q a s i m n a t h o o - s m a l l v i c t o r y b a k e r y
Qasim isn't who you would normally think of as a bakery owner - a young Vancouverite straight out of business school who has a YOLO tatoo (yes, you read that right). In just a few years, he's built a trendy yet cozy place for bread and coffee in the heart of the Yaletown neighborhood. He's constantly sourcing coffees from new roasters and is in the store every day with his sister (who runs operations) to chat with customers and problem solve through some of the tiniest details. It's namesake is a nod to celebrating the little things in life which Qasim has integrated into every piece of the store - designing the condiment station containers, kettles, sandwich boards, and coffee cups.
My family has been in the bakery business for 27 or 28 years but more in the wholesale capacity. My dad and I and a couple of his friends who we have as investors on the project were discussing moving downstream and what that would look like in a retail concept. We talked about business logistics and ways of leveraging our capabilities and manufacturing - all logistics and being able to turn that into a network of high end coffee stores that did baking and really good coffee on site. At least that was the idea.
I finished university in 2013 and it took about 18 months from start to finish.
So this was your first project post grad?
Yeah, I just started right into it. So it was 18 months from concept. We started planting a seed, getting all the ideas, and meeting with consultants but there was a lot of delays in the project. We wanted it to be a little bit quicker but dealing with the city of Vancouver and other things like trying to transform this space, which used to be a furniture studio. We built out everything. I learned more in that period of project management than I learned throughout the entirety of my degree. Multiple-fold. I think it’s tough in school for them to put into context the details and particulars. Students probably don’t care enough to do so and it’s tough to get a true appreciation for all the little decisions that go into running a business. I studied entrepreneurship and I would say they make a valiant attempt, but it’s nothing that really prepares you for starting your own business and figuring every little detail out. A decision was made at almost every point in this process. It was a challenge for sure.
Well, obviously it’s a success. So run me through your typical day!
The idea behind what I wanted to do on this project was mostly marketing and branding. I designed a bunch of things - like the tap handles, the condiment station, the menu boards. It’s what I really love to do. I also look after our Instagram feed and things like that. A lot of time is taken up in meetings too - we’re looking at a second location now. And I help out in operations. My sister was really brought on to handle operations and her days are much more at the store dealing with day-to-day. She’s going to be phased out of the business soon though because she’s from a healthcare background, nine years actually before she came here. Running a business like this is very tedious. There’s a lot of little things that you have to take into consideration. Little things like inventory management - if you want to save money, then when do you make runs to Costco for certain things? Sometimes it can be mind numbing and that’s not necessarily what she likes. As I’m taking over operations and setting up a second store, I’m trying to set up a system that is a hierarchy, a set of managers, that can really run the store oversee all of the day-to-day operations. For that to happen, you need to have policies and procedures in place. And those policies and procedures can be tested here so that as we open up another store, it will be easy to implement. Otherwise, you’re starting from scratch again and it’s really easy to make the same mistakes twice. So a lot of what I’m doing amidst everything else is standardizing order forms, for example.
Sometimes I open and close here so if I’m doing either of those, it takes up most of my day. In the evening, it’s catching up on emails and doing some design work. I’m designing new cups, a merchandising display, even some packaged items. If I can find a free moment here, then that’s what I’ll work on too.
Coffee culture is so huge in Vancouver - what was your vision for creating this place and making it stand out?
The idea started with coming into a space and knowing that you’re in a bakery. The design shifted over time for sure, but that was the initial conception. We wanted to have all the pastry chefs and all of the work being on display. What’s central to that, I guess, is an open concept. And keeping the baking towards the front of the store. That’s what started us orienting the whole thing this way as opposed to walking in and just being faced with a counter.
The psychology of a bakery - I like it.
