C/O Yigi Chang
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Ark & Anchor Espresso Bar remains a beloved café and community hub
Nestled between King Street West and Queen Street North is the Ark & Anchor Espresso Bar. Established in the fall of 2015, the café is not only a hotspot for avid coffee drinkers in the Strathcona neighbourhood, but also an important community hub for folks around the city.
Partners Patrick Guilbault and Yigi Chang are the faces of Ark & Anchor. With over 10 years of barista experience, Guilbault is in charge of brewing all the coffee and tea beverages in the café. Chang, on the other hand, is interested in health and nutrition and works in the kitchen, baking delicious pastries and fresh food items for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Chang also has a background in illustration and is the artist behind the incredible murals found throughout the building.
Although the couple is originally from Toronto, they were drawn to Hamilton by their friend who moved to the city in 2014 and introduced them to their current café location.
“We had already been looking for real estate in Toronto [to open a café], but it was all completely out of our reach. But we were able to find this beautiful building here and all the stars aligned,” said Guilbault.
The same friend who showed them the building gave the couple inspiration for the name of the café as well. While doing research about the neighbourhood, they were inspired by the Scottish Rite located kitty corner to the café and the symbol of the ark and anchor from Masonic history, which represents well-grounded hope and a life well spent.
Although Guilbault and Chang had no intentions of picking a religious name for their business when their graphic designer friend drew the ark and anchor logo for them, they felt it was too beautiful to pass up. The symbolism also resonated with their story.
“[The ark and anchor] means being comfortable with taking things with you as well as leaving things behind and it felt really great as an idea for us moving cities and all that kind of stuff,” explained Guilbault.
Since the opening of the café, the couple’s vision for the business has been to create a safe, welcoming and inclusive space. It serves as a hub for everyone — from those seeking a space for studying, having meetings and hanging out with friends to those looking for a community. Community is an especially important part of the café’s culture.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous clubs and events were hosted at Ark & Anchor, such as the Ship’s Log Book Club, Monday Night RPGs for monthly role playing games and On Board for board game nights.
They started the clubs about four years ago due to high interest from their customers. The couple had also been wanting to create a space for sharing books and playing games for folks who aren’t comfortable participating in evening culture or can’t stay out too late.
“My big reason for wanting to [start the book and game clubs] was I was finding it was hard to find spaces for games and book clubs that weren’t nighttime spaces. So, if you didn’t feel like you had to get a beer or you had to get dinner. We were able to use the top [floor] of the coffee shop as more of a clubhouse to come and play games,” said Guilbault.
Maintaining and promoting inclusivity and safety of the space was crucial to the clubs’ operations. For instance, at the beginning of the Ships’ Log Book Club meetings, the captain’s code was read out loud which outlined zero tolerance for transphobic or ableist comments or harassment of any kind.
“[We had] a couple book club members say, ‘The fact that you’ve actively said nobody is going to do this, we are not only going to save space for you, but keep safe spaces for you, made it a lot more inviting,’” said Guilbault.
However, since the pandemic, the clubs have been put on hold. The last book club meeting was in February of 2020. There are a few members who have continued to hang out and play games online, however, the book club did not make the transition to a digital platform.
“It’s been really hard with adjusting to the pandemic because for everybody who was coming to these events, it was really like a big community thing for them. [But] it just never really made the switch to digital,” said Guilbault.
Guilbault and Chang unfortunately don’t have the capacity to run the clubs again themselves while running the business, citing concerns about long business hours and overworking. However, they hope members will continue the clubs in the future.
“The dream is that some of the community members will pick up the mantle and say, ‘I’m willing to organize more, I’m willing to do more,’ as we kind of move into the next stage of things,” said Guilbault.
Despite all the changes and challenges to the café amidst the pandemic, the community has been supportive and patient. Currently, the couple is working hard to keep up with the new developments and residents entering the neighbourhood. They recently reorganized the second floor of the café to allow more indoor seating with proper physical distancing and are open from Tuesday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Guilbault emphasizes Ark & Anchor has not forgotten about its community. As life slowly returns to normal, more people move into the area and with enough demand, Guilbault and Chang are open to launching more community-focused programming and use their spaces to serve the interests of the community.