Coffee and Community


Jul 27, 2011

He drinks a short Americano, she a cappuccino double shot with whole milk. They are discerning coffee drinkers and rightfully so. After all, Nan Eskenazi and Michael Going joke, they opened the first Good Earth cafe because they were driven to have a good coffee everyday. Now, two decades later, Good Earth has crossed into other provinces and created international partnerships that link coffee growers to drinkers. But, at its heart, it's the little coffee house down the street, the hub of a neighbourhood.

That was the foundation the couple wanted to build on when they set out to create Good Earth 20 years ago. When they opened their doors in August 1991 -on a Friday the 13th no less -there was no coffee culture in Cowtown. The pair, who had toured San Francisco and enjoyed the coffee house culture prevalent along the West Coast (from which Eskenazi originally hails), wanted to create a gathering place with good and wholesome food, an authentic coffee house that was about more than just java.They wanted a place that had a sense of community. Today, 30 locations bear the Good Earth name with five more set to open in the next few months. The brand has pushed past provincial borders to Saskatchewan and B.C., into spaces shared with universities, libraries and hospitals -community hubs.

One of their newest spots will be in Victoria's Royal Jubilee Hospital. They were the first thirdparty operator in Alberta to open in a hospital, offering patients and staff an option besides the cafeteria. Busing tables shortly after opening the Foothills Hospital location in April 1995, Eskenazi overheard nurses talking at one of the tables. One was telling the others she didn't feel like she was at work."It's a little bit of normalcy in perhaps a difficult situation," Eskenazi says. In the intervening 20 years, coffee culture and the public interest in it has grown. Chains have proliferated, setting up shops on street corners, in malls and airports. It's a cookie-cutter approach, says Eskenazi, and something the Calgaryborn company has avoided.

Each Good Earth is custom designed to fit into the neighbourhood, using the furnishings, the decorative touches, to set it apart. At their newest location, in the Calgary Board of Education building in the city's Beltline neighbourhood, old school benches have been transformed into a long communal table. On the walls are pictures of Guatemalan schoolchildren from the villages where Good Earth gets its coffee. They work with their roaster to source coffee from the farmers directly, so more money goes right into the hands of those growing the coffee. (Retail bags of coffee display pic-tures of the farmer, so customers can see exactly who is behind the beans.) This way, Eskenazi and Going get to know more about the farms and the communities around them. Eskenazi has even travelled to farms in Nicaragua and Guatemala to see the money is going toward housing and education, and hopes to make trips to other farms in Central and South America, as well as Africa in the future.

That sense of community knows no borders. "There is an increasing interest in coffee; people want to know the story of their coffee," says Eskenazi. Despite the competition from national and international brands, Going says they have won over customers with the quality of what they do, including the tasty food, which is all cooked on location.

The couple are currently working with a new chef to revamp the menu, bringing it closer to their roots. The Good Earth family has grown over the years; across the locations today, there are about 450 employees in the network. At one point that list included Juno-award winner Feist behind the counter. ("Back when she was known as Leslie," Eskenazi jokes.) When they had music nights at the cafe, Canadian music icon Jann Arden performed.And plenty of celebrities have been on the other side of the counter, such as Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn when they were filming Legends of the Fall.

"The staff just got gaga about it," says Eskenazi. Jon Voight once popped into the 11th Street S.W. location (the chain's first cafe) and Sam Neill has also stopped by. Both Eskenazi and Going can list the celebrity encounters, but when asked about moments that stand out, they are quick to mention the little anecdotes, the relationships that have developed, stories like the one about the former employees who met at Good Earth, married and now have their own franchise. It's the relationships created between staff and customers, says Eskenazi. "They're not documented, but those are the important gems," she says. "We really love creating the Good Earth experience for everyone," says Going. Eskenazi nods and chimes in, "It's the connection, it's the relationships."