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 using ingredients that are nearly double or triple the price of your competitors. All cups are not created equally, but unfortunately the perception of the price / value of a cup of coffee is set against the notion that coffee is expected to be priced similarly between gas stations, cafes, and restaurants.

BCB: What do you think one of the best ways is for us to help people understand the difference between a "third wave" cafe such as Parlour vs a Starbucks or even Tim Hortons in regards to the price of drinks?

Nils: I'm not so sure... I would hope that the flavour and experience would speak for itself. If someone asks specifically about pricing, I'm happy to go into it, otherwise I think the proof is in the cup and the service.

(Photo Credit: Janine Kropla)

BCB: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to open a cafe?

Nils: Do your homework and make a business plan – don’t pull the trigger because you’re passionate about coffee. Passion is great, but that isn’t enough to make a business work.


BCB: How do you decide what coffee/roasters will make it into the rotation at Parlour?

Nils: Parlour was founded on the idea of bringing something new and something of quality to Winnipeg. I’m interested in long term relationships with roasters and the notion and fad of guest roasters coming in and out of cafes on a weekly basis is not fair to the sustainable operation of a roaster, so we usually try and commit to no less than a year of working with a particular roaster. This also gives us a chance to get to know the teams and their coffees. Since opening we have worked with 49th Parallel, Detour, Phil and Sebastian, Intelligentsia, Stumptown (with the transparency of a 3 month trial), Bows and Arrows, Dogwood, Cut, and Quietly. Winnipeg is a small town and we try our best to not step on the toes of other cafes which also provides more diverse coffee offerings for the citizens of Winnipeg.

(Photo Credit: Janine Kropla)

BCB: Is there someone in the specialty coffee industry that inspires you?

Nils: Yup. Dan Anderson of Dogwood Coffee in Minneapolis and Lee Knuttila of Quietly. They are such solid humans and their warm, gentle and caring spirits translate into how they run their businesses, source coffee, and care for customers. I’m inspired by their dedication to continuous improvement in all areas, but also in their humbleness and approach.


BCB: What is one of your favorite hobbies to take part in while not in the cafe?

Nils: I love listening to records with a glass of wine, camping with family and friends, and I feel like a teenager when heading out mountain biking with friends. I know the question was one hobby, but…

BCB: As someone who knows you're a sucker for a good jazz record, what do you recommend for someone looking for a good jazz album to chill out to?

Nils: My "chill" will definitely be different than someone else's version of "chill", but for me, there is nothing more relaxing than a glass of wine and an Oded Tzur album, or Anouar Brahem, Mathias Eick, Tord Gustavsen or Vijay Iyer.


BCB: What is one thing that you would like to see change in the specialty coffee industry?

Nils: Everyone just needs to chill out and prioritize green sourcing relationships over quality. Enough already with 90+ coffees – we need to figure out what is actually sustainable and be cool with drinking mediocre coffee some seasons.


BCB: Where do you see the specialty coffee industry heading 5, 10, 20 years from now?

Nils: Oh boy. That’s a doozie. Honestly… more developed roast profiles for one thing, and probably a reverence of more traditional styles of making and consuming coffee in the spirit of Italy, Turkey, Ethiopia, Vienna etc.

Temporary COVID-19 cafe layout (Photo Credit: Janine Kropla)

BCB: How do you normally brew your coffee at home on your days off?

Nils: I usually use my Technivorm Moccamaster every morning, but will go in waves of using a Clever, or a Hario V60 depending on the habit I get into. When I’m camping I use an Aeropress Go, but sort of want to bring a big ol’ percolator along to brew larger quantities.


BCB: Can you give us any insight on anything that Parlour might have planned for the future?

Nils: We are nearing our 9 year anniversary (September 2020) and I am definitely reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses as I’d love to cap off our 10 year birthday in 2021 really strong. To be honest, much of our plans for the future hinge on Covid-19 and the requirements for social distancing. We had planned to do a large renovation this year which we have partially started, but the intention was to add much more cozy seating (the opposite of social distancing) along with some added menu items. The latest plan which we are slowly unrolling is an expanding simple food menu with the help of Adam Donnelly of Segovia (RIP).

(Photo Credit: Janine Kropla)

BCB: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Nils: I would like to thank everyone who has ever graced us with their presence and tried a cup of coffee in our tiny café. It’s incredible to me that we are still here after 9 years and I’m truly grateful for the support our community has shown us over the years.


I want to extend a huge thank you to Nils for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to have this conversation with us! I encourage you to check out Parlour's website and Instagram.