Relay Coffee Roasters East 23rd & Concession (Coffee Bar)
(Relay Coffee Bar also located in Hamilton Farmers’ Market)
By Steph Dubik
Lattes are my favourite thing. Especially delicious are lattes made by a person with a friendly demeanor and a love for his or her craft. Every time I stop in at Relay I’m guaranteed to receive all of those things. I’ve become a regular, and I love chatting with the baristas while I sit and do a crossword puzzle or have my lunch (and latte) on a break from work. I have a soft spot for espresso because it carries a lot of memories for me but there’s plenty of variety at Relay if espresso isn’t your preference.
When I sat down with Jason Hofing, founder of Relay Coffee Roasters, I really got a sense of how passionate he and his staff are about their work. I asked him how he decided that he wanted this kind of career “from the beginning, beginning” so he told me about his time working with a delivery service for a coffee roasting company in Kingston. “Getting to know coffee through the roaster in Kingston as well as wanting to invest in a company that had a social conscience, that treated their staff as people who had other interests besides just work, to a business that focused on global development and economic sustainability for poorer countries, going with 100% [organic] fair trade coffee… it was a growing social awareness and global consciousness of trying to do better.”
Coffee seemed to Jason, a good in to get people to start thinking about where their products are really coming from. “The local movement [in Hamilton] was also growing too… people were starting to get to know their farmers, their communities, people who are experts in their fields.” Toronto, at the time, had a handful of micro roasters and Jason along with his wife Rachel saw an opportunity to start that kind of business in Hamilton because he recognized its potential. “With all these factors we thought maybe Hamilton is a good place to start. So we bought a house and moved here and we’ve been going ever since… I did my first roast in September 2008.”
Initially named Red Hill Coffee Trade, Jason explained that he wanted to “roast quietly on the East Mountain” because of realizing, from his research, that a downtown location for the roasterie would be more complicated. The rebrand and name change came with growth and the “realization of where we wanted to go… we were no longer just the little roasterie on the mountain anymore.” Relay is roasting coffee almost every day now for various restaurants in the city (Papa Leo’s, Aberdeen Tavern, Jack & Lois and others), in addition to supplying coffee for the Farmers’ Market and Concession Street locations.
I asked Jason if he has considered branching out to include the Toronto market. He talked about how the micro coffee roasting market there is fairly saturated now. Five years ago there were only a handful of micro roasters but now there’s quite a lot of them popping up. “We roast really good coffee… no one needs another roaster in Toronto. I like keeping local. The idea is not to get super big, it’s never been my intention. My intention has been to be a community business that’s involved, and to support my family.”
I really believe that small businesses in Hamilton are what contribute to the strong sense of community felt here. Not only that, many of them support each other because they’ve been through a lot of the same challenges and setbacks. “We all know what it’s like to fight against the mega-brands that have copious amounts of dollars for advertising. We don’t. So our business depends on word of mouth and good relationships. That’s how it is.” We laughed about a potential spot for Relay on the cover of Hamilton Magazine one day, how Twitter banter helps business, and the revival of Concession Street care of Papa Leo’s love for the area and its growth.
Talking to Jason then (and any time I see him and Rachel around the shop or at events) reinforces how much they love what they do. That’s what makes a small business desirable… people who care. I enjoy the fact that everyone there knows my routine before I even order anything, which, for the record, is lattes almost always, with a little sugar in my cup first so I don’t ruin their artwork.
Thanks for being cool, Relay. And thanks for caring.