With the warm weather upon us, Democracy Coffee House on Locke Street begins to open its big garage door, intriguing new and regular customers to walk right in and take a seat. The open concept, books and chalkboards, and welcoming employees are just a few reasons why you should visit for your coffee fix and a bite to eat. Democracy sells a variety of gluten free and vegan soups, salads, and desserts plus fair trade options for coffees and teas. During my visit, I had a hot chocolate and a ginger molasses cookie and they were both amazing. The ginger cookie was huge and tasted homemade. The hot chocolate wasn’t overly sweet which made it more enjoyable and light on a warm day. I spoke with managing partner Alastair Hill about the food and drinks offered, the popularity of the shop, the atmosphere, and why having a coffee shop like Democracy is important to the city of Hamilton. Alastair moved to Hamilton from Toronto in 2011 and says he loves being in Hamilton.
Why did you decide to open a coffee shop — and why Locke Street?
Although at its core Democracy is still a coffeehouse, it has evolved into so much more with our seasonal feature menu, strong vegan focus, and nightly table service, just to name a few. That’s what we wanted the space to be. Somewhere that serves the needs of the community. Democracy is meant to be a place where people interact (that’s why we don’t have wifi). A place where people meet and exchange ideas. Whether that’s over coffee and a snack, or local craft beer with pizza and cauliflower wings. What better neighbourhood than Locke street? A vibrant, creative community that is a great example of the new, rejuvenated Hamilton.
Where did the name Democracy come from?
The idea was that the place was to be something by the people and for the people. We tried to avoid big multinational corporations: no Coke, no Pepsi, no Molson, no Coors, that kind of thing.
Where is your coffee sourced from?
It’s a local roster here in Hamilton called Coffeecology. They get their coffee from a couple different places, but the most frequent one is Cafe Femenino in Peru, which is an all female coffee farm.
What are some of your best food and drink sellers?
The number one by far is definitely the cauliflower wings, that’s got to be the most popular. The menu is always changing so there are things that are selling well now that didn’t six months ago, and things that sold well six months ago that aren’t around now. We’re constantly changing the different drinks that we have, especially the beers. Coffee and lattes are always a staple.
Do you find your most popular drinks change with the season?
Beer definitely does, light beer in the summer and dark beer in the winter. Coffee obviously switches to more iced coffee and that kind of thing in the summer.
Do the gluten free and vegan options increase the shop’s popularity?
Immensely. That’s kind of what our reputation is now; we’re known for vegan and gluten free options, especially vegan food. There are not many other places to get vegan stuff and if there are, they’re typically less than the comfort food style we do. Just because you want to eat vegan doesn’t mean you want to eat salads everyday. Sometimes you still want deep fried cauliflower and a beer — so that’s sort of where we fit in.
Why do you feel it’s important to have vegan options for people of Hamilton?
I think vegan options are something that’s important. I think that is where more and more people are headed. I eat vegan myself so it’s something that I feel is important socially, environmentally, economically, morally. Environmentally it’s definitely better, health wise there’s a lot of benefits to it, those get counteractive when you deep-fry it. I think for the most part it’s definitely healthier, and that’s why so many more people are doing it now because there’s access to the information.
How would you describe the type of employees and customers that you attract?
Most of the people that work here are people that came here as a customer, liked it, and wanted to work here, because I like hiring that type of person. The demographic of the neighbourhood is something that’s been changing a lot. There’s definitely a lot of young families. We’re very kid-friendly, we have kids books and kids toys. Who doesn’t want to take their kid to a place where they can draw on the walls and draw on the tables? We get a different demographic during the day than we do at night. At night we switch to table service and it’s much more of a dinner atmosphere. During the day it’s definitely family friendly.
Over the years, Locke Street has become a Hamilton favourite. How has the street’s success impacted your business?
The better the street does, the better we do. The more people get drawn to the street, the more people walk by and stick their head in. We don’t do a ton of marketing so it is a lot of word of mouth.
What’s in Democracy’s future?
We’re always changing the menu and offering specials, so we’re already working on the next one. In terms of expanding, it kind of defeats the purpose of the place to have a chain of them. It’s not like we would never open another restaurant, but it wouldn’t be another Democracy. It would have to be something different.
Visit Democracy Coffee House at 202 Locke Street South.