Iconoclast Coffee Roasters has never been out to win an Edmonton popularity contest. In 2009, owner Ryan Arcand quietly started roasting coffee in a warehouse on Alberta Avenue—especially back then, hardly a trendy part of town. “I started very slow and low in business,” he says. “Bought a roaster and started selling to one customer.” Today, the company’s a fixture of the Edmonton coffee scene (and my former employer), but all Iconoclast coffee still passes through the same 15-kilogram Has Garanti roaster, about which Arcand is characteristically matter-of-fact: “Four motors, four switches, and an on/off burner,” Arcand says.
When I worked as a barista for Arcand, I spent my downtime behind the bar weighing coffee out into Iconoclast’s signature brown paper bags. It has a distinct, almost savory taste that Arcand attributes to his own intuitive methods and his trusty Has Garanti’s patina. Arcand’s coffee has gained a strong following in Edmonton, though (perhaps because of his insistence on doing things differently) it took a few years for Iconoclast to establish itself.
In the summer of 2013, Iconoclast opened a cafe space in the front portion of an industrial bay in the Oliver neighborhood, where Arcand had moved the roasting operations. Opposed to any kind of advertising, he didn’t even change the sign outside—just rolled up the bay doors, set up a few tables, and, with the help of friends, started building a bar out of reclaimed pallet wood.
Since then, Iconoclast Koffiehuis (a reference to Arcand’s affection for all things Dutch) has become an established, unique figure in the local coffee community. A tiny sandwich board outside the door is still the cafe’s only signage. Inside, tables are set up around the bar, the record player donated by a customer, the wood stove that helps to heat the large space in the winter, the ping-pong table, and the roasting and packaging area in the back. Bicycles hang on the walls, green onions sprout in buckets of dirt by the window, and old mail-sorting shelves display retail coffee alongside jars of local honey, bike bells, and Hario brewers. A glass pastry case and a red La Spaziale espresso machine dominate the bar.
“I think of [the cafe space] within the context of the public commons,” Arcand says, referring to a set of cultural and natural assets that are (or should be) available to everyone in a society. “I believe coffee has played a historic role in developing public spaces. I want to continue in that tradition by offering a place that’s not exclusive.”
Arcand runs his business on some other unusual principles. Iconoclast coffee is not fair- or direct-trade certified. Arcand sees his responsibility lying closer to home. He says that though he buys from small brokers with ethical business practices (like Cafe Imports, Royal Coffee, and West Coast Coffee Traders), he is primarily focused on paying his staff a living wage and providing accessible community space.
He’s also dedicated to non-plastic packaging, wholesale delivery by bicycle whenever possible, keeping his own photograph out of the press (including this article), and maintaining a strictly local presence and customer base. He’s refused requests to wholesale Iconoclast Coffee in other Canadian cities, including Vancouver. “I don’t think that’s relevant,” he says, “because there are roasters in every city all over the world.”
Arcand is not, however, opposed to expanding his business within Edmonton. Iconoclast’s new location, which opened late last year, is less a full cafe than a lunch stop—a brick alcove inside the historic LeMarchand Mansion, which also houses a women’s boutique, art gallery, psychologist, and law offices. A joint venture between Arcand and the building’s owners, Iconoclast at LeMarchand is intended primarily to cater to other occupants and their clients. All this might seem a far cry from the public commons, which is (in theory at least), a classless, free-access institution, but Arcand sees the new model as a complementary aspect of his business.
“It’s a private-public partnership,” he says. Despite any opportunities he’s created for private or public misinterpretation—he doesn’t seem too worried about what anyone thinks of him.