Lukes Drug Mart in Calgary, Alberta, has been a neighborhood institution for more than 60 years. Today, walking in for the first time, you might think you’ve entered hipster central, another freshly-antiqued reinterpretation of a general store—and Lukes does indeed have whole aisles devoted to artisanal beard oil, beanies (that’s “toques” to a Calgarian), Mason jars of homemade ice cream, and vinyl records. You might expect the store—and the coffee bar which runs the whole length of the front wall just as you enter—to be populated by twenty-somethings in plaid flannel. But Lukes is still first and foremost a community pharmacy, and its coffee program (installed three years ago) isn’t the final stage of an alienating program of gentrification, it’s actually a return to the drugstore’s original community role.
Under the stuffed pheasants pinned above the two-group La Marzocco Linea PB, a diverse group of customers line up at the bar to buy Americanos, eggs, and lottery tickets. Many of them have clearly come in to get a prescription filled, or to buy dry goods from the aisles of groceries in the basement. The baristas manning the till and serving up a steady stream of drinks seem to know many of their customers, who range from an elderly man buying a black coffee and a bunch of bananas to a couple of young girls there for the hot chocolate. In addition to espresso, Lukes serves FETCO– and Chemex-brewed coffee, as well as chai and hot chocolate, which customers can drink at a long counter in front of the window, or take to go.
Lukes is attempting to return to the pharmacy lunch counter, which large pharmaceutical distributors like Rexall and Guardian, who were often behind the operations of pharmacy counters within other shops, began to actively discourage in 1955. “They started saying that pharmacists need to be pharmacists, filling prescriptions, not making milkshakes,” coffee manager Laura Cummings explains. Though Lukes, like many other drugstores, once had an extensive hot food selection, it operated exclusively as a pharmacy and convenience store throughout the rest of the twentieth century.
More recently, government cutbacks to pharmacy funding changed the game once again. As Cummings tells me, “Probably about five years ago, a lot of independent pharmacies started taking a big hit. For us [to succeed] it was all about diversification.” That diversification took the form of the coffee bar, not only intended to help Lukes secure itself from a business standpoint, but also take up its old place in the community. Cummings continued, “We felt that this neighborhood desperately needed it. There hadn’t been any sort of coffee shop here for generations.”
Commenting on the historically Italian Bridgeland neighborhood where the original Lukes Drug Mart is located, Cummings notes, “We have old-school Italians who are coming in and at first were like, ‘You guys don’t know anything about coffee.’ Slowly they started coming around, and now they’re a huge part of our clientele.” Though Cummings says it took about six months for the coffee program to catch on, Lukes hasn’t tried to push drastic changes on its clientele. “Before we had, you know, old pharmacy carpets in here, and everything had a really traditional pharmacy vibe. And then we started adding things here and there. We started with just the espresso machine and then added some drip coffee, and slowly we’ve added other things in.”
A lot has changed since the days when Lukes retailed grocery store brands like Folgers and Maxwell House alongside cans of tomato soup and jars of jam. These days, they encourage people to learn to brew coffee at home, and carry the full lines of both Chemex coffeemakers and Baratza grinders. Lukes’ Italian customer base in Bridgeland informed a decision to serve and retail Four Barrel Coffee, which Cummings says helped to close the gap between traditional Italian dark roast and Third Wave coffee. “We’re not trying to push anyone out; we’re trying to make sure that everything that we bring in caters to the people that have been coming here for 50 years.” Lukes is able to offer customers a choice between Four Barrel’s lighter, North American-style roasts and the darker roasts that characterize De La Paz, which Four Barrel bought in 2013, right around the time that Lukes began serving coffee.
Their approach seems to be working. Lukes has already opened a store in Hastings in Vancouver, and plans to start serving coffee in their Killarney, Calgary location by the end of this year. Though the new coffee bars won’t be able to sell you lottery tickets and bananas along with your espresso, Lukes’ priority is on maintaining that community vibe. “We’ve tried to take everything from the original location that would fit [in the new location],” Cummings notes. You might even be served by one of the same baristas that started at the Bridgeland store, since Lukes staff move frequently between locations, even provinces.
As far as Cummings is concerned, the coffee program’s success is directly tied to Lukes increased community involvement. She explains that the pre-show for the Sled Island music festival has taken place in the original Lukes parking lot for the past several years, drawing more people every year, and “that’s been a huge part of the coffee too.” Lukes’ broad focus puts the shop in a unique position within Calgary coffee culture, but Cummings says she’s more concerned with the store continuing to develop its own approach than trying to fit in.
Cummings laughs, “We definitely sometimes feel like the odd man out, but we’re totally into it.”