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On Nourishing the Community and Raising the (Chocolate) Bar for Women, with Shelley Bolton

In light of recent news announcing the sale of local social enterprise, East Van Roasters (formerly owned by the PHS, then the Community Contribution Company as of April 2021), we checked in with its founder, Shelley Bolton, to discuss changes, the future, and to reflect on her experience with EVR to date.

With only a little more than a week remaining until the cafe and roasters’ nine-year-anniversary (April 19th, 2022), and as both EVR and Bolton prepare to each enter their respective new phases (Bolton is moving across the border to LA and stepping down from her role as Director and Head Chocolate Maker into a new consulting position), here’s what she had to say…

EVR recently experienced a change in ownership. What, if any, differences does this mean for EVR, and what can we expect from you – and the business you’ve grown – going forward?

We sure did…and what a year it was! I won’t go into the details of the misalignment in values, but needless to say we are extremely excited to announce that Atira Women’s Arts Society is our new non-profit parent organization. This terrific organization is a great fit for the work we are doing in our women-empowering-women employment and training program. I now see a bright future ahead, with a robust peer employment program on the horizon. Supporting women, both here in our community and the farmers at origin, has always been important to us and we will continue to seek out opportunities to do so.

After putting so much time into “raising” East Van Roasters – not to mention investing so much into the DTES neighbourhood – moving out of town and into a new consulting position must be quite a difficult and emotional experience. Tell me what you’re feeling right now, as both you and EVR prepare to enter a new phase?

As I’m reflecting on how many stories I’ve heard and experiences I’ve had in this little space, I’m overcome by how poignant and complex this journey has been. There have been triumphs and tragedies, contagious laughter and tears, memorials and births. More than ever, I feel a deep alignment with the work of holding each other up to be the best we can be in each moment and reminding each other of our value – just as we are. I’m definitely coming back for lots of visits!

The DTES is often framed from a negative perspective, especially lately. What has kept you inspired, committed, energized and/or connected to the neighbourhood over all these years?

Community members I have engaged with on a regular basis always seem to have time to say “hello” and hold the door for us, or help out in one way or another. I’m genuinely impressed by how positive the majority of folks are who frequent the corner of Hastings and Carrall Street, but there’s also a lot of pain to go around, and it can be really heavy on the heart to see people suffering day in and day out. I have advocated for people as much as I have time for and have referred countless people to many of the resources available in the neighbourhood. It’s so hard these days to receive regular medical care and sometimes impossible to find pain relief (physical or psychological) through official channels, which leads many folks needing relief to seek out other means. Having worked with many women who have been street entrenched and listening to their stories, I know how easy it is to become homeless and trapped in a cycle of poverty and despair.

To date, what has been your proudest moment with EVR?

So many moments have made me proud over the years. The very fact that we even opened the doors as a social enterprise bean-to-bar chocolate and coffee roaster in the Downtown East Side still makes me nod my head in a celebratory, “Yes we did!” But the little moments of success are the ones that stick with me the most, like someone in our program having a really great day, that then leads to another and another. Or when family members of program participants stop by to say “hi” and share how their family is doing, years after their people have left our program. It has also been incredibly inspiring working with the dedicated, talented and tenacious award-winning team members.

As someone who has been running a small business in Vancouver for almost a decade, where is the City of Vancouver falling short and how can they be a better support going forward?

We have had a fair amount of support over the years from the COV in the form of capital grants, but if we were not a non-profit those resources would not have been available to us. From a small business perspective, it would be nice to have more TLC given to the limited green spaces around here, as well as more garbage cans and recycling stations.

“Serving these items to our customers allows us the gift of social engagement centred around nourishing, as well as the opportunity to share our values around connection…The craft of making products by hand takes us back to basics and that in turn provides space for wellness.”

Coffee means a lot of different things to different people (stimulant, habit, ritual, enjoyment, obsession). Where does it fit into your personal life? Or is your interest purely professional?

There is well-worn French press in my morning ritual and many espresso shots throughout the day. I love the taste of our coffee, especially our own blend, and while I’m always curious to try other roasters’ coffees, ours is still my favourite!

Tell me about your most intense chocolate-related memory.

Tasting the chocolate we made with the farmers who grew the cacao beans in Lachua, Guatemala was pretty awesome. I didn’t realize that the preference there is for sweet milky chocolate, and I made the mistake of bringing 70% dark. We later sent milk chocolate with toffee pieces in it for Christmas the next year and I heard it was very well received.

What unusual chocolate combination has surprised you that you recommend to adventurous eaters?

Some of my favorite combos are seaweed and dried blueberries, black licorice, spruce tip ganache truffles, toasted white chocolate (crème caramel) and at home I sometimes have 100% (no-sugar) chocolate with soft dates and graham crackers or pecans.

Why do you think East Van Roasters makes so much sense as a social enterprise?

Women supporting women, while creating delicious food and drinks, always seemed like a good fit for a supportive work environment. When you add in layers of slow and detailed processes that come with making bean-to-bar chocolate and coffee you have a craft that requires patience and care at every step. Serving these items to our customers allows us the gift of social engagement centred around nourishing, as well as the opportunity to share our values around connection – from the farmers who grow the beans all the way down to the people who appreciate their complexities. The craft of making products by hand takes us back to basics and that in turn provides space for wellness.

Lastly: this might seem obvious but why should Vancouverites continue to buy chocolate and coffee from EVR?

When you buy EVR coffee and chocolate you are directly supporting multiple communities, both near and far, and actively participating in raising the bar for marginalized women. What a beautiful way to enjoy award winning coffee and chocolate!

Take a look back at East Van Roasters Cafe’s progression over the years via the gallery below…

  • East Van Roasters
  • East Van Roasters Bakery
  • East Van Roasters Bakery
  • East Van Roasters Bakery
  • East Van Roasters Bakery
  • East Van Roasters Bakery
  • Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies at East Van Roasters Bakery
  • East Van Roasters
  • East Van Roasters
  • East Van Roasters
  • East Van Roasters
  • 1.EVR_CAFE
  • East Van Roasters Interior

There is 1 comment

  1. Heading there for a flat white now. What a great cozy space. Do yourself a favour and try a spicy drinking chocolate. Amazing!