Alex Castellani - Boxcar Social Café

If you know anything about me from my social media platforms, you will quickly realize that I have an obsession with independent coffee shops. So much that, every time I hop off a plane, first thing I google is ‘nearby cafés’. In the Toronto scene, I go to Boxcar Social literally once a week when I am in town to work on various projects on my laptop, to enjoy their almond milk latté, and a glass of rosé complimented with an almond croissant, why not? That is why, it was a no brainer for me to reach out to one of Boxcar Social café founders, Alex, to pick his brain on how Boxcar social cafe went from one location to now four? How does one start and run a successful coffeeshop that appeals to millennials? So, when I emailed Alex and he agreed to meet with me for our #LetsTalk podcast, I was extremely excited!

Full podcast episode: LISTEN

For the full interview on coffee roasting, business modeling, serving delicious alcohol and coffee in one space, the fermentation of beverage, entrepreneurial spirit to succeed in this space, listen to full interview here:

Q1. Tell us a little bit about Alex? And how did you become cofounder of Boxcar Social café?
A. At this point of my life; entrepreneur and owner for four cafés and bars, I try to not allow myself to be defined by my work although I am proud of what I do. I am a person of many interests and an enthusiasts. I love photography, because my dad had a DSLR when I was young so I got that interest from him. I now incorporate that into my business. I am also passionate about design, and all things visual representation. I love cycling, climbing, and literature.

Q2. How did you get started with boxcar social …?
A.My contribution to boxcar social iss that, I am the ‘coffee’ part of the partnership. I’ve been in the coffee industry for most of my life. In 2008 while I was in Vancouver, I was inspired to start thinking about coffee as a career while working on my philosophy degree, after earning my degree in business. I thought that I would end up in Academia, but upon moving to Toronto, I started working in the café space and didn’t get out of it. While some work at cafés on part time basis or for fun, I on the other hand, actually loved it! My first job in the coffee industry, I was so fascinated by which coffee beans they were using, the roasting process, I was so eager to be part of that culture and put to use what I was learning. Sometimes you have blinders and become obsessed by what’s in front of you, that you miss other opportunities that available to you.

Now for boxcar social, I also help with the wine list and design. As an entrepreneur, you are often pulled in so many different directions. You often end up pulling different skill sets from you have cultivated throughout your life when starting your business.

Q3. Its almost every hipster millennial’s dream to start their coffeeshop…
A.Starting a coffee shop is not cheap. Even to get things off the ground on the lower end of the cost, you are looking at between $30K to $100K. All four of us that started Boxcar Social, we had a little bit of money saved up and bootstrapped it that way. There was no contractors, we did everything ourselves. We outsourced plumbing or electricians, but everything else from construction to design was done by us. Everything came from our own hands and brains. If you can afford to hire people, go ahead, but we did not do that. Over the years, we improved our craft and café as we grow.

So we went from pulling our money together as four owners, found a location where we can rent a short term two years lease at our Summerhill location which was our first spot, and renovated it to what it is now. We chose to register our business and did not follow the traditional route of doing that, instead each four of us owns equal parts of our business shares. We took a lot of risk and gamble doing what we did, but you can’t let fear cripple you from pursuing your endeavors. If you do the leg work, and understand the work that requires to achieve the success, you will succeed. Everyone wants to own a coffee shops, but very few understand the sacrifice that goes into operating a business like this. It’s not to discourage people from owning their own business, but it is important for them to understand the work that goes into achieve an entrepreneurial journey.

We were fur guys with an ambitious plan of opening a coffee shop that serves alcohol, and has a visual representation that speaks to us. We weren’t willing to compromise on that. The most important thing to always remember as an entrepreneur, is to have a vision that you can fall back on and always love what you are doing. Let your vision dictate your guests experience. Something that you care about and that you value.

Q4. Cash flow, is running a coffee shop a viable business?
A.Our business model is tricky. You look at it, and you see that we are a wine, whiskey and coffee bar. From our alcohol to our coffee beans, someone else is making a margin on that because we are not the one producing any of it. We curate from different roasters from around the world that are not always available to Toronto. Our wine is diverse from different sources. So yeah, there are middle parts taking place before it gets to our location and we sell it to the public. It is expensive to do it our way, but we did it this way to give a special quality to our customers. At the start of our business all for us worked night and day, to reduce staff salary at the start, and we made money that way with a small margin at first in order to have a market advantage in be competitive as a way to differentiate ourselves. The return for our investment on putting a lot value in our brand, has paid off.

Q5. One of the reasons why I love cafes like boxcar social, is for its ambience, aesthetic and design. How did you come up with the branding of your logo, the design of the space and even your furniture, where did you get it?
A.All of our tables and designs, we built it ourselves. My business partner Chris, he welded everything from wine racks to benches, he built everything. His role in the business partnership, is designing and builds, which includes the design of our logo. The idea is to make the space welcoming and warm, which is why we use warmer tones and materials so people feel welcomed into our café.

Q6. Three words you would use to describe yourself?
A.Passionate. Intense. Discursive.

Q7. What legacy would like to leave behind…
A.I want to inspire people in the same way that I am inspired. 

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