Exactly. If we oriented differently, you would have had to walk in the door and walk through a bunch of seating and that would have changed your experience. It becomes a lot like a typical cafe or restaurant that way. It really was that bakery feeling that drove our entire vision. We wanted to harness a lot of education back and forth and that’s how the bar concept happened. We wanted baristas to be able to talk to the customers while they were doing a pour over or brewing tea. From a marketing or branding perspective, that allows the customer to have so much more of a relationship with the store. Moving forward, we wanted to do things and do them well and then educate our customers as to why things are done in a certain way. Revolver had started that (I have the most respect for that family, by the way, and regard them as one of the top coffee roasters and cafes in the world) but they catered to the demographic that stayed in Gastown a lot and was already coffee connoisseurs. We wanted to be really accessible and that really drove our vision as well.
The idea was that we also wanted to do bread really well. We’re not there yet, we’re not even close. I want to be milling our own flour and just having a really strong overall bread program. We’re bringing in a new pastry chef who starts this week and I think he’ll really help us push the boundaries. It’s interesting because we want to have a core menu and I think that we’ve achieved that so now we’re asking them to help us go further. We’ll have a full team that can carry out daily production and then this new team because right now, it’s really hard to focus on both. We proof and bake everything on site. I would like us to become a little bit more of a destination because right now, I would say a majority of our clientele basis is regulars.
Isn’t that on your website though, having a morning ritual?
I would like to take that sentiment and just run with it a little more. I was considering taking some inspiring text and adding it onto our cups in a creative way - but it was disturbing my design! I had an idea and now this one was coming in and messing it up. I wanted to take the idea of a ritual and celebrating the small things - things that are done really well. I wanted to run with it but I think I need to find a different way to propagate that message than through our cups because it gets really corny really quickly.
Do you have a morning ritual?
Yeah, I guess I do. I wake up and have to take a shower, that’s the first thing I always have to do. I can’t function without it. Then I have tea - orange pekoe tea with milk. I don’t even drink the coffee from here! Sometimes I’ll have a couple of cookies I guess.
Actually, normally I don’t eat anything in the morning. I feel like it’s a chore. I’m normally rushed in the morning because I hate waking up.
What’s been the happiest accident since starting this bakery?
That’s a good question! I don’t know if this is going to answer your question directly but throughout this process, I have found a personal passion for design - products of all types. I appreciate, ironically, the little things and the way things are put together. Through all the screwups that have happened and dealing with contractors and architects and facilitating that interaction when I had no clue what I was talking about, I’ve just become so passionate about it. And it’s shaped my day-to-day so much more than I would have thought it would. It’s what I spend my time thinking about. I really really love it - I love building it.
So what’s your design process?
In the store, it starts with a need to solve a problem. Here’s an example: At our condiment station, I needed something to organize lids, sugar, and all that stuff. So I took little design elements from things that were around me, like the kettles we used for our pourovers (even though we don’t actually use those anymore). I really liked these custom-made kettles we had made and they don’t even use them anymore (laughs)! Anyway, I took design elements from there and saw that the space was really modern so I wanted to contrast it with older elements just to tone it down a little bit. I wanted something with a little bit of a patina, something kind of vintage. That’s why you see darker woods and copper wrapped in leather for the canisters. All of that came from the kettles.
For the sugars, I had an idea of having boxes that made up modules, so you could take those boxes off the condiment station and rearrange them artistically. I went through this process of doing sketches and then sending them back to the fabricator and saying “Hey, I have this idea” and then he would say back to me, “Ok, this is what you can actually do. Tone it down”. I learned how to do the sketching and illustrator mock ups through the architectural process. I haven’t had the opportunity or the resources to get a lot of samples done. A lot of times there are things that I wish I could have done a different way. Like these, for example (points to drink trays). The logo would have been smaller. If I would have known about the variants in the wood I might have picked something else.The problem is that a lot of the food, our product, is baked in this spectrum of color. And EVERYONE photographs this tray. Look at Instagram. The product doesn’t pop against it and every time I look at our Instagram feed, I see it and I hate it! It bothers me that I designed it that way and I wish I would have gone through the process of getting samples. Then again, I didn’t have the time and I didn’t necessarily know. I’ve learned. I’ve learned not to work with someone that’s in Toronto on design when you’re trying to grow your business in Vancouver - I’ve met people here that can do custom work that I can see before it’s all made. We want to be really disciplined in our materials, so that’s why I’ve stuck with wood. I’m designing a sandwich board right now using this (points to wood) product because we have more of it.
