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Interviews

Interview: Cea Evanson Talks Toronto’s Best New Hot Spot “Coffee Oysters Champagne”

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Coffee Oysters Champagne

There’s good news for Toronto natives this holiday season. The pearl of King Street is officially open for business.

Operating as a versatile coffee house, oyster bar, and champagne room, Coffee Oysters Champagne sits in the heart of the financial district and offers the perfect day-to-night escape from noise of everyday life. And with an overall aesthetic reminiscent of 1920’s Paris and a “secret” space just about dripping in old-world glamour and charm, it’s no wonder that COC has quickly cemented its reputation as one of the trendiest spots for Torontonians to satisfy all their most luxurious cravings. Because whether you fancy a delightful cup of specialty fair-trade coffee, or enjoy browsing the largest dressed oyster and champagne menu in the city, Coffee Oysters Champagne has something to fit all tastes.

With the venue officially opening its doors just a few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of speaking with General Manager Cea Evanson about popular hours, femme-chic décor, an exciting New Year’s Eve Party, and more!

Coffee Oysters Champagne is a unique concept for a champagne bar. How did the idea to blend all of these different elements come about? 

It was Steven [Daicos] and Sanjay [Singhal] who came up with the concept. I came in a little bit after, but we’re taking my three favorite things and blending them together. And judging from the people who come through the doors, everyone says the same thing.

So, the concept wasn’t only coming from our website or what Sanjay thought about coffee houses and champagne. Rather, it’s been an ongoing trend in the neighborhood, at least from our perspective. When I heard about it, I thought, “of course! Who doesn’t love coffee, oysters, and champagne?” You can have coffee in the morning, mid-day, and at night, if you’re like me and can handle your caffeine appropriately! (laughs)

I think that with COC as well, you can’t really decide. It starts at 7:00 a.m. and is open until 2:00 a.m. Initially, we started switching over at 4:00 p.m., but we realized very quickly that you can’t judge our guests and when they want to have a beautiful cup of coffee or a glass of champagne. It could be at 11:00 a.m. or 12:00 p.m.

So, with the help of our customers, we’ve gaged that it’s not just morning, mid-afternoon, and evening. It’s really all around the clock. Every single day, people can enjoy a wonderful cup of coffee, champagne, or oysters as well. I didn’t touch upon oysters as much, but yeah! Oysters at 12:00 p.m. Why not! (laughs)

We’ve got to satisfy those midnight cravings!

Absolutely! (laughs)

You mentioned COC has unique hours, opening from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. When have you found to be your busiest time?

For coffee, we definitely get hit in the morning. We have multiple businesses right on top of us in the financial district. It really caters to the neighborhood.

The crowd kind of dies down and then picks up at 2:00 p.m. when we start shucking oysters.

I would say the champagne crowd starts to reel in around 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. Most of them don’t know about the back just yet, so they just start popping bottles. Then they begin to realize what we have behind the champagne wall.

It’s a great way to start off your after-work evening!

COC is definitely one of the hottest places in the financial/entertainment district, especially with àtoi. Now that you’ve been open a couple of weeks, have you seen an increase in people asking about your space?

Absolutely! I would say about thirty percent of the people have been here before and are bringing friends. For the other seventy percent, I think it’s their first time.

It’s interesting to see the people who haven’t been here, but have heard of the concept. I find it fascinating to watch whether they directly “bee-line” to our champagne cellar, or want to have a glass of champagne and wait to have the full experience.

Week by week, it’s exciting to see how quickly the word is being spread. And I think that on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, we’re doing more turning away than anything. Or we’re asking guests to come back in a couple of minutes and hopefully we’ll have space for them. It’s definitely getting busy!

And what I’d like to see, and what’s happening, is that on the industry nights, hospitality veterans will start coming in on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. We’re starting to see Wednesdays pick up as well.

My dream is to have this place full, lively, and exciting every night! I think we’ll see that in the coming weeks.

Speaking about customers, compared to other businesses like Starbucks, which also draw in a large millennial crowd, is there a focus to your advertising, or do you mainly use word of mouth strategies to attract visitors?

There definitely is a focus. If you’ve ever seen pictures, I would say COC is very femme forward and femme chic. Some people even say it’s a little Parisian inspired, but that’s just their take on it. It’s fresh, it’s calming, and it really takes you out of the bustling area of King Street.

Really, COC pulls you away from any hectic day that you might have. So, there’s a calming feeling that we provide.

With our marketing, it’s all about not taking yourself too seriously. On the bottom of our coffee bags it says something like, “if you’re looking at this, most likely you’re out of beans!” or “just remember, you’re pretty, smart, and beautiful. XOXO Sanjay and Steven”. On the sides of our cups, there are also little rabbits that say, “caution, this cup is very hot. Do not put between your legs!” (laughs)

There are a lot of fine details in our marketing. It makes you laugh a little bit and reminds you that life’s not always serious. We’re just here to have a good time!

Coffee Oysters Champagne

That’s excellent! I’ve seen a couple of pictures of COC online. I really liked that between the champagne bar with its light and airy rose gold features and àtoi with the dark velvet booths and wooden elements, you really have two different spaces. They’re almost night and day!

Yeah! The idea is that you’re walking into a completely different venue. It’s really meant to evoke emotion. For Steven, Sanjay, and myself, that was our goal in creating two venues. It’s the unique feeling that you get and the contrast of immediately stepping into a different world. COC is mysterious. It’s dark. It’s sexy. And it’s playful as well! (laughs)

Overall, that’s the general idea. But it’s also very exciting in my eyes to look at the space overhead. The experience is such a neat balance. You have coffee, oysters, and champagne, but you also get to experience in-depth cocktails and more!

