Sharing our culture, promoting language, and giving Indigenous people a place where they can get a product that’s Indigenous [is another].”
Pierrette’s Pandemic Pivot
When COVID hit – several of the event-based contacts and staple funding sources were effectively shut down and Pierrette worked to diversify her revenue sources. As a social enterprise, she reached out to the Centre for Social Enterprise Development, which connected her with a mentor for support. That mentor happened to be Ed’s Peer Group leader, Karla Briones.
So, when Pierrette was also looking for new ways to sell her product – the connection was made. Karla knew someone who happened to be looking for a fine local chocolatier to work with to provide something special to his customers.
Ed – meet Pierrette
“We had a conversation and to my total surprise, that conversation with Pierrette was the conversation I expected to have with these other local businesses,” said Ed. “The passion came out and it was fantastic. This is exactly what I was looking for.”
According to Ed, the challenges of trying to find a chocolatier who was the right fit to partner with eventually led him to the right choice.
“I always find the obstacles you run into create a better option somewhere else, but you just don’t know what it will be,” he said. “The relationship with Pierrette has been so much fun. And it’s allowed them to use their creativity in creating chocolates for us.”
How to try these creative chocolate and coffee pairings?
Bean Around Town currently offers the chocolates through both chocolate-only packages like the Just Chocolate Gift Collection and through combinations packages which include coffee like Taster’s Pack Gift Collection and the Crowd Pleasers.
So far, the biggest hit has been the Seasonal Gift Collections. Easter-themed baskets completely sold out following a busy Valentine’s Day and Christmas season.
“I know the last Valentine’s Day collection we did, they were exhausted,” Ed confirmed.
“They were pumping out the chocolates for us. But looking at the baskets we did, no one is able to come close to the uniqueness of the product. And the quality is second to none.”
And for Wabano Fine Chocolates, the extra business has expanded their operation – allowing Pierrette, who received the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship in 2018 for her work with volunteers, to take on more volunteer chocolatiers. She’s even been able to hire paid employees for the first time.
“Because of Ed, we’ve been able to hire two casual people, so we’ve created employment,” Pierrette said beaming. “Pre-Covid, we’d have volunteers and students because it is a training program, but in the future, it can be volunteers and paid staff casuals.”
The extra business also means that Wabano Fine Chocolates can continue providing funds for the Wabano Centre programs, and the people they help to support.
“It’s so important to have this social enterprise to continue the revenue stream so that we can continue to provide essential vital programs,” she said. “And we could create more jobs for our people, and that’s good.”
With Bean Around Town shifting to an e-commerce focused model, Ed is planning to take advantage of the free support available through the Digital Main Street Future Proof program – and has sought marketing and digital support from the Transformation Teams.
“That’s one of the things in terms of the business I’ve been struggling with, getting our message out,” he explained. “And are we doing the right things? Is the site we’ve created working? In my mind it is, but does it work for individuals that are going online to look for coffee?”
As for Pierrette, she’s taking the experience of working with Ed to better understand the capacity of her business operations, and what to expect as she develops her e-commerce options.
“With Ed we’re really busy and Easter is a really good help because we have a lot of baskets to make,” she says. “That will help us with understanding our production, so when we do have our own online store, we’ll know what to do.”
“It’s a very good training ground.”
Looking to try their creations?
Though Easter has come and gone, and the Easter holiday gift baskets sold out – it doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy Wabano Fine Chocolate and curated local coffee offerings from Bean Around Town.
The Wabano Fine Chocolate and Bean Around Town collaboration has coffee and chocolate gift boxes regularly available for order through the Bean Around Town website. And also – be sure to be on the lookout for a chance to pre-order Mother’s Day-themed baskets.