A paper tiger is on the prowl, perking up a Central Vancouver neighborhood and creating a scene.
Make that Paper Tiger Coffee Roasters, brewing up robust java every day at 703 Grand Blvd.
Launched in autumn 2009 by proprietor Zachary Gray, 28, the coffeehouse has enlivened the short stretch between East Mill Plain and Evergreen boulevards, fast becoming a community hub and artistic haven.
It’s just what Gray, an Illinois transplant, had in mind when he pounced on the space formerly occupied by The Chicago Steamer hot dog eatery.
“I could see the neighborhood embracing this place. This was a little bit of a diamond in the rough,” Gray said. He’d scouted around near downtown before settling on the busy arterial that splits the Edgewood Park and Hudson’s Bay neighborhoods.
His dual goal: Serve killer coffee and establish a “third place” where conversation and good energy flows, where personal connections are made for the greater good.
“I think we need a lot more places like this in Vancouver,” Gray said, quick to embrace all that “coffee culture” conjures. “I’m not in it for the quick buck. It’s about adding value to my life, and the community.”
Admirers say he’s on the right track.
“Their coffee is great. You can tell they like what they do,” said Sarah Johnsen, 29, who sipped a cup with a friend on a weekday morning.
Now living near Leverich Park, she’s a native who often visited the former Pegasus comic shop a few doors away. She appreciates the jolt of energy Gray has sent into the understated commercial zone, she said.
“It’s nice to see it coming back,” Johnsen said. “It’s nice to support a little shop, over the big guy. That’s really what Vancouver is all about.”
The joint is a good fit with a handful of specialty shops in an adjoining mini-mall and fills a niche with the few sit-down establishments within shouting distance: The Blind Onion Pizza shop on Mill Plain, the El Delfin restaurant on Grand and the venerable Igloo Restaurant on East Evergreen Boulevard.
“Paper Tiger was a real help to class the place up. They do have some new ideas and energy,” said Steve Bader, whose Bader Beer & Wine Supply shop a few yards away pulls in many of the same do-it-yourself types who appreciate fine wine, beer or coffee.
All about the coffee
For Gray, by training a graphic designer whose wife, Rebecca, paints professionally at home, it all starts with the coffee.
The couple was infatuated during an extended stay in Florence, Italy, he said. Great coffee on every street corner, brewed by proud, talented baristas, and remarkable discourse.
Gray cites the so-called “penny university” heritage of European coffeehouses, where anyone could rub shoulders with writers and other creative types and emerge the wiser.
“I love the conversations, the ideas, the stories that I hear,” he said. He and Rebecca returned to Chicago as changed people. They sought a comparable U.S. scene, found it in Seattle and Portland and chose Portland, where he landed design work.
Then, his new passion took over. He researched particulars of selecting, roasting and carefully filtering deep, rich coffees, part of his “pop-the-hood” and see what’s beneath curiosity, he said. Soon, the fruits of his DIY roasting drew raves from friends and colleagues, and an idea was hatched.
“Hey, this could be a really fun line of work,” Gray told himself. He studied techniques and roasting machines before buying a model manufactured by hand in Oklahoma City for about $10,000.
There was no doubt about the name: “Tiger” is in tribute to the orange and brown stripes in Gray’s carefully extracted espresso that forms the base for all his drinks. The nuanced sweet, sour, salty and citrus sensations reflect the complexity of coffee, which has 800 or 900 flavor components, he said.
At 1 and 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, he shares his joy with anyone interested during free “coffee cupping” seminars.
Gray has hired two more enthusiastic baristas who also fuss over customers. Each day, they post a menu of direct-trade coffee grown in Latin America or Africa.
Other touches include a used book rack, eye-catching photography from Clark College students and pleasant ambient music.
A 21st century creature, Paper Tiger also reaches fans via Facebook, Twitter and its website, at http://papertigercoffee.com. The shop has Wi-Fi, of course.
Special events include live music. In November, the shop hosted Culture Control, a daylong Vancouver music and art festival. Every third Thursday evening (the shop normally closes at 6 p.m.), it’s home to a poetry night that consistently draws 30 to 40 writers from Vancouver-Portland for open-mic readings and musings.
“This is a great venue,” said Dan Nelson, a participant who simply treks a few blocks from his Central Park home. He found out about the place from a friend who raved about “the best coffee in Vancouver,” he said.
“It’s not just a neighborhood thing,” said Nelson, who’s heard from regulars all across town.
It’s also easy enough to find, reached from the East Mill Plain Boulevard exit off Interstate 5 or first exit off state Highway 14, Gray noted.
Still, Gray’s prime motive is to nurture local bonding.
An appreciative Kevin Hiebert, 37, a nonprofit group manager, said he’s succeeded in forging a congregation point. “This has been a real lighthouse for the neighborhood,” he said.
Obviously pleased, Gray deflects the praise.
“I’ve been privileged to meet my neighbors here. That’s been the best part of the year,” he said. “It’s been a mutual blessing.”