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Boxcar Social's Owners on Their Yonge Street Cafe and Bar

From left to right: owners Alex Castellani, Chris Ioannou, Joe Papik and John Baker; employee Grant Gamble
From left to right: owners Alex Castellani, Chris Ioannou, Joe Papik and John Baker; employee Grant Gamble

While mourning the closure of Patachou, residents of Summerhill and Rosedale may not have noticed the four dashing men quietly setting up shop a mere three blocks north of the beloved pâtisserie. Alex Castellani, Chris Ioannou, Joe Papik, and John Baker opened Boxcar Social in mid-February after taking over a space in December formerly occupied by Pacific Cleaners. With the opening of their patio at the end of May and acquisition of a liquor license last week, Boxcar's transformation from café to coffee and wine bar is now complete. Below, the team talks about naming the business, the coffee roasting process, and more.

How did you come up with the name Boxcar Social?
The LCBO building across the street used to be an old train station, and along with the CN railway tracks beside us, we thought "Boxcar" was a great way to pay homage to the neighbourhood. As a café by day and bar by night, we didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves by calling our establishment one or the other. Since we're bringing people together under our roof to socialize, we thought "Social" was perfect, and together, a "box social" is what parties used to be called in the 1920s. So there are many layers of meaning.

What is cupping, and why do you do it at Boxcar Social?
Cupping is a standardized way to taste and evaluate coffees, generally used by coffee buyers and roasters, but also by some shop owners, baristas, farmers and exporters. We cup coffees as a staff to evaluate the samples coming in, particularly when there are many coffees to evaluate. That being said, we put much more time into tasting coffee the way our customers will taste it via the brew methods we offer. We have plans for more formal curated tastings, so stay tuned!

[Photo: Anjli Patel]
Coffee is a crowded industry— how do you separate yourselves from the pack?
The coffee beans that we use: Most cafés use one roaster, or they roast the beans themselves. We use a rotating roaster model— we spend hours each week tasting different beans in order to create a menu that will provide our customers with some of the tastiest and most interesting coffees out there.

We use more than one roaster in an attempt to expose the Toronto market to roasters who are seen within the industry as being masters of their craft and using innovative roasting techniques. We lean toward roasters who have a direct relationship with farms, mills and cooperatives, in order for us to have as much access to information about the coffees as possible. We also lean toward roasters whose roasting style seeks to express terroir, which means erring on the side of lightly but properly developed coffee roasting.

Our method of making coffee is extremely analytical. There is art in the craft, but there is even more science. The only way to ensure a consistently pleasant tasting experience is to control as many variables as possible. This requires an incredible amount of measurement. People are often surprised by the intensity of our equipment and the number of scales in our shop, but we couldn't imagine it any other way.

One aspect of coffee that is essential yet rarely acknowledged is the amount of effort and time that has to go into calibrating coffee. Many of the compounds in coffee are incredibly unpleasant and incredibly easy to bring out. Other compounds are wonderfully pleasing and rarely associated with coffee. The way coffee is prepared— manipulating the many variables involved— is crucial, and the sweet spot is small.

The hormone- and antibiotic-free milk that we use is twice as expensive as that used at other cafés. We discovered it through Anthony Benda at Café Myriade in Montreal. Many cafés spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, and then are unwilling to spend money on coffee, and even fewer are willing to spend money on milk. Before opening, this was by far the cleanest and tastiest milk we tried.

Oh, and the pastries are delivered everyday from La Bamboche.

[Photo: Anjli Patel]
Who comes up with the jokes for your sign?
It's a joint effort, but Grant can take the most credit.
—Anjli Patel
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Boxcar Social

1208 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON M4T 1W1