Boxcar Social

Behind the Bar

A bit over a year ago, when the four partners who run Toronto’s Boxcar Social went looking for a venue to house their second coffee-wine-beer-and-whisky bar, they knew they needed more space for their varied offerings. Their first shop, a cozily small space that opened two and half years ago, had shown them that while booze and caffeine can share a roof, they need their own bars. “We definitely craved a space that was a lot more lofty and open,” says co-owner Alex Castellani. “That space is hard to come by in Toronto.”

A big building with twenty-foot ceilings in the Riverside neighborhood gave them the space they needed—too much, actually, but they persuaded the landlord to let them build a wall in the 6,000-square-foot space, making it a manageable 1,500. A massive L-shaped bar allows their team to execute a robust coffee and alcohol service.

For coffee, Boxcar Social offers four espressos, Fetco batch brew, and a pour-over bar, all from a rotating cast of roasters, with three or four featured at a time. Flash-brewed, nitrogenated cold coffee will be on tap soon, where it will join thirteen kegged beers. The alcohol program features more than forty whiskies and an ever-evolving wine list. Pastries in the morning give way to cheese and charcuterie in the evenings.

Serving customers a to-go coffee on their way to work and a beer and shot on their way home requires long hours and multiple shifts, but Boxcar Social doesn’t have much distinction between bartenders and baristas. “We have to be super on top of educating the night staff on coffee and educating the day staff on the alcohol,” Castellani says.

Showing a space’s dual nature can lead to clunky design choices, and many coffee-and-liquor bars don’t broadcast their café identity well. When a coffee-seeking guest enters Boxcar Social, she’ll see a super clean display of wine and whisky, probably register the subtle beer taps, but then be shown a clear path to the point-of-service at the start of what is clearly a coffee bar. While the grinders are recessed, the hoppers poke above the bar, and the Kees van der Westen Spirit foists itself on the counter, taking pride of place as the dominate feature of the bar, and maybe the café.

The customer will order, like at any café, walk to the other end of the espresso machine, like at any café, and pick up her drink—but unlike at other cafés, she’ll have probably picked out her after-work beer and sidecar.

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Behind the bar at Toronto’s Boxcar Social. (Photos: courtesy of Boxcar Social.)

1) One-button Americano: The Marco Über boiler is preset to dose water for americanos, a task the cashier completes by pushing a single button. Tea concentrates for iced teas are made here, too.

2) Pour-over Meat Station: The pour-over station features coffee flights, an EK 43, Kalita Waves, and lots of care. After six, the station is turned into a charcuterie, cheese, and sandwich station.

3) Milk Station: The milk station is removed in the evenings to make room for more bar patrons.

4) Two of Four Espressos: This grinder holds a fun, expressive espresso roast and a mellower, milk-friendly roast. Decaf is in a Mythos grinder on the back bench.

5) More Taps: Seven beer taps are on the liquor bar, with six more behind the espresso machine.

6) Spirit of the Café: In an era where bars are kept clear, the Kees van der Westen Spirit stands proud on the bar, clearly marking Boxcar Social as a serious coffee venture.

7) Coffee Taps: Water and nitro cold coffee (flash-brewed) take up two taps on the coffee bar.

8) Pre-dosed Tea: Boxcar Social sells a fair amount of iced tea; they brew concentrates to-order from these pre-dosed sachets, then ice the drink.

9) Ms. Consistent: The Peak holds an all-around espresso because when the evening staff hasn’t made espresso in an hour, this grinder stays dialed in.

10) Plenty of Pitchers: A lineup of milk pitchers hide away under the counter, with a rinser built into the bar.

11) Dishwasher(s): This is a bar, so lots of glassware needs to be cleaned quickly. One dishwasher handles flatware, another glasses.

12) Super-sensitive Scale: This Ohaus is so responsive, Boxcar Social had to redirect the AC to keep its airflow from affecting portafilter readings.

13) Dosing: A phalanx of Scottie Callaghan dosing tools keeps espresso distribution tight.

14) Pastry Case: Just out of the frame, a pastry case is built into the bar, right under the POS system.

15) Custom Cubbies: A heap of to-go cups fits snugly under the counter.

Cory Eldridge is Fresh Cup‘s editor.