Behind the Cafe: Parlour Coffee

Parlour is known for many things in the Winnipeg community, one being introducing the city to "third wave" specialty coffee. Before Parlour it is safe to say that there was no presence of third wave coffee to be found in a city riddled with Starbucks, Timothy's, Second Cup, Tim Hortons, etc.. Parlour is also known for the contributions they make to inner city foundations. Parlour works alongside the Main Street Project donating proceeds and supplies to the foundation to support the recovering, overlooked and less fortunate in our city.

Nils Vik (Photo Credit: Janine Kropla)

BCB: Can you briefly introduce yourself to us?

Nils: Hi! My name is Nils Vik and I am the founder / owner of Parlour Coffee. I live in Norwood with my wife, two daughters, and our standard poodle, Poncho. I grew up in Pinawa MB but have lived in Winnipeg since 2001.

BCB: What did you do before you decided to get into specialty coffee?

Nils: Prior to opening Parlour, I was working in product development and design at EQ3 – a Winnipeg based national retailer and manufacturer of modern furniture. I studied architecture at the University of Manitoba after a very short lived attempt at studying Business Administration at RRC. Since opening Parlour in 2011 I have also taught at the Faculty of Architecture in the design studio.

BCB: What is one of your first memories regarding specialty coffee?

Nils: One of my first memories of being introduced to specialty coffee was in the summer of 2009 visiting San Francisco. I was in Hayes Valley visiting a little design shop and was encouraged to check out a little café in an alley behind a garage door. The owner of the shop recommended I order an off menu drink called a Gibraltar. I’m not sure if it was the weather, the surprising urban delight of an activated alley, or the coffee itself, but when my lips hit that glass it was as if my life had changed – it sounds ridiculous but this sense of discovery was so lovely. I made sure to pick up a tiny brown bag of Blue Bottle’s Hayes Valley Espresso to enjoy on my Moka Pot as soon as I returned home to Winnipeg.

BCB: Can you describe your role at Parlour and what that involves?

Nils: I opened Parlour in 2011 and have been slowly loosening my grip on the café since 2013 when I helped co-found Little Sister Coffee Maker, and Dogwood Coffee Canada in 2015. I have worked with such great people over the years it always made sense to let go and let other people have more opportunities. Now I mostly noodle around behind the scenes and get in the way.

(Photo Credit: Janine Kropla)

BCB: What influenced you to open a cafe?

Nils: I first started drinking coffee after a trip to Montreal in 2008. I was baffled by the lack of pleasurable café experiences in Winnipeg in comparison to every other city I would visit while traveling for work with EQ3. I started taking matters into my own hands and requesting friends to bring back coffee from their own travels, and sourcing equipment based on tireless research of blogs and internet forums. Eventually I was curious as to why a “third wave café” (a term I wasn’t aware of at the time) didn’t exist in Winnipeg – was it the population size? Was it a cultural thing? I set out to find out why by drafting a business plan which consisted of census research, traffic counting at existing cafes, and population density comparisons to other cities with cafes I admired. It really was just a research project within the framework of a business plan to see if this concept was even viable. When it came to the point of researching commercial rental rates I began cold calling realtors and landlords, and my elevator pitch began to feel more and more real. I think what intrigued me most, after a love of coffee, was the ability for the chance at using my design background to alter the urban fabric of a street and essentially create a performance where all are invited in. 

(Photo Credit: Janine Kropla)

BCB: For those that may be unaware, where did the name ‘Parlour’ come from?

Nils: The name Parlour has three main inspirations – architecture, conversation, and my family. The word Parlour denotes a physical space. A room. A room with a particular program, a room for pausing from everyday life for a social affair – a smoking parlour, an ice cream parlour etc. The word ‘parlour’ was also more commonplace at the time of the construction of our building in 1901. (Designed by HS Griffith originally occupied by a music and jewellery store, and various professionals on the second and third floors). The word parlour comes from the French verb, parler – to speak. As I wanted Parlour to be a place of conversation it was also a nod to my French Canadian mother who is from the Gaspe in Quebec.

BCB: How did you decide on the location for the Parlour?

Nils: Space is very important to me as it has the ability to influence our lives in a very profound way. It is not enough to simply be served great coffee, it must be served in a dramatic atmosphere that is warm, hospitable, and inviting, but also inspiring (either by the people or the physical characteristics of the space). I also wanted the tiniest storefront possible to ensure the viability of the business, but also to create the experience I was after – lively and activated. Good luck creating a great vibe in 2000+ square feet of seating. If it wasn’t for Covid, I typically want to be crammed up against strangers and friends enjoying great food and drink in a bustling and energetic space.

BCB: What is one of your favorite things about running a cafe?

Nils: People. I love people, and I am so thankful for the friends I have made through running Parlour. I have lifelong friends who feel like family now whom I probably would have never met. I love making connections and coordinating collaborations etc. Hands down, the best part of running a café is the incredible people you meet and have the privilege of serving on an ongoing basis.

BCB: One of the first things that people will notice when they walk into Parlour is your art wall, can you explain how you decide on the pieces and artists that you feature?

Nils: We have been showing incredible artwork since January of 2012 - I always used to cringe at the notion of coffeehouse art being sub par / mediocre / hobbyist work that is often shown in a really crude fashion. Don't get me wrong, I love art made outside of a typical art scene, but the representation and care that cafe's have often given art often appears to be an afterthought. From day one I wanted to ensure that we were showing contemporary work by artists who have a healthy CV and are respected within their communities. We do 8 x 6 week shows a year, and have always prioritized equal representation between male and female artists. Admittedly this attempt at diversity was short sighted and, although we have shown BIPOC and LGBTQ artists in the past, we never prioritized showing work from artists from various backgrounds, and that is now top of mind for us and I'm excited to see how this enriches the space. To get to your initial question, we started showing artists who we knew personally or through friends in 2012, and it has slowly evolved into artist submissions, as well as cold calls to artists we respect.

BCB: What is one of the biggest challenges that people might not realize about running/opening a specialty coffee shop?

Nils: I think the biggest challenge most specialty coffee shops face is the financial viability of usin