Developing contrast and evoking emotion is what we want to do. That’s our goal!

As the manager, do you approach running these areas from a different mindset?

You have to! (laughs) With àtoi, we definitely have a theme. I wouldn’t say we’re a themed restaurant at all, that’s not what we’re going for, but we have a theme in our delivery. That’s how we interact with our guests. In terms of the music, it’s also a completely different feel.

When I step into COC I think to myself, “remember, they don’t know about us. Or they may not know about us”. So, there is a little bit of a transition where I have to adjust.

I look around the room at each and every single person to gauge reactions. You can tell that there’s a sort of intrigue some have when they watch people disappear into the champagne cellar.

I observe the customers’ reaction to our service and it’s interesting to see how so many are sitting beside each other, but they’re sitting in silence. They’re just observing. I can tell by that kind of reaction, that these guests don’t know what’s behind the walls. It almost becomes somewhat of a game. I’ll watch how far along they are in their experience and maybe go over and ask, “hey, how did you find us?”

àtoi is meant to be a playful and fun space. You’re guiding their experience and you want to make sure that they have a great time. But you also want to wow them.

After being in this venue almost every day, and for extended hours, you still have to realize that as each guest enters the champagne cellar, it has to be just a special as the first time you walked through. So, living vicariously through them is what keeps me connected to my guests!

It sounds like a great day-to-day job then!

It’s never boring, that’s for sure! (laughs) And that’s how I know from a management perspective, we can keep our staff happy. Being in this environment, it’s tough to be upset because it’s constantly changing. Service is always exciting and positive.

And you have to know that when you’re touching a table at àtoi, these guests may not have been here before and their sensitivity to their surroundings may be a little more heightened so to speak. So, beginning a dinner service with that kind of fun experience, it normally puts you off to a good start!

As someone who’s had hospitality experience in Trinidad and Tobago, and lived in trendy cities like New York City, how do you think COC compares to your other dining experiences across the globe?

I’ve never been in a place that reminds me of COC. Aesthetically, I haven’t seen anything like that. Now, as for the entire experience, I’ve been to, let’s say, PDT [Please Don’t Tell] in New York, but that’s a smaller venue. You can look throughout the room, perhaps select something, and think “ok, that looks a little out of the ordinary. Maybe that has a something to do with what I’ve been hearing about this space”.

And in comparison, while there’s only a couple of places to go at COC, I still feel like we’re operating on a bigger scale than most. We’re a 6,000 square foot venue.

Have you ever brought any inspiration from your travel experiences back to COC?

Oh yes! Essentially, it’s all about the guest experience for me. So, I think about every single time I’ve stepped foot into some kind of a speakeasy or any wicked bar with a hidden entrance. How does that make me feel? And how do I make sure that every person feels good like that?

The quality level of the guest experience is what I pay attention to the most. Because if we don’t get that right, then we’ve failed!

I’m very passionate about that aspect. Actually, I’d like to read something from my Instagram that I wrote a while back. It means something special because it shows appreciation for something that we offer and is very important for me.

I’m excited to hear it!

This is what I wrote, “Word of mouth is powerful. A confined room poisoned with lack of appreciation is distracting. In an ideal world, the stranger whom sits silently poised next to you should share similar thoughts, ‘We’re the lucky ones’”.

For me, that translates directly to the surprise and delight that we offer here. And that’s the most important part, making sure that everyone has an appreciation for what we have.

Coffee Oysters Champagne

I love that! You had mentioned the importance of bringing people in and the importance of their overall experience. I heard that you have a fun New Year’s Eve party coming up at àtoi! What kinds of experiences can guests expect to kick off 2019?

Tons of champagne! (laughs) It will be surprise and delight times one hundred. Times one thousand actually! We’re going to provide the party of the year. And that’s what we’re doing for ourselves, the guests, and our regulars now. Why not throw a great party? Again, it’s all about the experience. When you focus on the experience and not just the money, you’re bound to have a great party ahead of you. I don’t want to give away too much because we’re planning some entertainment, but it’ll be a lot of fun. Basically 1920’s Paris at its best! (laughs)

Are you planning on hosting any other special events we should be on the lookout for in the coming year?

We are constantly planning and plotting and we have some exciting evenings on the rise! All in the new year. You’ve got to come though!

To wrap up, I’d love to finish with just a few fill-in-the-blank questions. Do you want to give it a shot?

Yes!

One thing I always have in my fridge is…

The green powder that’s berry flavored! If I’m on the go, I’ll just throw it in a drink and eat a snack on the way. Or I’ll eat at COC in the morning, have my greens for the day, and I don’t have to worry about it!

In my free time, I love to…

Write music.

Any genre in particular?

I would just say soulful, conscious music.

If I could travel anywhere, I would visit…

At this time, I would probably go to Southeast Asia. I’ve never been there. But I’ve also never been to Paris. And with this job in mind, I’d head to Paris. I’d go to France and do the tour!

It’s a beautiful city and the food is great!

I’m sure! It’s my favorite!

Last one! One of my favorite dishes on our menu is…

I would say the octopus. It comes with a beautiful celery remoulade, sous vided, charcoaled. Yellow beets. It’s delightful! You know what? I eat octopus almost everywhere! If it’s on the menu, I order it. I have my sharein the city, and I was very impressed by ours!

To purchase tickets to Coffee Oysters Champagne’s new year’s eve 2019 party, click here.

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