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café culture

Crowded into a small booth in the Dora Keogh pub on the Danforth, a group of animated gentlemen look as though they are plotting some kind of Latin American-style revolution, and in a sense they are, but their weapons of choice are roasted beans.

This is the first meeting of the Toronto Coffee Conspiracy (TCC for short), a united group of like-minded "third wave" independent cafés hoping to spread and promote café culture throughout the city.

The seven-shop collective is united by a common set of principles, which, according to Matthew Taylor, Mercury Espresso Bar co-owner and initial organizer of the TCC, include "a focus on quality, freshness, and a desire to help the industry really move forward."

"The exciting thing about this current surge in the coffee industry is that it's run by a lot of young, passionate people," says TCC member Matt Lee, owner of Manic Coffee.

Exciting as it may be, forcing an agreement between a group of opinionated, driven and caffeinated shop owners isn't the easiest task in the world. Before the movement even began, two participating shops dropped out of the TCC for fear that other indie cafés would think they were too clubby.

"If the goal is to forge a deeper understanding of how coffee is made and where it comes from, it should spread across the city, not across a small group of shops," said one reformed dissenter, who did not wish to give his name.

Eventually, Mr. Taylor was able to bring the two shops back on board, plus recruit another to bring the total up to seven. "We just want to be able to get it off the ground and then build it from there," he says. "I hope it'll turn into something big, but it's much easier to start small."

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Officially launching on April 20 with a geographically disparate group of cafés - Mercury, Blondie's, Lit Espresso Bar, Manic Coffee, Crema, Dark Horse, and Sam James Espresso Bar - TCC will start modestly.

The initial promotion, a "dis-loyalty card," will encourage customers to visit the whole range of participating cafés by rewarding them with a free coffee. This insurrectionist tool also renders them to eligible to judge "signature drinks" competitions.

The seven shops all aim for transparency, emphasizing the origin of the beans and printing the roasting date directly on the bag: freshly roasted yield more flavour.

"One of the goals of the TCC is to show people the difference in quality between our shops and something like a Starbucks," says Alex Tran, co-manager of Blondie's. "We all share the same framework, but we also each have a distinct personality and we want people to notice that too."

From there, the TCC will begin to introduce other cross-promotions and competitions designed not only to display the shops' experimentation with espresso-based drinks, but also to get the customer involved on a more direct level.

"There's an old way of doing things and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but there's also a new way," Matt Lee remarks. "There's a lot of potential in Toronto's coffee culture, and we're hoping to help realize it."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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