THE FORMULA OF BOTANICALS, BREADS, AND BARISTAS
Stepping into Powell Street's The Birds & The Beets, you'll enter a bustling shop. On the left are rows of brilliant fresh flowers for purchase, supplied by The Wild Bunch Floral Studio, and smaller square tables align along the right. If it’s summertime, the large pane windows will be folded open steeping fresh air and sun into the café. There will be a quick moving line, but there’s always a chance to gaze at the day’s enticing goodies in their glass encasement. Before you know it, you'll find yourself wanting to order a hops kombucha, a rhubarb soda, their homemade lemonade, and a macchiato all before even looking at the food options. Once you see a miso barley bowl glide by in an employee's hands, you'll be instantly back to scanning the menu board: the options for deliciousness are endless.
The Birds & The Beets café brings a softness to Gastown in what’s becoming a stark, minimalist neighbourhood. While still holding onto minimalism, the café’s design revivifies comfort with its calm hues, light woods, greenery, and pale yellow botanical wallpaper in a worn heritage building with hardwood floors and red brick walls. There’s a preciousness to the space; a warmth of service, airy interior, the delicacy in botanicals, a complimentary wholesome undertone to the food, the naturalness, and the intent.
The café sources from nearby farms, so the menu changes in response to what's locally available and special items are a quick sellout. Hard to find in other breakfast-friendly joints in the neighbourhood, their Museli (a Chia Oat Bircher option) is a reliable morning go-to with a twist of toppings: rhubarb compote or cinnamon, pear, apple sauce, which oscillate with the sway of the season. Their 'grain salad' and 'green salad' both sound similar upon order, but even if you're mistaken, you'll hardly be grieved either way because both are equally delightful. Bowls often feature house-made sauerkraut or pickled cauliflower and carrots. Toasted sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds are always a scrumptious addition, giving each order that added homemade touch. We recommend the additional curried avocado, it’s worth the extra $.
The café allows for a transparency of service at hand. The food and beverages are prepared along a procession line of an extensive service bar with a façade of pegged wooden dowels. Here you can catch the mixings of sweet sodas, pours of fermented ginger beer, and bottling of preserves. The addition of homemade bread sets The Birds & The Beets apart from the area's other cafés. If you visit during the earlier hours of the day, you'll be charmed by the sight and sweet smell of their dough being kneaded and baked by an employee.
Through the corridor, you’re connected from one room of the shop to the hideaway of the other. However, the secondary extent surprisingly opens into a much larger space than anticipated and depending on the time of day, the fluctuation in the number of fellow customers can have it quite busy. The café could provide some acoustical measures, but typically acoustics don’t always make the budget.
The charming café purchased all their furniture from old schools. The table sizing varies throughout the space where they can accommodate larger group sittings (8 or so), great for informal business meets or study groups who may need to lie out their books. This coffee shop also embraces laptop usage with multiple locations for plugs and a Telus Wifi connection (although we have personal qualms with this service).
Matthew Senecal-Junkeer, whose friendly face you may recognize from several other local favourites, is a big part of the success behind The Birds & The Beets besides the obvious: he owns the place. He’s soft-spoken and kind-hearted, but also driven and adept with years of experience working at accomplished establishments. He’s flourished a business that after its conception gives that ‘of course!’ moment, ‘how could that not be a successful idea!’ (the harmony is all there), but still, it's no simple task orchestrating a blend of quality baked goods, aromatic coffees, sandwiches, kombucha, handmade sodas, and preserves, among other provisions offered.
Matthew knew he wanted to open a café while he was working at Matchstick Coffee Roasters throughout University. After his undergrad, the next step was either going to be Law School or Culinary School—both of which, arguably, are equally as intensive. Having chosen the latter, Senecal-Junkeer later went on to work at a few more traditional restaurants in Toronto, then at 33 Acres in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant, but he found he was always drawn to cafés. "They're very simple, approachable, and, kind of everyday type of places," he tells us on a warm afternoon sitting outside of the Alexander Street entryway to his popular café.
After a real estate agent (a previous frequent customer of his from Matchstick) found an enticing availability in Gastown, Matthew seized the opportunity and bought both 55 Powell St (formerly Sea Monstr Sushi) and the store behind it. He hired Simcic + Uhrich Architects, seasoned local architects who designed another HN favourite, Timbertrain; they knocked out the adjoining walls and created a connecting corridor between the two spaces.
Senecal-Junkeer wanted to incorporate a lunch-style menu into his abode and, while in culinary school, he saw the difference in items that were made fresh, in-house, and from scratch versus cooking with something that was processed elsewhere. "You can bring in really great things, but you can also bring in things, unfortunately, that have a lot of xantham gum or something else that ultimately compromise the product." So in opening The Birds & the Beets, the new café owner connected with local farms and producers. "We use 3 farms generally: UBC Farms, Cropthorne Farms, which is in Delta, and Klippers Organics."
In the last two years, the team behind The Birds & The Beets have really come into their own, tying together what their values as a company are. The café owner, who works alongside his employees equally as rigorously, notes that being season-dependant is something he views as a plus. "We want to be somewhere where we can serve the best available produce and food," for what he sees as, "a pretty attainable and fair price." They certainly have met that mandate.
Recently partnering with other local culinary entrepreneurs like Chams Sbouai, the award-winning-kitchen trained pastry chef known for his dessert start-up, Sweet Boy Cream Puffs, The Birds & The Beets currently hosts themed provision pop-up nights. "I saw that we had this unique space, especially for evenings," Senecal-Junkeer notes. He wanted to utilize this and offer his room to other like-minded proprietors who were looking to run evening events.
Glad to have his nights off when the café closes at 6 PM, Matthew adds that he still finds himself coming to attend Wednesday's 'Juice Bar' evening where cheap, regional, and ecologically-minded wines are highlighted alongside other local treats, like the aforementioned Sweet Boy confections. Senecal-Junkeer also teamed up with the folks behind Orchard and The Sea, a craft cider night presented by Txotx Imports that pops up every Friday and Saturday night. Spanish olives, charcuterie boards, and Cantabrian white anchovies are just a few of the options for side treats. The café operator confesses his delight in seeing other epicureans succeed in his betrothed space, "both pop-ups couldn't be busier," he tells us.
There’s an appeal to the senses either through the soda palette cleansers after your morning coffee, or the Bathroom’s Aesop soap and Dyson hand dryers. There are both still and sparkling water on tap, and the overflow nourishes the ferns below. Large windows for rainy days or bursts of summer light connect you to the outdoors on days you need to post up inside. The Birds & The Beets embodies exactly what the name entails: a light-hearted, refreshing café where nature, whether in food, plants, or beverages, harmoniously nourish the mind and body as intended. They've found the sweet spot in the duality between florals and coffee like so many other cities have. We hope that future Vancouver establishments will embrace this botanical junction and not leave it only for the outdoors.