Sam James founded his empire three years ago with Sam James Coffee Bar, his self-described headquarters and clubhouse. In an age where personal branding breeds legends, Sam has a definitive edge, one that's come to him naturally. His spaces are honest and simple, filled mostly with collections from his life and family, friends' artwork, skating ephemera, and old-school rap. And it doesn't hurt that he's pulling the best shots in town.
Not long after his first and wildly successful entrepreneurial endeavor, Sam, who's 28, opened up his take-out spot The Pocket, a fond shout-out to places like New York's Abraço Espresso, or any number of coffee counters you might find in Europe. For a city like Toronto, miniaturizing like this is a very creative, smart, and sort of unheard-of thing to do. I would like to say that it is because Toronto is not a very densely packed city, and so we aren't forced to be adaptable like this, or do fun things with all the little nooks and crannies, that we can just be really lavish and luxurious with our space, take our belts one notch outward, and let our bellies be free. Really, though, I think it is more to do with a conservative malaise and fear about stepping too far outside the norm, away from established business areas or mindsets.
Sam's third project is set to open in a few weeks and is located in the PATH, an underground shopping complex that spans more than 17 miles at the heart of Toronto's downtown core and financial district. It connects 50-plus office buildings, and is really pretty much chain-oriented when it comes to food. Many, many thousands of people walk around down there on any given day, many of them in suits and ties. Sam James isn't exactly what you'd expect to find there, but he doesn't discriminate when it comes to paying customers.
I sat down with him and photographer Jeremy Jansen, who's contributing some of the art to the new space, and we talked over pints about how Sam is such a boss.
VICE: Picturing you in your new space in the PATH is really satisfying. Have you been getting positive reactions? Sam James: I've been getting a lot of props from people. They've told me they think I am really onto something, and talked about how maybe they should open up something too. And I'm like, "yes, you should." I just think there could be some rad businesses down here. The potential is insane. The thing about down here is that you could probably do anything. There are probably 40,000 people walking by every day, so if I get just 2 percent, I can't actually even physically serve more than that.
There is a strong aesthetic thing going on with your shops that I think is really attractive for people. It seems very personalized, honest, and genuinely creative. Well, my dad and I built the first store together. All the stuff on the walls is crap that I like, or family things—stuff my dad gave me. I don't know, it feels handmade, not fabricated. A lot of coffee shops are contrived, trying to get this personalized aesthetic in the least personal way. They all look the same. They go into some gallery and are like "Here's $60,000, put some old shit together." I think you have to make yourself a part of it. You have to be there.
It seems like in Toronto we've yet to start looking at all the space we have in a creative way. Maybe from a regulatory perspective it is a lot more difficult here or something? There is just so much to go through with zoning a space. They have made it really difficult here.
There's a real precision to your work. It feels like only someone passionate about what they are doing could be that patient. Anyone can buy this equipment, but to really learn about it you have to work with it. Maybe I research more than the average person who works with an espresso machine? I don't want to have a limit to what I can do. When I feel limited I am so frustrated and so angry. I threw a grinder down the stairs once. I was so angry.
The passion! Jeremy Jansen: No, it's rage.
What is it about coffee? Sam James: Coffee speaks to me as a person. That sounds really lame, I don't know. I didn't grow up eating fancy cheese or fancy wine, or going to fancy restaurants, but I definitely always had access to coffee.
You've definitely taken it to a different dimension, but at its base level it is a very blue collar sort of symbol. I think it is. Everybody drinks coffee. Whether you are spending 50 cents a day at the corner store or nine dollars at Starbucks. I want to be accessible to everybody. I don't price things so high that it limits what the customer can buy. But I also know that it is not going to be for everybody either. Some people want it to be more than it is….This dude came in once and he kind of offended this guy who works here who was like, "What can I get for you?" And this customer was like, "Hey, Sam." The employee was like, "I'm actually taking your order, I exist." And the guy was like, "Macchiato." Which is the ultimate bitch drink of all time. I hate that drink.
Maybe you should take it off the menu? There are a few people who like that as a legit drink, so I keep it for them. But most people who order it have been to Italy once or they went to Rome or something—they haven't been to real Italy—and they're like, "You don't know coffee until you have been to Italy." They just want to hear themselves say, "Machiatto!" They always say it in a stupid accent. They are an exact type.
I have noticed that coffee shops have the potential to attract a really douchey crowd. For the most part, people are great. But I've worked at so many coffee shops and some customers can be shitty, or don't know, or think they know and they want to let you know that they know.
Jeremy Jansen: It's a specialty shop. We've talked about how a good coffee shop is like a good skate shop or a good record shop in a sense, because you're always kind of gonna feel like you don't belong, and some people are going to try and one up you or prove something to you.
Sam James: It's like those nerds who buy up all the collectible Nikes on Ebay and go into the collectible Nike store and are like, "Oh, no big deal, these were only one of 25 ever made, whatever." That's lame.
Even though you are super serious about the coffee, you definitely lack that hyper-nerd quality that can be so off-putting about coffee culture. I'm just not trying to cram it down anybody's throat. I do it the way I think is best. I work in a coffee shop every day and drink a lot of coffee. I know exactly what it is supposed to be like based on what I want. And that's just what we do. That is why there are only ten things on the menu. Just order that, don't try and one up me by asking for arestret-to mac-chi-at-to.