The Community that Built The Federal Store
There are cafés where you grab a coffee, exchange as few words as possible and leave. Then there are coffee shops where you find yourself running late because you were busy chatting with the barista, and the person behind you in line, and that other guy across the room. You usually keep to yourself, but chatting with strangers seems safe in the space. Every neighbourhood has one of these little beacons of community where people come to worship the bean and linger just a moment longer. What is this magic? What is it about certain places that draw people in and draw people together?
The Federal Store is one of those community hubs. It’s a café, eatery and small store that’s nestled in Vancouver’s Mt. Pleasant neighbourhood. Co-owner Chis Allen gives credit to the fact that the building itself is one of those rare grandfathered-in commercial spaces operating in a residential zone. Yet, these spaces come and go, so whatever Allen and partner Colette Griffiths are doing has had an effect. This week marks The Federal Store’s third anniversary, so we caught up with Allen to reflect on what it takes to build not just a business, but a culture.
This space has become such a community hub. What do you think you’ve done to create that?
I’d almost reverse that and say that the community built itself around us. Credit is definitely due to the people who are around us and positivity in the community and, really, we are fortunate that people like this place. It’s a unique space in a unique community and a unique time for this neighbourhood because it’s transitioning. There are positive parts of that and it’s created this really great cross-section of people who have lived here for 50 years or just moved to the neighbourhood. We’ve seen kids grow up here from 5 days old and now they are 3, which is really amazing.
There is probably a lot of little things that we do that we are not aware of, but one thing we were really intentional about when we opened was that we wanted to make sure we interact with everyone who comes through the door like we’ve known them for years. I think that fosters interaction between us, but also between customers. I also think part of it is also the product that we are tucked into a neighbourhood and most people live within six blocks, including us.
From the beginning, you have curated a lot of local products at The Federal Store, whether that’s specialty food or artisanal soaps. How does carrying local goods contribute to the community vibe?
I think it does contribute to that friendly local atmosphere. It’s another way that the community reaches the store because we reach out to makers and they reach out to us. It does set the tone for the store and for us it differentiates us because we don’t carry huge brands.
One of the nice things about producers is the personal relationships you get to develop which is so much more meaningful than getting a box delivered. You see them grow and you affect both each other’s lives and, ideally, the fabric of the neighbourhood and the city we live in. It can be such a hard slog for them and it can be a roll of the dice. I’ve seen people come and go and it is tough in an emotional sense, to be honest.
How long did it take to feel like you have your feet under you?
Probably two years. I guess that’s kind of the standard, but now there’s a larger base of people who know about us. Now we kind of feel like we are here and we kind of know what we’re doing and there is some stability in what we do now. It’s important not to bite off more then you can chew right out of the gate because it will take so much more energy then you think.
Where did that philosophy of not overdoing it come from?
We definitely talked about it when we opened and tried to predict what people would want out of this space. We also had a super small kitchen and we thought about what was realistic for us. We couldn’t change the menu every week and that’s not what we thought people wanted. We wanted to be aligned with really consistent products that you keep coming back for, which was kind of romantic for us and very much a conscious choice. I think that desire to do something well and something steady is probably what helped build that community.
I think this is just a mantra we took on right out of the gate which is to just focus on executing a few things as well as we can and not taking on too much and focusing on the product we put out. Now we have our footing a little bit more we can think do a bit more experimenting.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in the last few years?
This is such a generic answer, but I was thinking about it earlier and I think the biggest thing is to be constantly improving and refining what we do and the goods we carry. I think it’s about starting somewhere and learning to be comfortable with wherever it ends up, even if it wasn’t part of the plan. It’s always evolving.
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