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Eat & Drink

Why Balzac's and the Reference Library are a perfect fit

Posted by Ab Velasco / July 16, 2012

Balzacs TorontoWhen Balzac's Coffee Roasters' new location at Toronto Reference Library opens later this month, founder and co-owner Diana Olsen's entrepreneurial odyssey will have come full circle.

"I love the Reference Library. When I first moved to Toronto in 1991, it was one of my hangouts," Olsen, 48, says. "I lived right by there and spent countless hours in the library doing research for opening my company. It's near and dear to my heart."

Running her own business wasn't what Olsen had always envisioned. The Vancouver native studied French literature at University of British Columbia. After graduating, she lived in Paris for nearly two years, working as an au pair. "I saw the European style of cafés. I fell in love with Parisian cafés."

She moved to Toronto afterwards. The daily grind of a cubicle job catalyzed a path towards the coffee bean grind. "I created Balzac's, because I needed to create a job for myself," she says candidly. "I was working for a large corporation. I had a long drive to work every day. I realized I was not cut out for this.

"I thought about what I could do. I love coffee. I'm a huge caffeine addict; but it has to be good coffee. So I decided to tie all those things together."

Olsen named her business in honour of early 19th century French author, Honoré de Balzac, whose work she fell in love with during her university studies. Balzac was so obsessed with coffee that he wrote a dissertation called The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee.

In the early '90s, Olsen studied the craft of coffee roasting and bean selection at the West Coast Specialty Coffee Training Institute in San Francisco. In 1996, the first Balzac's opened in Stratford. There are six - soon-to-be seven - Balzac's locations across Southern Ontario.

In 2011, Olsen made a successful appearance on CBC's Dragon's Den, the reality show that features entrepreneurs who pitch ideas to moguls ("dragons"), who have the money to turn ideas into reality. Olsen received $350,000 - and took on dragons Bruce Coxon and Arlene Dickinson as business partners - to expand Balzac's into Ryerson University, which opened this May, and the Reference Library.

"I'm very happy with the Ryerson location," Olsen reports. "The feedback has been positive. The Ryerson crowd is great and I think we have one of the best patio spaces in the city."

Balzacs TorontoOlsen is influenced by old-world European sensibilities. "Definitely aesthetically," she says, perched on a Parisian café-inspired chair at her Ryerson venue. She teases that Reference Library customers can expect a beautiful tin ceiling and a light-coloured bar that will be reminiscent of traditional cafés.

Olsen also takes pride in her trade. "We prepare everything in a similar way to how it would've been prepared 100 years ago. The type of cappuccino we offer is like the kind you'd get in Italy. Our teas are from Paris."

The Reference Library is located at Yonge and Bloor streets, the symbolic heart of the city where there are no fewer than four Starbucks, one Tim Hortons, and numerous other cafés vying for coffee lovers' attention.

"I don't quite know what it is that we do differently. We all sell coffee, tea and pastries," Olsen muses, but adds that Balzac's has something unique to offer. "It's the quality of what we do that is different. There are people out there who are willing to pay a little more for quality."

Creativity is another way that has allowed Olsen to differentiate her business. For instance, her Liberty Village and Distillery District venues are available to rent for private events, such as weddings.

The new library location will also lend itself to creative inspiration from its literary-rich surroundings. "I work with a lot of writers. I have many friends who are writers. For any writers that want to do a reading, we will make our space available," says Olsen, as she dreams out loud with a summery glass of lemonade.

One writer friend is Margaret Atwood, whom Olsen recently partnered with on the Atwood Blend. Portions of proceeds from sales of the 100 per cent organic and shade grown Arabica coffee beans are donated to the Peele Island Bird Observatory. To date, over $5,000 has been raised.

Can customers expect other literary tie-ins, like a 50 Shades of Earl Grey Tea? "I haven't read that one yet," Olsen says with her characteristic bright smile. "But no, I don't want to lose my focus, which right now, is just the Atwood Blend."

After a busy year that shows no signs of slowing, Olsen admits she has no immediate plans to expand further. "We need to take a breather," she says with a laugh. "We're a small company. It's been a lot of work. I have such an amazing team who are so committed. I need for them to have a break too."

Photos by labonny, marty pinker of the Distillery District location.



