The secret to getting Rahim Abbasi to work on a project is to serve him a great beverage.
Abbasi became part owner of Compass Coffee and went on to design their downtown Vancouver coffee shop after spending hours sipping coffee in their original space on Main Street. Amanda Serrano of Be Well Juice Bar hooked Abbasi with her Be Wellin’ smoothie.
Over the last five years, Abbasi has created some of the more interesting and stunning places to eat and drink in Vancouver. These spaces include Compass Coffee, The Mighty Bowl, Brian Carter Cellars’ Tasting Room at the Waterfront Vancouver and DosAlas Latin Kitchen & Tequila Bar.
“I want to be involved in places where I live,” said Abbasi . “I wanted downtown Vancouver to have more amenities.”
Each project starts with a conversation. Abbasi wants to know what the owner seeks to convey using design elements in the space. After getting this information, he creates different design concepts for the project that include images to convey a vibe.
Once the theme is established, the space is evaluated and conceptually divided. Abbasi focuses on the center of activity and works outward. At Compass Coffee, creating a bar where a cashier could take orders and a barista could quickly make drinks and get them to customers was the first order of business.
Bryan Wray, of Compass, told Abbasi that orders needed to get out in under three minutes. Abbasi came up with a way to create this flow and then condensed the design to have room for customers to move through the space and sit and drink their coffee.
“You have to think about functional spaces to operate the business, then you make the operational space smaller and smaller so there’s space for customers,” said Abbasi .
In 2016, when Abbasi designed Compass’s new downtown space on Washington Street, cafes in downtown Vancouver were primarily sparse and industrial. Abbasi wanted Compass’ coffee shop to stand out. He added design elements like the hexagon-shaped tiles in the bar and the handmade off-center shelving that holds bags of coffee beans to the left of the bar. Abbasi placed antiques from his home on the shelves throughout the space. His wife, Kate, chose the banana leaf wallpaper that covers the wall to the left of the bar. A group of Edison lights were affixed to the ceiling in the main area to add some visual interest.
Another project, The Mighty Bowl’s downtown restaurant, evokes a different vibe, with a color palette that favors bright green to emphasize the importance of fresh produce in the food. Abbasi calls the vibe Scandinavian and gritty with a California skateboarder style.
Designing that space began with the open kitchen. Owner Steve Valenta wanted customers to see all the fresh produce being used to make bowls and salads. Creating a functional open kitchen was the first thing that needed to be sorted out. Then zones for different types of seating were set up ranging from high stools at a bar, traditional tables and chairs, and bleacher seats.
This focus on the nerve center of operations landed Abbasi his biggest Vancouver design project to date, DosAlas Latin Kitchen & Tequila Bar. Dos Alas owner Jorge Castro had designed all his other restaurants. This was a larger project, so he wanted to use an architect to help him configure the kitchen. He decided to hire Abbasi after only a few minutes of walking through the space.
Castro was impressed when Abbasi said he would place the bar in the center of the main area and make it boat shaped, like the building.
“It’s an unconventional bar, a unique bar space. When he said it, I was intrigued because it made me think differently,” said Castro.
During the build-out, the men shared an intense work ethic and a focus on making the best decisions for the space without taking anything personally. Castro could call or text Abbasi anytime day or night and receive a response. Castro and Abbasi both like to work late at night. They met several times at Dos Alas well after 11 p.m.
They also shared a mutual respect. Many of Abbasi ’s ideas didn’t make it into the final plans, but they caused Castro to think of different possibilities.
“We have a very unique relationship,” said Castro. “We are respectful colleagues and friends, but able to tell the truth and be raw.”
A wall filled with curvy blue and white ceramic bottles of Clase Azul seemingly floating in space is one of the many unique design details at Dos Alas. Abbasi wracked his brain trying to figure out a way to attach these expensive containers to the wall with fasteners that weren’t too tight, but would keep them firmly in place and look attractive. He ended up using wall mounts normally used for ukuleles and modifying them to fit his vision.
Dos Alas feels like the “Great Gatsby” reimagined in modern-day Miami — a glittering, glamorous pleasure palace that makes visitors believe they’ve magically left the Pacific Northwest.
Castro said he loves to stand at the top of the stairs by the elevator at Dos Alas and watch new customers experience the space for the first time.
“I’ve seen customers appreciate design. I’m willing to budget more for build-outs to create a place to be seen, to dress up, to take photos,” said Castro.
Abbasi’s inspiration comes from a lifetime fascination with design and a desire to learn. He spent the first part of his life in Guatemala. His parents are from Pakistan, but his father moved the family to Guatemala to sell imported rugs to South America’s elite. Through his father’s business, the family were invited into the well-appointed homes of the ultra rich.
A love for well-designed furniture led Abbasi to western India and the Indonesian islands of Bali and Java seeking rare antique furniture for his father to sell through the family business. He fit world travel into his schedule while earning degrees and gaining job experience.
He received a Bachelor of Science in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Idaho, followed by a business and engineering degree from Washington State University, and a Master of Arts of real estate, development, and urban planning from Portland State University.
He was an engineer-in-training at Bechtel, KPFF Consulting Engineers, and KPT Engineering & Development, then a project manager at Group Mackenzie. He owned an antiques store called Saffron and Turmeric in Portland with his brother, but he needed to give that up when his company, Abbasi Design Works, began racking up clients.
Currently, Abbasi Design Works has its six-person team working on 17 projects varying from multifamily housing to a massive UPS distribution center to smaller more personal work in Vancouver that Abbasi refers to as vanity projects.
One of these vanity projects is Amanda Serrano’s Be Well Juice Bar at The Waterfront Vancouver. Based on Serrano’s high-quality smoothies, Abbasi encouraged her to expand her business to the Waterfront and introduced her to the owner of the RiverWest building, Josh Oliva.
After Serrano signed a lease for a Waterfront space, Abbasi stepped in to help her bring her vision to life through design while also communicating with the contractor and working through electrical, plumbing, and permitting issues.
“I don’t know if he’s like this with all his clients, but he knows I’m new,” said Serrano. “He’s not just coming in and saying, ‘I like that pillow.’ ”
In addition to the technical and creative support, Serrano appreciates that he believes in her dream of expanding her business.
“As a small-business owner, we’re around a lot of people who say that might not work. Rahim is more like — that’s a wild dream, I’m here, let’s go.”