10 years ago, Tyzun James says a friend came to him with an idea for a different type of coffee shop for downtown Kitchener. The concept would take more than just making a profit into account; it would treat its customers and employees with respect, while focusing on the community and environmental impacts.
That was the launching point for Café Pyrus - a casual café and eatery serving up healthy foods that are fresh, locally sourced, organic - and vegan.
"At that time there were no vegan or even vegetarian places downtown, and not many were using organic foods," James says. "We decided we wouldn't poison our customers, the food chain, or employees for a profit." They decided to step aside from the quick food model where few if any menu items are made from scratch, and instead focused on fresh, organic and vegan meals. Customers bought into the model immediately.
"There's a growing market that is valuing what we do here," James says. "People connect with us for a number of reasons, and Café Pyrus has become their meeting place."
Employees at Café Pyrus are a key part of the café's success. "I have staff that's been here for 5 years - you don't often see that in this kind of industry," James explains. "When somebody has been here that long, it means they get to know the customers. They know your name, they know your drink. The service here is impeccable. People that are looking for that kind of connection and service."
The café serves up fresh brewed coffees, loose leaf teas, and a healthy menu that features everything from baked goods to full meals that are full of flavour. "I don't want people to say 'Wow - that was a really good vegan sandwich', I want them to say, 'Wow - that was a really great sandwich!" says James. And while his focus on providing great vegan food was developed originally to make their menu a healthy one, he says focusing on vegan food now has more to do with the environment.
"What you eat has a bigger environmental impact than what you drive, where you live - it's the number one choice you can make to support the environment," he explains. He's also made other sustainable choices at the café, which has become a leader in using bio-degradable packaging. "I've spent the past month trying to source bio-degradable portion cups for our ketchup, salsa and aioli," James smiles. "I finally found them from a company in Mississauga!" Choosing to use the new cups as opposed to traditional plastic ones is more expensive, but to him it's worth it. "Businesses need to be held accountable and be required to think more about the packaging they are providing so they make better choices."
Being a business owner in downtown Kitchener has been rewarding, but there have also been challenges. "We've struggled through a lot of things because of our location - specifically the construction of the LRT," James explains. "What was supposed to last 6 months took 3 years to complete. We had a giant hole in front of our front door at one point!" While the construction resulted in the closure of some businesses, James says the café's customers rallied around them. "We put a call out to our customers, and our customers saved us. We wouldn't be here today if it wouldn't be for our customers buying into what we're doing and their continued support!"
As for the food served at Café Pyrus, James originally came up with the menu items himself. Nowadays, employees are also involved in menu development: they make suggestions and come up with their own signature items. "They get excited when they see their menu items up on the board and promoted across the city (through social media)," he says. "It comes down to making them feel proud of this business, and making them feel part of it."
Ultimately the food they make at the café has to be good to keep people coming back. "It's cheaper to use modified ingredients, but you don't have to do it. You can't beat the quality we have here. It's not the easiest way to make money, but we do it because it's the right thing to do. I can honestly say that everything we're doing here is better for the community, and when somebody asks me what I do, I can tell them and be really happy about what happens here."
As for Tyzun James' favourite item on the menu? It doesn't take long for him to answer.
"The Big Bang Sandwich is one of my favourites," he smiles. "Although there's a special coming up called the Cajun Crusher that one of my staff came up with, and when it's on the menu I'll eat multiple sandwiches!"
16 Charles St W, Kitchener