Paul / July 16, 2012 at 10:28 am
Balzac's is an absolute unique and wonderful gasp of Europian breeze in Toronto.
It allways a pleasure having a cup of coffee there.
Best of luck in developing their great brand!
FrenchDoItBest / July 16, 2012 at 12:40 pm
I love this place even more now that I know some of it's history. Thanks. #Paris
Matt / July 16, 2012 at 12:53 pm
Absolutely terrible roasters. I'm not trying to be a troll here, but every time I see Balzac's getting held up as anything more than a successful branding exercise, my third-wave coffee loving self gets irked. Their roasts are so overdone and offensive that it causes one to realize the subtleties in a Venti Starbucks Bold. Please, if you think this is good coffee, I urge you to order an espresso at any of the Lit, Sam James, Dark Horse, or Manic Coffee locations. Your mind will be blown.
jill.s / July 16, 2012 at 03:25 pm
As far as I am concerned Balzacs coffee beats Starbucks any day now that is overdone coffee.I have yet to find nicer coffee anywhere.
Brad / July 16, 2012 at 09:04 pm
Matt, I've heard this complaint before and it honestly baffles me - the only thing I can even wildly guess is that their espresso roasts are perhaps different from the rest of their coffees, and maybe not as suited to their micro-roast process - because my experience couldn't be more opposite.

I'm not an espresso drinker, but for my pallet there isn't a better micro-roaster for drip or press coffee anywhere in the province. I drive way out of my way weekly for their signature marble roast for my aeropress or Chemex - where it holds it own right up against my own home nano-roasts.

I can understand getting the odd bad coffee on site (who knows how long those carafes sit around) but I'd put the actual coffee *Roasts* up against any of the names you mentioned (I don't actually think any of them actually roast their own coffee). Lit brews Stumptown and Manic brews Intelligentsia which are both fine roasters - but US based, so you're well into their shelf life by the time they even arrive (I don't know who Dark Horse and Sam use, but I suspect it's one of the west-coast usual suspects).

Are you strictly an espresso drinker, or is there a specific blend or roast you prefer at another location? Taste is obviously subjective - but to mine Balzac's is so far ahead of everyone else, I legitimately want to know where others are coming from on this.

Kat23 / July 16, 2012 at 10:30 pm
I seriously am counting down the days until Balzac's opens. Coffee + library = my heart.

"...where there are no fewer than four Starbucks, one Tim Hortons..." I actually did a count one day. Within about a three-block radius of Yonge/Bloor, there are NINE Starbucks and FOUR Tim Horton's. My veins are filled with coffee, and yet even I think that's ridiculous.
Diana Olsen / July 20, 2012 at 07:42 pm
Thank you Brad! It is so cool to hear from our customers, but even cooler that you have come to our defence by sharing your appreciation for what we do. I totally agree that taste is subjective, otherwize there would be no explanation for the success of so many vastly different coffee companies. I stand by our product 100% in terms of the efforts we make to bring in the highest quality green beans, and roasting and delivering coffee weekly to the cafes so that it is consumed while still fresh. Beyond that, if some people, like Matt, don't like it, well we can't please everyone. Thanks again!
Diana Olsen
Anonymous / August 13, 2012 at 12:18 am
Does anyone know when it opens?
Conflict / August 23, 2012 at 04:57 pm
Why didn't the editors disclose the conflict Mr. Velasco has? This is shoddy, conflict-laden journalism.
Marc / January 17, 2013 at 10:55 am
Again, the problem with Toronto is that an idea comes here, but it is always watered down, missing key elements, or it closes too early. Balzac's at the Reference Library is latching onto the library hours. This is a joke. The cafe is located at the front with a divider in place, and most of all, it is at a major part of downtown! Closing before 11pm on weekdays and before 8pm on weekends just doesn't cut it. Toronto needs to make up its mind, be a top city in North America in size and in its state/how things run and quality, or be a small town or small larger city aka hogtown?

Anyway, the last one is scratched off the list because Canada has let in too many immigrants in the past 25 years with no infrastructure/transit growth, plus condos and developer mafias were allowed to run the show here with no regulations and care. You pay the price for wanting so much without considerstion, so the price must be paid!
a. m. homewood / March 14, 2013 at 11:12 am
i woud like to thank the staff at the metro library balzac's for their kindness in finding my lost purse last week. and particularly the young lady who took the trouble to locate me and advise me that it was found.

friendly helpfulness beyond the call of duty

thank you.

NativeTorontonianAl / November 5, 2013 at 01:49 pm
The Balzac's Reference Library branch is a great thing and a beautiful place and location, but unfortunately it is another one of a growing number of liars. That branch continues to give the impression that they offer wifi, and who could blame people for concluding that because many customers here are in fact customers at other Balzac branches, but in reality there is either an inconsistent wifi or NO wifi at all. The sad thing is that the library's wifi is available yet is weak and doesn't even reach the Balzac zone at the front section facing Yonge St. To avoid customers and new ones from being disappointed or at a loss, please Balzac Reference Library, just admit and let it be known ahead that there is no wifi and don't be a LIAR.
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