In Ontario’s Niagara region, St. Cathariners are rapidly discovering an appreciation for fresh, locally roasted coffee through a new roaster on the block that is also, as it happens, a new Block on the roaster.
The start-up Block Coffee opened for business in mid-December 2015, the culmination of a dream roughly two years in the making. Cameron and Emily Block graduated from a popcorn popper to their current Huky500 back in 2014, and started getting results they were proud of about a year after that. Cameron Block has a formal culinary education and some fine-dining professional experience, including a four year stretch as a baker of bread, which was an occupation from which he draws some knowledge and perspective that he finds applies handily to the roasting realm.
“The process of taking something ordinary like wheat, and turning it into something extraordinary like a beautiful loaf of bread — coffee’s really similar,” Cameron Block told Daily Coffee News. “I’ve found a lot of the same work ethic can be applied when you take something really simple like a green coffee bean and make something wonderful out of it.”
For the time being, Cameron Block is maintaining his nine-to-five gig as food services director at one of the Niagara region’s largest homeless shelters. Emily Block, meanwhile, is studying medical sciences at Brock University, though she’s had some off-and-on part-time barista work in a couple cafes over the years. “It started as sort of a side-project, and it’s been really fun, but based on all of the buzz and the feedback we’ve been getting, it’s turning into a bit more than that,” Cameron Block said of the pair’s burgeoning business.
Block Coffee roasts in a 500-square-foot commercially zoned space attached to the front of their home in St. Catharines, a small city on the Niagara River about 12 miles in from the US border. “Right now I’m working at the homeless shelter in Niagara, and then early in the mornings and late at night I hit the roaster and do the bookkeeping and all that kind of stuff for the coffee business,” said Block.
So far they’ve sold their roasted products exclusively online and at the local Craft Arts Market, although should current sales trends continue, an expansion will have to happen sooner rather than later. “Since business has been growing a lot quicker than we thought it would, I think we’re going to outgrow this space pretty quick,” said Block. “We’re actually looking at scaling up now, and maybe having a small roastery/retail spot somewhere as well.”
The Blocks have their eyes on a Diedrich IR-12 as a contender for Block Coffee’s next step, production-wise. For retail, they’re envisioning a small tasting bar with bagged beans and brewing equipment for sale, but no full-fledged café. “That’s a whole other leap into a different side of the business. It’s just kind of a different animal, with staffing and overhead, having a food menu to go with it and all that kind of thing,” said Block. “There are some cool guys doing little coffee pockets like Sam James, doing just espresso. If we were to do something, it might be something like that.”
The Craft Arts Market also has its own espresso bar where they prepare coffees roasted by Pilot Coffee Roasters out of Toronto. Block has had discussions with the management about getting Block Coffee on that counter, although to this point they haven’t been able to produce to the necessary volume. “We’re a more local product, and that’s their motto, they want to support local artisans,” said Block of those discussions. “So they were still gracious enough to sell our product there alongside Pilot Coffee.”
If and when Block Coffee takes the leap to a larger roaster, the goal will be to carve out a position as the go-to wholesaler in the midst of the rising culinary scene of St. Catharines. “Niagara’s got a wicked wine culture, so we’ve got a lot great restaurants on Niagara Lake. St. Catharines in general I think is undergoing a bit of a renaissance,” said Block, noting a lot of cool little cafes and restaurants slated for opening in the wake of recent infrastructure investments by the city such as a new performing arts center and a new sports arena. “We want to be part of that culture.”
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.