Born from cycling, propelled by Jet Fuel may be a cheeky yet accurate way to characterize the birth of one of downtown Toronto's landmark cafés. Flying high in the heart of Cabbagetown since 1992, Jet Fuel Café was founded by John Englar, a former bike courier, trained pastry chef, and bike shop owner.
With a thin but athletic build and wavy salt and pepper hair, Englar welcomes me with a faint smile as I enter. For nearly 24 years, their outstanding coffee has been consistently delighting regulars and casual guests. They also serve up a select group of pastries, all baked in-house. Their 'golden rule,' according to Englar is, "If we don't make it, we don't sell it!"
Jet Fuel's 24th anniversary is set to be in April, so I asked Englar if there's going to be any special celebrations.
"Not really, just your standard keg party. We topped out at 19 kegs several years back but it was a bit much."
Jet Fuel Coffee started off as a catering truck with a friend, and later a straight coffee service to the film industry in the late 1980's. "Johnny Jet Fuel" was the nickname film crews gave Englar; this moniker inspired the name of his future café, located at 519 Parliament St. (at Aberdeen).
"I was originally down at Queen and Jarvis in a bike store. I moved up to Cabbagetown by chance and I followed suit with the café 24 years ago," says Englar.
Patterned after the original Parisian coffee stands that sold lemonade and strong coffee, Jet Fuel Coffee follows suit with its own versions that are tres delicieux. The stability of a bricks and mortar existence allowed Englar to slow down a bit, whilst keeping in touch with his many cyclist friends who frequent the premises. But Jet Fuel gets a lot of customers outside the cycling community.
"We probably get one person from every demographic. We have judges, we have lawyers, we have skids, the window washer guy, ladies, mothers, pretty much the full gambit. Artists to lawyers and pretty much everyone in between."
The café also promotes one of Canada's longest running cycling teams, borne from the alley cat races started by Englar and others over 25 years ago. Jet Fuel Cycling has gone on to become an award-winning team, regularly competing around the world. While Englar admits that the team will wrap it up after this year, they plan to keep sponsoring cycling events, and one of their riders qualified to compete in the next Olympics. The vintage bicycle, team photo, air pump, and Jet Fuel labelled jerseys above the front counter on the back wall are testament to their cycling achievements.
Serving tasty coffee and freshly squeezed lemonade is a testament to their achievements at the café level. They serve them up in tall glasses with long handled spoons. The Faema E61 Legend espresso machine is in constant use as patrons order up lattes, cappuccinos and espressos from one of the baristas named Mike, a young fellow with a green toque and full beard. Englar makes and dispenses the coffee to patrons in rapid fire succession. After so many years, he's obviously quite adept at it.
"We serve coffee, lemonade, hot chocolate, we're going to try and have a better tea selection this year too. Since the ice cream store down the street went out of business we might try to make our own ice cream here next year,"
"Our signature drink is the Jet Fuel, which is in between a cappuccino and a latte, so it's a milky cappuccino or a foamy latte. We also make the best macchiato around."
In lieu of a brewed coffee, you can get an Americano (espresso with hot water) setting you back $3, but it's quite delicious, flowing perfectly on the palette. I was quite taken with how flavorful it was. There isn't a menu to order from per se, but according to Englar, everything is $2, $3 or $4.
After having that amazing Americano, I just had to ask where they get they coffee from.
"We get a guy to custom roast them [the espresso beans] for us. I bought a bunch of roasting equipment and he told me he'd sell me so much coffee for so cheaply that I'd never hook [the equipment] up. He was right,"
"He's up at Highway 7, Classic Coffee. He does a custom roast for us, so even if you get his coffee somewhere across town, it's not exactly like ours."
The well-worn hardwood floors, red walls and stainless steel surfaces give Jet Fuel Coffee a quasi-bohemian feel, while a multitude of pot lights and stainless steel hanging lamps provide a warm glow throughout. The exposed brickwork at the front of the café near the large picture window has a gigantic steel atlas hanging from it, which reflects the sunlight streaming through from the enormous picture window out front.
Many art shows have been hosted by this venerable coffeehouse, and local artistry is always on display. Some of this artistry even ends up on the bestseller books lists; Michael Ondaatje has been known to frequent Jet Fuel.
"I love Jet Fuel and I have been going there for years,"
explains the highly acclaimed author,
"Once when I decided to quit coffee I told that to John who owns it, and he warned me 'You're gonna lose your edge.'"
Ondaatje references it in his novel Divisadero (2007), and Englar jokingly remarks that " we get a credit with every book." Also on this day, the paintings of I. Kavanaugh figures prominently out front, while the back room shows off the skills of another local artist, Keith Hopkins.
Englar is in charge of picking what goes on display.
"I'm kind of like the curator. We change it up every month. We've had the longest running string of art shows....we've had about 312 different art shows over the years."
The minute you walk into Jet Fuel, you'll realize it's not your ordinary every day coffee shop and Englar is well aware of that.
"There's a lot of different views on the store. You either passionately love it or passionately hate it. Which is kind of interesting. But at least you had an experience. Love it or hate it, you had an experience. Right Wayne?"
Englar asks a regular, a burly guy with a goatee who's heading for the door to get some air. "Definitely!" he answers with a hearty laugh.
Jet Fuel is a staple in my life and an acquired habit that is hard to break. It's where I start my day!
For all you big fans, you can start looking forward to buying certified Jet Fuel coffee this year.
"We've started our certified dealer program. We'll be selling our coffee with our trademark on it to other coffee shops and restaurants to sell. That's gonna be our push in 2016."
After the great talk I had with Englar, I get up and thank him for his time.
"Anytime, man! You want a coffee?"
I gratefully accept, and pay the $3. I savour the taste and aroma as I exit the premises, the café bustling with activity behind me. A seemingly undented lineup is waiting to get this fantastic espresso from John Englar and his staff. The wait doesn't seem to faze them, and I can certainly understand why.