Ryerson has a new business in town.
Unassuming at first glance, fully international, and endlessly entrepreneurial describes Toronto pretty well. It also describes a new cafe that sprung onto the Ryerson scene in the new year.
As I stroll down Gould Street on a refreshingly warm January day, I see it nestled between a few other shops and trucks on the opposite corner of Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre (SLC). It stands with a window storefront displaying tasty treats, while a handwritten sign, “Entrance order from here,” invites the curious inside.
Above it all, a “MADMAN ESPRESSO” sign prominently hangs, hinting at what I’m about to walk into. I fling the door open, and for a structure built largely of wood and storage containers, I’m greeted with a surprisingly cosy and roomy cafe. To my left, I see the order counter where Chiaki Sakaguchi whips up some of her barista magic. I get a small tea, but I soon see how vanilla that is, given how many types of coffee Madman Espresso offers.
As I absorb more of the initial experience, a steady stream of customers comes in. They chat with Sakaguchi and the owner Rabih Hawi as if they’ve known each other for ages, with English and non-English laughter frequently filling the air.
Hawi, who is a Lebanese-born barista, has gotten quick to work on making his mark in the local cafe scene. He arrived in Toronto in May 2017, after having lived in New York City since 2012.
Before that, he said he had gone against the grain of a family that all went into medicine.
“I was fascinated by helping people enjoy good drinks and coffee. When I first came here, I made some research about coffee. I walked all around downtown Toronto and I tried different kinds of coffee, I didn’t feel that people appreciated the good taste of espresso,” said Hawi.
While his family remains in Lebanon, he hopes that he’ll be able to bring them to Canada one day, “when my business and life is stronger here.”
That motivating factor is what led him to build his Madman Espresso outlet right by Ryerson.
“The contractor started to build it but I didn’t like what he did, so I made it again by myself this last month.” As if on cue, Hawi reveals calloused and bruised hands, with his wallet taking a similar hit as well. “Even to make this room here, it cost me $15,000 when it was all done, and even more to put in the power,” he said, before gesturing around the upholstered sitting area. As he says this, we sit at his cafe’s large windows overlooking the SLC’s bustling weekday entrance. But as he admires his handiwork, a weary expression on his face is soon replaced by one of confident resolve.
While it is currently a standalone coffee shop in Toronto, Madman Espresso is part of a chain of locations based in the New York area, which is how Hawi initially got connected to the franchise; however, none of those locations appear to have the unique factor of being built with materials that their owners could put together.
Ryerson students seem to be warming up to this pop-up shop, too. Chirag Trivedi, a first-year engineering student, highlights the individualized experience on offer. “It’s different from other stores in the sense that it’s welcoming,” he said.
Fourth-year biomedical science student, Connor Campbell, is also converted, simply saying, “I go here over Balzac’s all the time now.”
Ryerson students are far from the only ones frequenting Hawi’s new business, with community members like FCAD’s associate dean Ivor Shapiro having fallen for the “Madman’s” charms. “When I first saw it (Madman Espresso] there I thought ‘what crazy person opens an espresso truck beside a Starbucks?’ And then after I first went in, now I get my coffee there every day. It’s that good,” said Shapiro.
All of this commentary is sure to please Hawi. “What makes me most happy is serving good coffee and seeing the customers light up when they try it. My hardest job was in New York, and that’s where I learned how to make some of my favourite coffees I still make to this day. This is all such hard work and very expensive, but seeing what I can do for them is what keeps me going,” he said.
Madman Espresso’s Toronto location is only weeks old, but with a steady stream of around 35 customers per day and some brand loyalty appearing to kick in, Hawi is already looking past his current challenges to see what lies ahead. While gesturing to Sakaguchi, who is also new to Canada, and who is his one assistant, Hawi said, “When we get more revenue coming in, we want to hire more workers to keep up with it.”
So, don’t expect this eclectic coffee shop to go away anytime soon. Hawi lights up further when he discusses some other future plans for his business. “I still have these other things I want to add, like I need to fix outside and add some bench, maybe one or two feet for when the weather warms up. Whatever can keep people staying to enjoy our cafe here longer,” said Hawi.
So Ryerson, if you need coffee but are tired of Starbucks and Tim Hortons, this new joint might be a good place to try next.