Monogram Coffee’s flagship shop is an unassuming cafe, nestled between a convenience store and a Greek restaurant in Altadore, a quiet community about 10 minutes outside of downtown Calgary. Although the street may be quiet, the scene inside is a constant stream of locals and coffee fans who travel out of their way to enjoy Monogram’s offerings and welcoming vibes. In many ways, Monogram reminds me most of some of my favorite cafes worldwide: a little DIY, bright yet cozy, and with lots of personal character. Despite the marquee Canadian coffee names behind the enterprise, the space still feels like its humble beginning as a dream of three friends who came together to open a cafe full of—as they invoke repeatedly—wonder and warmth.
In the two-plus years since Monogram first opened its doors to Calgary, co-owners Ben Put, Justin Eyford, and Jeremy Ho have opened a second location (and expanded their first cafe), popped up in venues across the city of Calgary, supported Put competing in the 2015 and 2016 World Barista Championships (there’s even a short documentary about his journey to Dublin in 2016), and gained an impressive 15,000 Instagram followers. But for the three friends-turned-business-partners, relationships and balance are at the heart of their growth.
I sat down with Eyford and Put to discuss these last two years and their hopes for Monogram’s future. The two made it instantly clear that maintaining balance is the company's key focus. Balance between having a local and international brand. Balance between business lives and personal lives (both Eyford and Put welcomed new babies to their families this past year). Balance between quality and growth. To maintain this balance, the team puts a big emphasis on relationships with their customers, their staff, and their roaster.
Monogram has a somewhat unique relationship with roaster Transcend Coffee and one that Put and Eyford feel has been successful. “There are other formats like this,” Put says, “but we entered a relationship with Transcend in a little bit of uncharted waters. They trusted us to take their coffee and use our own branding. It’s known for Transcend that that’s a bit of a departure from the typical roaster-cafe relationship but I think it’s been successful.”
They tell me that the reason this particular model has worked so well for Monogram is that they have a very transparent relationship with the Edmonton-based roaster. Put talks weekly with Transcend about how the coffee tastes and gives feedback. Each side has an understanding that coffee can taste different in different situations, and Put emphasizes that this is an important part of the way cafes should talk to roasters.
“It’s the one part of the chain where there is more subjectivity, and we need to acknowledge that we have different environments right now and just because this doesn’t taste good here doesn’t mean that you messed up. I think that could be a really healthy aspect to the industry. All the other chains it’s really hard to give that feedback, but my hope is that eventually giving feedback to a roaster could be a very positive thing and not even something that people worry about.”
A roaster himself, it’s something Put thinks about a lot: the ways that baristas, cafes, and roasters could have more open communication. And roasting is something Monogram hopes to be doing very soon—though there's no set timeline for this next step. “Since we started we’ve always tried to be very transparent with Transcend about what it is that we want and what we’re doing,” Eyford tells me. “We’ve told them from the beginning that eventually we want to be roasting for ourselves.”
Beyond moving into roasting, Put says the company would love to have more cafes, while constantly improving operations within all of their current shops as well. “I would like to continue to explore how to keep staff engaged and long-term, both in terms of roles and monetarily, and I would like to try new service models and new experiential things,” he says. Monogram has already had success challenging service norms with an Honour Bar at its downtown location and has also started to gain an international following for the company branding and aesthetic.
What makes Monogram so appealing to both local—their Altadore cafe is always busy when I go in, no matter the time of day—and international audiences may be in their guiding principle of “wonder and warmth,” a phrase that Put says, in the beginning, was “just a nice alliteration but [has] actually worked really well as a guiding principle.” It’s this guiding principle that Eyford says “helps keep us focused on something. Having those [words] in the back of our minds always really helps us when we’re trying to make a decision. When we’re trying to decide to do something we always ask ourselves: ‘Is it promoting these two principles? Are we making our cafe more into what we wanted it to be, or are we losing our direction?’”
On a recent visit to the Monogram location in downtown Calgary, I ran into Eyford’s father, and we struck up a brief conversation. He told me about a recent trip he took to Amsterdam and, while wearing a Monogram shirt at a local cafe there, the baristas got very excited and exclaimed great admiration for the Monogram brand and coffee. Eyford’s father was surprised by, and extremely proud of this, but to me it spoke of the enduring smallness of the specialty coffee community and the affection that anyone in the coffee world has for a brand that seems to be doing something a bit differently.
But while the international recognition has been appreciated, Eyford says you can't rely on being a destination cafe alone. “Recognition is helpful to be a destination but really what we’ve learned in the last two years is that you can’t survive on that,” he says. “It’s not a consistent flow of people—you really need to become a part of your community. And those people don’t necessarily care if you’re the best baristas in the world, they care that their daily experience is good.”
And while the coffee at their cafes is indeed warm and tasty, it’s those staff interactions that make Monogram shine and who carry the “wonder and warmth” mantra every day. “I think the unique thing about Calgary,” Put tells me, “is that there are more and more independent cafes and there’s still lots of room to grow. I think specialty coffee is still fresh enough in Canada that there’s a unique opportunity for people to make names for themselves.” And Monogram has done exactly that.
Elyse Bouvier is a Sprudge.com contributor based in Calgary. Read more Elyse Bouvier on Sprudge.