"I wanted to take the idea of a ritual and celebrating the small things - things that are done really well."
You talked about how much you pay attention to details. But you also see so many types of people come through here. What is the first thing you notice about people?
Throughout this process, I’ve noticed immense individualism. Everyone comes in and has very specific preferences. When you’re consistently interacting with customers, that ‘s what you get exposed to. I attribute it to Starbucks. People have this relationship with their drink. They come in and want to order a double shot, extra hot, double cup, extra pump grande. Whatever, you know what I’m talking about (laughs). It forms a part of their identity. I’ve noticed that you can learn a lot about people just based on the process they have when they walk in a store and order something. Maybe it’s being judgemental at times, but that’s the way my mind works! You see people in so many different zones and different points in their day. The energy of the store totally changes based on the people that are in it and it’s interesting, that’s what I notice most - people’s energy. My sister and I always try to push our new staff to speak to customers and ask them about their day. We want to know about them and form a relationship. It’s important to us, and it’s important to them.
Where did you come up with the name Small Victory?
We incorporated the company as Bread and Butter Bakery. This is a name that my sister and my dad came up with and we ran with it. But as we pushed forward and worked with our branding company, I saw the logo and I was like “This can’t happen!” First, I don’t want a name that’s simply a description of the product. With Bread and Butter in and of itself, I couldn’t see how we were going to be able to propagate the brand in a creative manner. I thought it would just be really cliche. I wanted it to be outside of the box. So we go through the process of getting the Bread and Butter logo and last minute, right before we started on production of stationary and stickers, I shook my head. It was a Sunday at my house and I said, “Honestly, I don’t feel like we can pick this name”. The logo looked like a burger bun at the time.
We then started going through another list of names with the branding company. On there was things like Ground Floor, Thirteen, maybe ten names. Small Victory was the first one on that list and I had an immediate connection with it. But I was in a room with my dad and our two investors who are my dads friends and my mentors. They immediately dismissed it, like I didn’t even have a chance to say that that should be the name. I brought Small Victory back to the table when we were at the architect’s office and it was at the point in the project where We. Just. Needed. A. Name. It came down to a vote and my dad and our two investors voted for Thirteen, and the rest of us (myself, our two brand consultants, and our architect) voted for Small Victory. So we ousted the money, basically! And that’s when I stepped into the creative role. They had huge reservations after that I think.
By the way how’s the coffee? We just changed over to a blend of an Ethiopian and a Kenyan - a roaster in Victoria. We have this coffee exclusively and it’s probably the most eccentric we’ve gone for espresso.
The reason I liked the name was because when I look at things around me, I see people are very routine and ritual driven. You wake up in the morning and go to a cafe, or some people make coffee at home. Most people’s morning rituals are a lot more robust or exhaustive than mine. Really, you come home and end up just pressing repeat the next day. It’s kind of mundane, but it’s the way I saw things especially when we were coming up with this name. What I wanted to do was really celebrate simplicity, and that’s what’s at our core. If you look at our menu, it’s very comforting. I wanted to celebrate the quality we were putting into things. Focusing on the little things and focusing on doing them really well: sourcing biodynamic grains for our bread that we can mill, or working with seven or eight different roasters on blends so that our coffees are top quality every week. There’s a lot of weight in having an amazing cup of coffee or a freshly baked pastry to start your day and put a smile on your face. It’s little things like that and the celebration of them that make each day worth living. It’s easy to fall into the cynicism of routine but coming home to the person that you love or having a really good meal all add up. That idea is the reason I picked Small Victory and is really what I want this place to be all about.
Do you have a personal mantra?
(Quasim's sister stepped into the conversation for this one) I think the philosophy behind Small Victory is probably your mantra. The small things in life that we take for granted but generally have the biggest impact.
I have a tattoo on my chest that I probably should count as part of my mantra. I was sixteen or seventeen when I got it, mind you. It says...you only live once.
Ok, that association came after and it was absolutely horrible when it did. I’ll never live it down. The regret is strong. But yeah, celebrate the little things. That’s what resonates with me, and carries out through our brand.