Boxcar Social opens its first employee-run location


Every Boxcar Social has its own atmosphere, but the new outlet of the Toronto coffee shop has its own crucial difference: it’s the first employee-run location.

Tucked in a Little Italy alley at College and Markham, Boxcar Laneway was created to build creativity and mentorship for employees, says Boxcar co-founder Alex Castellani. Having been open for the past two weeks, Castellani wants to see this new business model’s long-term effects.

“[This model] has tons of potential that can be applied at different locations,” he says. “Now, of course, there’s the deep and profound challenges, which are the reasons hierarchies exist to begin with. What happens when teams can’t come to an agreement? There’s an amazing amount of maturity that has to exist there. So we’ll see how it goes.”

For now though, Castellani finds it important to adjust the traditional hierarchal structure and “make it much more horizontal, so they can have much more say.”

As for what the employees have a say on, Castellani says it’s everything and anything. Employees are able to give input on the store’s concept and type of experience, as well as the types of coffee and treats they serve.

“We want them to be inspired by the industry or the world to have a place for those ideas. It can even be encompassed in programs that don’t even exist in that space yet,” Castellani says.

Giving them more say and more control is meant to give employees more investment in the success – or failure – of the shop.

“We try to give them freedom to be successful and also to not be successful,” he says. “I think that’s an important way to learn. You need safe spaces to try things out.”

The employees also get a share of the profit, on top of their hourly wages. Wages can range from $16-$20 an hour, depending on the employee’s experience at Boxcar, Castellani says.

Boxcar Laneway consists of an “all-star” team from other Boxcar Social locations, such as Venice Morales-Vallega, who won second place in the 2020 Canadian Latte Art Competition. Newer employees are also included, which Castellani says is key. Bringing outside perspectives can help break down the entrenched institutional mindset that can come from the top-down.

“There can be something wonderful about how their voices are a little bit outside of our system,” he says.

Huamin Chen, who also works at Boxcar Riverside, is one of the baristas launching the new location. For Chen, committing one day per week at Boxcar Laneway “provides more character.” 

“I think this model is very healthy in terms of the management and because we’re all from different locations,” he says. “It provides more collaboration and communication with employees. It’s [also] more exciting for employees from all locations to learn experiences at the management level.”

When it comes to coffee at Boxcar Laneway, Chen says he and the team chose single origin coffees from Ethiopia and Guatemala, with fruity and floral notes.

The employees collaborated to come up with Boxcar Laneway’s concept too, which thrives on two things: slowness and intention. It’s a smaller and more intimate space, and one where customers are able to unwind and relax.

Ramona Leitao

“The magic of cafes is actually slowing down and being able to sit and spend time and a space that feels like it’s designed to be a bit of a refuge,” Castellani says.

This is also why all music is played on vinyl (which Chen says are handpicked by the employees), and why all coffees are poured over by hand. Cookies are also baked on the spot. Even the espresso machines are handmade.

Unlike the other locations, there’s no alcohol at the Laneway. Castellani says this is due to the nature of the space.

“It [would] really limit bar space, and with the extensiveness of the coffee program, it would somewhat prohibit having a bar program,” he says. “All of a sudden you would need more fridges and more things on display and more glassware. Again, for how extensive our coffee program is, we don’t really have space for that.”




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