A double cup of Kona blend with one cream. That is Laurie Ohler-Yewchyn’s current caffeine fix. She gives her cup a swirl before smelling the aroma steaming out from the dark brew and finally takes a sip.
I consider how she handles her cup of coffee like a glass of fine wine, and peer into my own cup to be sure I didn’t accidentally arrange our meeting during happy hour. It is indeed a cup of Joe.
Although we aren’t sipping Chardonnay, I begin to suppose that the early hours of the morning may as well be happy hour when you’re in the business of coffee trade. The beverage of choice this morning is a special blend of Arabica beans from the mountains of Hawaii. They were shipped to Colonial Coffee Co. Ltd. on Marentette Avenue only a week ago where they were roasted, ground, and brewed to produce the brew that is steaming before me.
I let the warm beverage infuse my senses, conceding that it sure beats a mid afternoon cocktail.
Colonial Coffee Co. Ltd. was established by Laurie’s late father Jack Ohler in 1965 along with his business partner Frank Goldin. They opened shop in a meagre warehouse along the Dufferin Street alley way where they provided wholesale coffee to local restaurants and businesses.
The partnership was a success but the company was eventually bought out by the Ohler Family shortly after Goldin, or “Uncle Frank” as Laurie fondly remembers him, passed on. Eventually the business relocated to a larger space on Glengary and Pitt which came equipped with a chicken coop. For a short while you could get a supply of fresh eggs with your morning coffee!
Content with their downtown location, the family business remained there until 1995, when it was expropriated by the city for the construction of Casino Windsor. The following two years proved tumultuous for Colonial Coffee Co. Ltd. Business was run out of trailers in the parking lot of the current location on Marentette Avenue while the building itself underwent renovations. Although this temporary displacement was a stressor on the company, the family maintained their poise. With the support of his wife and four daughters Jack Ohler continued to provide Windsor and Essex County with the finest coffee from around the world.
So exactly where in the world is this coffee coming from? According to Laurie who purchases coffee for the family business, the majority of their product is imported from Colombia, but beans are also purchased from Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Sumatra, and Peru to name a few.
They even carry a rare and exclusive bean from the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, the infamous location of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile in 1816. I suppose if I were to be cast away to a remote island, I would be content to pass my time sipping gourmet coffee under oceanfront palm trees. In any event, the emperor recognized the fine quality of Arabica plant cultivated on St. Helena which he eventually popularized in France.
The various regions produce beans each with a characteristic flavour. Laurie describes how these different coffees can be blended together based on individual preference; “Kenyan beans have a wine-like taste and are often very rich. Colombians are very smooth coffees and we like to use Mexican beans in blending. Coffees compliment each other. We can put a Kenyan and Colombian together and you get that wine with the smoothness. Its personal taste and everybody is different.”
While perfect roasts and trademark blends are key to the continued success of their family business, Laurie describes her father’s work ethic as the real reason that Colonial Coffee Co. Ltd. has done so well. “He was an honest hardworking man for sure,” she boasts, “He would be here seven days a week. There were many Sunday dinners that he would get a phone call and have to go and fix a coffee machine.” Laurie always maintained a deep admiration for her father, a self-titled “coffee peddler” who was too humble to introduce himself as president of a prospering venture.
When Jack Ohler passed away, the family collectively took over the business which is now presided by Jack’s widow Leah Ohler. For Laurie, who has held a formal position with Colonial Coffee for 25 years, the last two have been an exceptional challenge. She is now responsible for purchasing coffee for the company, a challenging task that requires keeping up with fluctuating trends in the market. Although her extensive involvement in the family business made it easier to take over many of her father’s former responsibilities she is still only beginning to fully understand the tricks of the coffee trade.
“Buying was the only job that he would not tell anybody how to do. So I had to come into it and learn how to do it. I’ve known about coffee – I’ve been here for 25 years. But to actually buy the green coffee is pretty hard. You’re working with the New York Board of Trade and it’s a commodity, so it’s a constant up and down.”
Laurie has quickly learned how to research and take risks in the coffee business. A large part of her work involves following trends in the industry, and it is one of the tasks that she enjoys most. “I love researching the product for a customer,” she tells me. “I love getting the best price I can and making it work! I remember way back, I was buying biscotti and bringing them in because that was the best thing on the west coast. But it didn’t work here [in Windsor]. We weren’t quite there yet!”
Apart from the intrigue of the coffee trade, what Laurie truly appreciates about her work is that it involves her closest family members. She, along with her three sisters, Connie, Lisa, and Amy share fond memories of helping out with their father’s business when they were very young. She recalls, “My mom used to say that dad had custody of us on Sundays because he’d bring the girls in and we’d each have odd jobs to do!” Today, the family continues to maintain the standards of quality and customer care that Jack Ohler established over 40 years of dedicated work.
As Laurie and I swirl the last drops of coffee in our cups, she pauses and we both turn to consider a portrait of her father hanging behind the desk. It is a reminder of the foundation that holds this family and its business together.
Colonial Coffee is located at 3110 Marentette, just behind Devonshire Mall. Their retail store is open Monday to Friday from 9 to 5:30, and Saturday from 9 to 3.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melissa is a freelance writer who enjoys travel and food writing. She would do a lot more travelling and a lot less dining if her hometown wasn’t chock full of diverse and authentic cuisine. She also writes for health publications and journals, with contributions to Alive Magazine and Rehabilitation Psychology.