Coffee shop

Find Out What’s Hot With HotBlack Coffee

In conversation with a man who wears more hats than many can hold, Jimson Bienenstock, co-owner of one of the trendiest cafes in Toronto, gives us the lowdown of HotBlack Coffee’s rise to fame, and everything that came together to make it happen. 

Bienenstock, chief builder, sommelier, and repairman (as described on their website) is a co-owner of the internationally acclaimed cafe on Queen Street West. Momi Kishi is the other half of this insanely talented and creative duo which created HotBlack Coffee from scratch, quite literally.

First things first, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what your role with HotBlack Coffee is?

Bienenstock: Hmm, where do I start? I'm English. We moved to the States just after I was born. We got kicked out of the States and came to Canada as refugees. When I was five, we moved back to the UK. I have a master's in molecular biology from Cambridge, and then I realized I didn't want to be a doctor like my parents.

Got married - my wife is Swedish, my two kids were born in Paris. We realized that we didn't want to live there, and we knew Canada, as we visited several times and thought that this would be the best place in the world to move to with a young family and grow up. So we sold everything and started from scratch 15 years ago. 

How did you get into the food and beverage industry in Toronto and what has your journey been like? 

Bienenstock: I started off as a server in a very fancy fine dining restaurant called George, in the east end of Toronto. I became the sommelier, floor manager, general manager - and I was the food and beverage director and the sommelier for the Hotel Fairmont Royal York. 

Then I opened Soho House, a private member's club around the corner. I was the pre-opening general manager - so big place, 10,000 square feet, 150 staff, and I was responsible for all of the pre-opening and opening - and I did another big project after that.

Another 300 seat restaurant for a very fancy fine-dining chef in the States, Jonathan Waxman and Ivan Reitman, opened that, and then I quit because I like doing projects and doing interesting stuff.

Why did you choose Queen St. West?

Bienenstock: I was offered the lease on this place. I know it very well because we used to have offices next door, and I couldn't get a decent coffee in the area. I didn't have enough money to do something big myself. I had a little bit and thought there was a need for good coffee, good service, in a kind of good location.

Can you talk to me a little about Momi, your co-owner? How did you folks meet?

Bienenstock: I saw this lease - it was one of those things, you have to take it or not take it. So I found the lease before I found Momi. I have a friend who's a headhunter and we went out for lunch and I said, “I'm opening a coffee shop,” and he said, “Oh, man, I’ve got to find you someone,” and I said “No way, I got a better network than you do.”

We had a gentleman's bet over it, and I lost the bet. He introduced me to Momi and it was really weird. It was one of those interviews where when you meet someone it’s like, ‘Something can’t be right, it's too good too good to be true.’ We really hit it off on a professional level. We shared a similar philosophy in terms of everything.

So when we met the first time, it's like, okay, we absolutely agree on everything - something must be wrong. We signed the lease just over four years ago and we are still absolutely 100 per cent on the same page.

What’s special about HotBlack? What sets you apart from the hundreds of cafes in Toronto?

Bienenstock: We don't spend our time worrying about what other people are doing. I think that's part of being a leader, as opposed to a follower. When we first had a design company come in to give us a design for this, everything was marble and barn wood with Edison lamps, and I was just like, ‘Seriously?’ because then you look like every other coffee shop and we didn't want to do that. So we started from scratch. We gave up on the design people. We just did it ourselves. We saw some lamps, which we really liked, and then we built a place around it. 

That’s so amazing that you folks put together the place by yourself! What was the design process like? Did you and Momi have the same vision for the space or did you butt heads?

Bienenstock: We agreed. We have kind of a curious decoration; very minimalist. We're okay to have completely blank walls, which people get scared by for some reason, but we like it being minimalist. 

[Momi] is Japanese and we really liked the Japanese idea of minimalism with some plants and stuff. We didn’t butt heads at all, it was just coincidentally because we like the philosophy of less is more - that you can still have luxury but be minimalist at the same time. 

What would you say was one of the biggest challenges you faced starting out?

Bienenstock: We do several other things to increase sociability. One of them you picked up on: there's no WiFi. It had a very negative impact on us in the beginning because people would walk in and ask for our WiFi password, and when we’d say we didn’t have WiFi. They would trash us on social media. We had one star on TripAdvisor, on Yelp, and on Google at the beginning because we just got slaughtered on social media, which is kind of weird because what we were trying to do is encourage sociability, but social media is the one that really killed it.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your strategies to increase sociability?

Bienenstock: All of the counters except one are too small for your laptops. The one table that we do have is too big to have it by yourself, so you're obliged to share.

I noticed your patio, and I love the touch of nature and keeping things natural. Did you always know you wanted to incorporate that aspect at HotBlack Coffee?

Coffee shop Zainab Damji

Bienenstock: So that was kind of the concept from the start. Everything is 100 per cent natural here. I can tell you that there's absolutely no chemicals in the place that everything is made from scratch. Even the stuff which is not made in-house is genuinely made from scratch on a daily basis. So, 100 per cent natural, full traceability. 

Our coffee comes from people that we know. It's coming from Don Rodriguez and his farm, picked by his family on the side of a hill. We have full traceability of all of our products and we feel that we're ethically sound and provide stuff, guilt-free.

So I took a  look at your website earlier and noticed that everybody has little, quirky descriptions and I absolutely loved that. That’s the first thing that drew me in, can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Bienenstock: It's about the people. I am a sommelier, I do the alcohol stuff. I'm a repairman. It used to say arsonist as well because we had a fire burning back and I ran the fire. But we just asked [staff]what do you want to be, you know, a gamer or whatever.

That’s incredible because I’ve never seen that before. It’s nice to put a face to your baristas.

Bienenstock: It's easy to be original when you're not copying people. I think that's one of the key things. If you've got confidence in what you're doing, do it! 

Okay, last question. If you had to summarize for me in one or two sentences what HotBlack Coffee is all about, what would you say?

Bienenstock: We strive to be global, cutting edge in service and friendliness and quality, and in value for money.