Nearly a year ago, Joe Papik, Chris Ioannou, Alex Castellani, and John Baker were busy ripping up worn in linoleum tiles to unveil original hardwood floors, exposing 100 year old brick, pouring concrete countertops, and meticulously carving out a space that would become what the Summerhill neighborhood now knows as Boxcar Social. Tucked beyond a small flight of stairs of what was once an old Torontonian home, and in its most recent rendition, a dry cleaner, Boxcar Social’s footprint engenders it’s history while embracing a cosy modernity. A duality that most bars and independent coffee shops aspire to emulate and many fall short.
Boxcar Social, the brainchild of four young and talented entrepreneurs, is a multi roaster coffee bar specializing in new world wine, beer, bourbon, and scotch. Names like George Howell, Basil Haydens, Dieu De Ciel, Eagle Rare, Norman Hardie, Oban, and Heart Roasters line the shelves and fill the cups of customers who range from dilettante to aficionado. On any given day, it is not unusual to see a high school student drop in for a hot chocolate on their way home, nor a whisky tasting 30th birthday party that culminates in the wee hours of the morning.
Boxcar is the kind of place where all are welcome. And, encouraged.
I first walked into Boxcar Social’s doors late one sunny morning last September. Having my ear to the ground about coffee culture, I had heard whispers of the place but knew nothing concrete. Within the first five minutes, I had ordered a cortado, purchased a bag of Kenyan beans roasted by George Howell, and asked for a job. The latter was never my intention, but there was something so instantaneously magnetic about Boxcar Social, I couldn’t resist the urge to be part of it. Now I find myself standing behind the bar receiving the words of Boxcar customers echoing a similar sentiment, “what a great place,” or “they got it right.” I knowingly nod and count my blessings.
Beyond surface impressions, there is a tireless persistence fueling Boxcar Social to be, as Joe Papik calls them,“curators of fine taste in the city.” Day in and day out, the owners, each with their unique set of expertise, show up alongside their employees and engage in the minutia of running the shop: dialing in coffees, restocking fridges, pulling shots, curating beverage menus, managing shipments and investing countless hours in the culture they have created. I sat down with Joe, John, Alex and Chris individually to talk about Boxcar.
John Baker, who designs the wine program, confidently shared with me, “It’s so much fun to love what you do.”
In fact, they each took time to reflect a upon a similar love for their time invested at Boxcar Social. Of course, this was not news to me. I get to work with them and witness their passion and dedication in action. It’s contagious.
Boxcar Social does a great job at being a neighborhood coffee spot, but if you pull up a chair at the slow bar and order a featured flight of pour over coffee or park yourself next to the barista working the prized La Marzocco Strada, you will quickly notice the attention to detail that goes into preparing each drink is extraordinary. With seasoned coffee industry professional Alex Castellani at the helm, Boxcar’s coffee program is ever changing and fiercely precise.
“Brewed coffee drives what we do,” Alex tells me as he explains what separates Boxcar. “Most shops don’t think having someone dial in coffee for hours is a profitable use of time.”
Each single origin coffee intended for pour over is brewed countless times on the Kalita Wave, scrutinized by well developed palates and measured on the refractometer for the desired level of extraction until a recipe is set—for today. When it comes to pulling shots, their espresso program follows an equally rigorous and sometimes volatile dialing in and recipe development process: dose weigh it, shot weighed out, adjust and repeat. I can attest this exactitude is overwhelming when first starting out as a barista. It’s also an indication that there is no better place to be than Boxcar if your desire is like mine and that of my coworkers: to understand the nuances and flavor potential in coffee.
I feel as though delving into the processes behind Boxcar Social is a somewhat disingenuous portrayal of the shop to someone who hasn’t been there before, largely because process is not at all it’s outwardly defining feature. Chris Ioannou, with his background in music and architecture, likened Boxcar to an elaborate hinge on a door: “It makes sense when you see it in action.”
Boxcar is reliable, a sure thing, and it just works. You know when you go there, you are going to experience the best and it’s not necessary that you know why.
Chris shared with me that one of the overriding ideas behind Boxcar Social is to “be good at what we do and do it in a comfy way.” Boxcar is your favorite pair of jeans. Comfortable, and so much fun.
Boxcar Social’s name is a homage to the restored train station and railroad track that runs through the upscale Summerhill neighborhood of Toronto. Though the shop hasn’t quite been around for a year yet, Boxcar is about to endure its inevitable and welcomed expansion to a second, much larger location. Joe, Chris, Alex and John are getting ready to dust off their work boots and start renovations all over again. It is without a doubt, whatever they build will be a gift to a new community and incredibly successful. I am thankful for everyday that I get to be a part of it.
1208 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON M4T 1W1, Canada