Inspired by 52 Cups of Coffee, I've set out to meet & interview entrepreneurs and small business owners doing their part to help people on their journey to health. Whether it's over a cup of coffee, tea, a smoothie or kombucha, I want to meet the folks encouraging positive change in their community.
Do you know someone I should meet? Leave a note in the comments below.
In the summer I popped into Fuel+, a small local coffee shop, specifically because they were one of the few places in Toronto to get butter coffee. I intended to go in, get a coffee and quietly sip while reading my book. Then I met Gary, co-owner of Fuel+. He was warm, welcoming, and easy to talk to. I was full of questions about their menu and their philosophy - "We believe that eating healthy should not cost more and taste just as good", so he suggested I come back to meet Chester, his partner in business and life.
Chester sat down and dove right into the conversation:
Chester: We thrive to have a community business. We don’t want ten thousand products. It’s not about that. It’s about the experience.
Hema: When I was in the last time Gary mentioned that you both had very different careers before starting Fuel+.
C: The last job I had was for Apple, I used to open their stores. I opened their Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing stores, trained all their staff in China. I love people, I’m a technologist because I love technology. I think here it’s the same idea, transforming someone’s experience from when they walk in and when they walk out.
Sometimes when people walk into a computer store they are freaked out and don’t know what to buy, and I hope that their experience when they walk out is ‘Oh, I got this!’, or at least they know the place they can come to if something doesn’t work right. That’s very important to us at Fuel+, the same idea. Our food, the healthy food, is very confusing especially in today’s landscape. We want to be the place where customers can trust, so they can come and ask about their nutrition, their fuel. It’s also not the same every moment of your life, sometimes I need a little bit more protein, sometimes I’m down and I need something to help with that. That requires a relationship and it requires trust, and to earn trust you require a relationship.
We want our customers to have the convenience but we also add a layer of consultation.
H: What prompted you to go from Apple to opening Fuel+?
It’s kind of my and Gary’s middle ground where we met in terms of interests. Retail is retail, I can sell you a computer and then turn around and sell you a website graphic. Once a relationship is built it is no longer about your need of the product, it’s about how I can help you be better.
Healthy people walk into a health food store, everyone walks into a coffee shop, that’s why we wanted to open a coffee shop. We always knew we wanted health, but I didn’t want to open a supplement store. It’s not the answer for me, it’s never been the answer for me.
H: Who developed your menu?
C: Mostly me. This menu is two and a half years in the making. I always say the menu needs to live like the seasons, we have major switches in the menu fall/winter and spring/summer. We introduce new products each season, we set up these menus to help open conversations.
When we say detox, we don’t do it, we set up your body to do it. We give the body the nutrients it needs. We don't believe in ‘magic food’.
Almost every diet model has something that I like, even down to the Master Cleanse. Do I want my customers to starve for days? Absolutely not, but within the Master Cleanse they took ginger, lemon, cayenne pepper – those are great ingredients. I like to harvest these random components that really work. That makes us more agile. Like the paleo diet, having healthy fats are great. That’s why we launched butter coffee over a year ago.
We want you to learn. We’ll pick a product like butter coffee for example, we don't know how long it will last because it’s a trend, but the lessons that you learn from this trend are going to stay with you forever. We are not just talking about butter coffee, that’s not the conversation. It’s always about grass-fed butter, MCT oil, how you use it and at the end of the day you learn.
H: Tell me about the ingredients you use. Is all of your produce organic?
C: Nope, not all of them. Otherwise a shake would cost you $20! This where the other side of the Fuel+ philosophy is important to us. Every decision we make is based on this: we believe eating healthy should not cost more and should taste just as good, so if the products don’t fit into these categories nicely then that means the products don’t fit with Fuel+.
I believe that if I teach you that you need to spend $12 to be healthy, you won’t be healthy every day. If I want to teach you to be healthy, I need to teach you something that is accessible that you can maintain.
H: What is your most popular item on the menu right now?
C: Peanut butter chocolate shake. It has organic peanut butter, banana, unsweetened almond milk, and Vega protein.
"I believe that if I teach you that you need to spend $12 to be healthy, you won’t be healthy every day. If I want to teach you to be healthy, I need to teach you something that is accessible that you can maintain."
H: What do you think is the item that is the most underrated?
C: Our menu is fairly well balanced, if a product doesn’t work for us I would have retired it. Probably one of the products that people don’t grab onto is the organic wheatgrass juice. Our wheatgrass is from Ontario, a small family farm, we love them to pieces. They come and deliver here and we juice it fresh to order.
H: On the personal side, what is it like working and living with your spouse? Do you have any advice for others venturing into business with a partner?
C: It’s not for everybody. It’s an active choice for us. It’s about respect, I have to respect that sometimes Gary wants some personal time and sometimes so do I. I go to yoga and that’s my personal time, and when I’m gone that affords him some personal time.
Also, there’s shift changes that happen (in the store) so we’re not in each others face all the time, and the work focuses are different. He’s about the store and the customer experience, whereas I make sure the product and operations are aligned.
We are very conscious of our relationship. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a lot of work because it’s not. We celebrate our love every day, I appreciate that I wake up to a partner that I love. We talk about it, I think it’s important for people who work very closely together to spend time to talk about how you feel.
If someone wants to take advice on working with your spouse, it’s to truly be honest and resolve all the issues before the end of the day. Don't carry it to the next day, because it gets muddy.
I value my relationship above the business, above everything else. If tomorrow the relationship and the business could not exist together, I would choose the relationship.
During my conversation with Chester it was apparent that they had built a community. From the students attending the local ballet school, to their parents, people living and working in the neighbourhood, and newcomers, all were welcomed and greeted like old friends. They had made real connections.
Fuel+ is located at 471 Church Street in Toronto. Their menu includes:
- healthy shakes
- organic, fair-trade coffee
- fresh, cold-pressed juices
- a selection of salads, wraps and snacks