How a Vancouver cafe became a staple of the city's coffee culture
Made in Vancouver is a collaboration between Vancity and Daily Hive. Together, we’re turning the spotlight onto local businesses, organizations, and individuals who are helping to create a healthy local economy.
Nemesis Coffee wasn’t supposed to be a coffee shop.
According to Jess Reno, the company’s founder and CEO, “We were approaching it as a magazine originally, intended to highlight the arts, street culture, music, etc., and the people behind it. It was counterculture to the corporate approach and for the people, our community.”
He continued, “Nemesis was the word that stood out immediately to reflect that. The magazine never materialized, but a cafe concept emerged and here we are, a few years later!”
A coffee shop became the foundation for connecting like-minded individuals. Reno said, “The inspiration was building a community, bringing people together. Coffee was something we did and loved, and it acted as a great catalyst for us to help achieve that goal. Trying to be a part of the fabric or creating something special in the neighbourhoods we found ourselves in.”
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Vancity has been supporting people in our communities since 1946, like local entrepreneurs. As part of our Made in Vancouver series spotlighting local businesses, we talked to Vancity member Jess Reno about the origins of Nemesis Coffee, the company’s new location, and more.
They chose an inverted heart for the coffee shop logo. Reno explained, “It was our way of achieving two things: a symbol everyone could form with their hands, symbolic of its humanizing traits—it’s more than just another company/business, it’s the people made by people for the people. Second, to reflect love, but it’s not cookie cutter. It’s for everyone, it’s real, against the grain, so we inverted the heart to help symbolize that.”
The first Nemesis coffee shop opened in Vancouver in 2017. “Vancity supported us at the very beginning and gave us our initial loan to start our Gastown location,” Reno said.
“We managed to get a small business loan, emptied our own pockets and pulled in our family and friends that believed in us, and our vision. Opening day we had $32 in the till—that’s how tight it was.”
But Nemesis soon attracted a loyal following of coffee aficionados.
In 2019 the second location opened, at The Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. It also included Dope Bakehouse, which produces mouth-watering pains au chocolat, cruffins and assorted flavours of croissants, fresh daily for each Nemesis location.
As much as possible, ingredients are sourced locally and even foraged locally.
Last month, Nemesis unveiled its most ambitious undertaking yet: the GNW flagship on Vancouver’s Great Northern Way. Reminiscent of a flower, the stunning red building was designed by PCI Developments as part of the South Flatz development adjacent to the new Emily Carr University of Arts and Design.
This new location includes a roastery. “We’ve finally kicked off our roasting program, and we’re so thrilled about it. Every coffee is direct trade,” Reno said.
“Our green program is led by Damian Durda, and our hope is to be as transparent as possible while sharing the story of each farm we work with, drawing our guests closer to what it takes to form what’s in that cup. We’re incredibly proud of the work we’ve initiated here and love what the future holds in store.”
Inspiration has come from local coffee roasters such as Luna Coffee and Harken Coffee. Reno said, “Their commitment to the hard-working people at origin is beautiful and inspirational.”
Reno reflected on how Nemesis has succeeded, despite the odds. “We did it without any outside help. We don’t come from money. It’s a real hustle, but finding something you love and doing it with purpose gives our lives more purpose. Through all the adversity,” he said. “The people we’ve met and the growth we’ve experienced individually and as a team can never be replaced. We’re really grateful for it all.”
Even with all of the hard work, long hours and perseverance, Reno noted that the business wouldn’t have succeeded without his stellar team in place. “Our squad is full of some incredible people. We all work tirelessly together through a hell of a lot of obstacles, especially coming off a pandemic, to pull things off,” he said.
“We haven’t folded when met with challenges, and we’ve all exhibited a lot of growth because of it. It’s been amazing to hustle together.”
He continued, “We have our hearts in the right place. We put a lot of effort in the hopes to really help build or be a part of the fabric of the communities we find ourselves in. A lot of the people on our squad come from humble beginnings, and it’s not the money that acts as our motivator.”
When asked if he had advice for anyone contemplating starting a business, Reno was encouraging. “Hit the ‘on’ switch, and chase after what you’re hoping for, dreaming of. It’ll be hard, and there’ll be a lot of lessons to learn from, things you never considered or thought about as a challenge that will test you, but it’ll be worth it,” he said. “Life feels more full now, and I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.”
As is the case for so many small businesses right now, grappling with COVID-19 is challenging. Reno said that it hasn’t been easy to run two locations and open a third coffee shop during the pandemic. “It was almost curtains for us,” he admitted. “It was crushing in so many ways.”
But ever since opening that third location, Reno has been feeling more optimistic. He said, “We dug so deep and made it happen. We’re not back to where we were, but there’s hope at the end of the tunnel. We’re going to keep grinding and adapting as we do until we reach that light.”
He continued, “We hope our entire industry can make that recovery the best they can. It hit all of us really hard.”
Reno reflected on the company’s plans for the future. “Our goal is to continue building meaningful relationships and celebrate the work of our family by sharing their unique stories,” he said. “We value each person that walks through our door equally, and as we continue to grow in this city and globally, we will continue to foster community and open up our home to all. These are the things that we hold close to our hearts at Nemesis.”