Edmonton’s Transcend Espresso continues to develop eleven years later
Transcend Coffee holds a venerable place in Edmonton’s coffee scene. The company’s flagship location – a coffee bar and roastery combo in an industrial area south of the city’s hip neighborhoods – opened in July 2006 and was almost certainly Edmonton’s first third wave cafe. And one could argue convincingly that it was transcend baristas who first introduced Edmontonians to rosette-adorned cappuccinos and coffee tasting notes, which, the baristas explained, were not “flavored,” just complex.
Owner Poul Mark – trained as a lawyer – trained himself as a self-taught coffee maker. In the beginning, he didn’t even have a skeleton crew to work with. “I was the barista,” he smiles dryly, “I was the cashier.”
Ironically, Mark wasn’t even sure he wanted to serve coffee, let alone introduce a new form of coffee culture into the Alberta capital. The original plan was to open a wine and coffee bar, but the industrial space Mark was interested in was not adequate. In order not to be put off, Mark discussed the possibilities of pure, unadulterated coffee.
“I was more interested in the idea of community building and needed a place,” he says. “Coffee is the thing that people gather around.” A lot has changed since those early days (“we’re better at it,” laughs Mark), but community building is still a priority – as evidenced by the company’s Garneau café (alongside an independent theater and poutine joint, only a few blocks away). on the University of Alberta campus) and the newly opened location in Ritchie Market.
His desire for community – and growth – was enough motivation for Mark to start roasting. “Of course, the focus was always on quality,” says Mark about his company’s established sourcing program. His biggest challenge, he says, has been building long-term relationships with farmers, many of whom work on small farms that Transcend buys green beans direct from.
As a small buyer with high demands, Transcend has set itself the double task of educating its customers about coffee as a seasonal and environmental product and at the same time encouraging farmers to produce green coffee of the caliber of this boutique produce companies pay a higher price for it. Mark says that this type of dialogue with farmers is becoming increasingly difficult as farmers face increasing pressures from the global economy on the one hand and climate change on the other.
Still, the toast side of Transcend’s business has doubled in the past two years. The company roasts approximately 160,000 pounds of coffee annually and supplies cafes and retailers across Canada.
After eleven years, Mark’s one-man operation is one of many local coffee companies that form a small but strong community that serves a growing market for a type of coffee experience that virtually didn’t exist in Edmonton a decade ago. And now that he has a whole team of people running the show, he finds that he’s more effective behind the scenes. “I am a classic entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word,” he says. “I dream ideas.”
Mark’s evolving business philosophy is reflected in the company’s current physical manifestations: two cafes in young, mixed residential and business districts with lots of pedestrian traffic and a strong sense of community that supports them.
And Transcend’s newest location, a cafe / roastery in the new Ritchie Market, took to the stage this March, just ten blocks north of Mark’s original roastery (now closed). Transcend Ritchie is one of several companies taking seats in an open marketplace that will soon include a bike shop, brewery, butcher shop, and restaurant. The building – a version of Edmonton’s favorite architecture, the Brutalist Box, with high ceilings and lots of windows – has a large coffee shop area, with Transcends Bar and Velocity Cycle on one side, Acme Meat Markets Cold Case on the other, and the soon-to-be Opening brewery / restaurant in the third visible through glass walls. Transcend’s giant orange Probat roaster has been installed in one of the front windows and the roasting process can be watched from both inside and outside.
Much like Transcend Garneau, Café Ritchie is minimalist and vaguely industrial. Under a canopy of exposed beams and pipes, small potted plants and succulents adorn blonde wooden tables and two long counters equipped with sockets for the laptops that almost everyone in the café uses. Exposed copper, steel and concrete complement the view of both the Transcend roasting facility and the brewing tanks on the brewery side of the building. Outside there is limited patio seating for customers to enjoy Ritchie’s lively sidewalk community while sipping their coffee. In the women’s room, however (I didn’t venture into the men’s room) both the walls and floor are covered in a Wes Anderson-esque pattern of pastel tile that is surprisingly comforting to be surrounded by.
Transcend has moved away from its old purist approach here, and at Ritchie baristas serve jagasilk matcha, cascara tea, flavored lattes, and even milkshakes along with FETCO and moccamaster-brewed coffee and cappuccino. Espresso is drawn from three groups on a Victoria Arduino Black Eagle. The state-of-the-art machine has built-in scales and the ability to electronically synchronize with a grinder, making it easier to implement a standard for dialing based on a set ratio of ground beans to liquid espresso. Steaming and pouring takes place on the Modbar unit installed in the front strip. Home pastries, including biscuits, banana bread and croissants, are displayed in a display case under the sales point.
Transcend Ritchie has been enthusiastically received by local residents as well as coffee drinkers across town. The cafe is always busy; Sometimes it is difficult to find a seat. “Given the response Ritchie has received from the community,” says Mark, “we thought about doing it again.”
Whatever the future holds for Transcend, the move it has already taken away from trendy shopping districts and towards cafes embedded in the communities where Edmontons actually live and work, can only be its legacy as a forerunner of the city’s cafe culture to guarantee.
Lizzie Derksen is a Sprudge employee and print publisher based in Edmonton, Alberta. Read more about Lizzie Derksen via Sprudge.
Photos by Lizzie Derksen. Top photo courtesy of Transcend Coffee.
August 21, 2017