Photographs by Karee Davidson/Concepts Photography & Design
It was a fateful Saturday afternoon over 12 years ago when Coralee Abbott, who had been working as an optometric assistant, went for coffee with her spouse, Mike Dahlen. They choose a quiet, forgotten café off the beaten path called City Perks, a place she had been once, years before.
She was in a period of life when she was looking for a change, but didn’t know what she really wanted to be “when she grew up.” Abbott had always been drawn to people. She had been a pastry chef in Grand Prairie, Alberta, in her early 20s, working under a German baker. And growing up with home cooking and baking coming out of the oven as she got off the school bus, baking was part of everything she knew as a kid. On that Saturday, she imagined the café as her own and the potential for what it could be. Lo and behold, it was for sale, and six weeks later, Coralee Abbott was the new owner. She thought, “All I need to do is to get people to fall in love with the place.”
HOW HAS CITY PERKS CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
We did a second renovation six years ago, when we were ready to take the coffee to the next level. The focus had been on baking and food, but it had shifted as we listened to our clientele. We established a relationship with 49th Parallel, a roaster we loved in Vancouver, and the reno was about what I felt City Perks deserved. Everything was about repurposing… from the tables made of old doors from the Delta Bessborough, neighbourhood church pews, stools from The Pat, and ceiling tiles from a drug store in Wakaw, to the 10 different varieties of hardwood from Habitat for Humanity. Every single thing has its own story.
Everything I’ve done has been based on my gut feeling. – Coralee Abbott
WHAT MIGHT PEOPLE NOT REALIZE ABOUT OWNING A CAFÉ?
The biggest misconception is that just because it’s full, it’s making money. We can’t sell a hundred cups of coffee a day and make money. Some feel prices are high, but they’re not realizing the partnerships with the people that we have and that I pay my team very well. We are very limited in our space and we’re doing magical things with a not-so-magical kitchen. We’re trying to give the best quality for the best price that we can and it’s not a very high margin when it comes to the food side.
HOW DID YOU GROW YOUR TEAM AS THE BUSINESS SHIFTED?
I was fortunate that I took a chance on Daryl Grunau. I saw him on Twitter trying to get into places to be a barista. He never considered applying with us because we weren’t focusing on the coffee at that time. Just before our second renovations, I invited him to join us. There was something about his vibe and energy, and everything I’ve done has been based on my gut feeling. I wasn’t even looking for a manager at the time as I was doing it all myself and I thought, “Why would anyone actually need to be there if I was always there?” Then three years later in March 2016, our son, Roan, seven at the time, was diagnosed with childhood leukemia. Everything changed.
Removing myself from the day to day gave me perspective. I learned that other people can make great choices too if I give them the tools. – Coralee Abbott
ROAN’S BATTLE WITH LEUKEMIA CHANGED YOUR FAMILY’S LIFE FOREVER. HOW AND WHY DID YOU WANT TO KEEP CITY PERKS GOING?
When Roan was diagnosed, I had a six-month-old at home and they told us, “You are going to be in isolation with your son. Someone must be 100% caregiver and be with him all the time.” They told me if I had a job to give notice as “your world is going to change.” I remember thinking, “I can’t do all of this, and the business is going to have to go.” Then Daryl and I had a conversation. He said, “I’ve got this, boss.” He believes that God led him to us for a purpose. And I do too now. He literally saved our family because that would have sunk us in so many ways. The coffee shop is Roan; he grew up on the counter. And City Perks defined us. It is us. However, if I couldn’t be there, I didn’t know how it was going to work. Who was going to make the creative decisions? Who was going to get the payroll done? Who was going to talk to the suppliers? Daryl knew how to lead, how to make sales, and how to keep customers happy, but he didn’t know anything behind the scenes because I hadn’t shared any of that.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BUSINESS IN THAT FIRST YEAR, WHEN YOU WERE NOT AROUND?
We had a terrible year. For the rest of 2016, it was great sales-wise, but terrible on the back end when we looked at all the expenses, all the labour, because nobody knew how to look at the numbers and make sense of them. How could they? Just the fact that they were able to keep the doors open was amazing. I would just make sure that I signed the cheques when things needed to be paid and did the payroll. Daryl was like, “Boss, just keep giving me the tools; let me help.” I had to start sharing and teaching him more. I was also able to be creative on the back end to turn it around and thankfully I had my father’s inheritance to rely on to get us through that dark time. As a business person, I felt it was my greatest failure, how far in the hole we had gone.
HOW HAS YOUR PERSPECTIVE CHANGED SINCE?
I realize now, it had to happen for me to get to this point, where I have a succession plan, where I have people who are capable, that we are able to have our best year ever and double sales from where we were five years ago. Removing myself from the day to day gave me perspective. I learned that other people can make great choices too if I give them the tools.
DO YOU THINK YOU COULD REPLICATE CITY PERKS?
It’s funny that you ask because I have four business proposals sitting on my desk right now. In the 12 years, there’s always been somebody asking us to take City Perks and go other places. The fundamentals of having fresh food, the best coffee and the best baristas… all that can go other places. But my fear is – the energy, I think, is unique to that neighbourhood and space. It’s only been since May 2019 that Roan has completed treatment, and I do think I have the capacity for more. Fear of what may happen next will live with me forever, but I just can’t let that fear hold me back. We have learned so much that I need to pay it forward. I need to channel that fear to live our best life. That could mean going in a new direction with a new café creating this energy in another neighbourhood. I think I have realized that the energy needed is held within me, so the question is, can I move past the fear and realize what could be?
First published in the September 2019 edition of The Business Advisor.