Crema Coffee: Not Your Average Joe

By Stefanie Neyland, Small Business Content Developer at

Geoff Polci, founder of Crema Coffee, understands that making coffee is easy—but making great coffee is both a science and an art. That’s why he set out to share his love of fine coffee with Canadians by opening up his very first cafe in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood in 2008. A haven for coffee connoisseurs, Crema is a something of an institution for Torontonian cappuccino critics and americano aficionados. On the mouth-watering menu is a selection of lovingly created cappuccinos, macchiatos, espressos and teas, as well as an array of fresh baked goods; and with the popularity of the flagship store ever-growing, they’ve since expanded and now boast three locations across downtown Toronto. So what’s the key to Crema Coffee’s success? Today we catch up with the artisan behind the brand, Geoff Polci, to find out.


Geoff, what was it that first inspired you to start your own business?

GP: In all honesty, I think I've always been unemployable. I've never felt truly comfortable in a corporate or bureaucratic working space—I enjoy putting my own team together and setting and achieving my own targets and goals. When I returned to Canada after running a restaurant in Costa Rica for two years, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but I’d noticed how big the independent coffee scene was getting so I decided to pay a visit to a popular cafe in Vancouver I’d heard about to get a feel for the market. I’ve always been a coffee geek, but I just wanted to scope them out and see what they were doing. The trip inspired me to start a cafe that was based on the principle of an individual making individual coffees for individual customers, and that principle has stuck with me today and forms the basis of everything I do across all Crema locations.


How did you get your business off the ground?

GP: I opened the first Crema location in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood in 2008, and financed the buildout and equipment through a federal government loan program called CSBFL (Canadian Small Business and Financing). In addition to the financial aspect of the startup phase, a lot of pretty intense training went into the opening of the business. For example, with espresso, you have to emulsify the oils in the coffee which creates the very intense concentrated flavor; but if any mistakes are made during the process, a bitter and sour flavor is created. Therefore, it's all about getting the right size of particle ground and putting the right amount of coffee into the espresso machine. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that the beans are aging and degassing, so you always have to keep changing in order to preserve the integrity of the final result. Before launching I had to learn all of this—as well as train all the new hires—to ensure all our hot beverages were of the highest quality possible.


What makes your business unique?

GP: Each coffee is made with the finest and freshest beans, roasted by ethical roasters with the highest standards. The cleanest, freshest, most-thoroughly filtered water runs through state-of-the-art machines, and is then extracted and brewed by trained baristas. We take such care in making sure everything on our menu is of the best quality, so all coffees are hand picked by me, and all our pastries are baked fresh everyday and are completely free of preservatives. I believe strongly in giving customers full value for their dollar.


What is your secret for 'making more happen'?

GP: Making more happen often comes from making new connections, so I try to meet new people whenever I can. I'm naturally quite a shy person, so I have to force myself to meet new people and strike up conversations with strangers. It's quite amazing how few degrees of separation there are between you and whoever you meet. New opportunities are literally everywhere.


What is your biggest challenge, and how do you overcome it?

GP: I had a location downtown that unfortunately really struggled. I put a lot of energy into figuring out ways to increase sales—we tried sampling, we handed out hundreds of free coffee cards, did tons of promos, increased our signage, and we even hired a chalk artist one day to draw some really amazing chalk art in front of the store and down the street. Nothing really worked. I had assumed that, being Crema’s fourth location in Toronto, people would know about us and would take the extra few steps to buy their coffee from us. Boy, was I wrong. I ended up closing the store about a year ago now, but I reflect on the whole experience very positively. Although it was a costly mistake, I learned so much and now feel much more confident in my business and my decisions going forward.


What marketing channels have worked best for getting the word out about your business?

GP: Social media has helped to drive sales at our stores, for sure. I often post articles on our website about coffee topics, different processes, and the water we use, and then we link that to the Facebook and Twitter pages and use them to promote. I think Facebook and Twitter are so useful for staying in front of your customers. We also use stamp cards so when customers buy ten drinks they get one free, and they’re very into these—we do ‘Double Stamp Mondays’ and people get so excited! We also have Crema gift cards that can be loaded up with any amount up to $250, and when used, customers get 5 percent off their drinks.


Right now we’re also running a ‘Shop Local’ campaign in the Junction and on the Danforth, and when customers spend a certain amount of dollars at participating stores in these neighbourhoods, they receive a free coffee from Crema. We’ll be giving away around 2000 free coffees this season as part of the Shop Local campaign.


What’s the best thing about owning your own business?

GP: Every day is different, and even the most challenging day can be so rewarding when you own your own business. I think most people would say that freedom is the best thing about owning a business, but I think it’s almost a false freedom sometimes—even when you’re not working, work is never far from your mind. I love the fact that if I want to add a new product or change something, I have the power to do it. I don’t have to check in with anyone and I can have it on the menu within two days. I really like that.


How has your business evolved over time?

GP: We're offering much more food now compared to what we did at the start.  We’re selling more and more panini sandwiches—especially at the Danforth location—which is great, as well as lots of gluten-free baked goods. We also offer not only soy milk, but also almond milk and lactose-free milk now. There’s been such a huge demand for non-dairy options and we’re known to be supportive of this.


Is running your business harder than you thought it would be?

GP: It's not hard, it just ‘is’. Does that make sense? It’s hard work, but you get over it pretty quickly and learn to accept the responsibilities that come with owning your own business.


To what do you attribute your success so far?

GP: I’d attribute Crema’s success so far to hard work and staying true to my original vision.


What are your goals for the future?

GP: Right now I'm focused on getting Propeller Coffee Roasting—our own roasting facility—off the ground with my partner. After that we may partner up on a few more Crema locations.


What’s the most important item you buy at Staples?

GP: We print all our own coffee bag labels, and for those, we buy all our Epson ink and Avery labels we need from Staples.


How has Staples helped you make more happen for your business?

GP: The ease and speed of ordering online has been very helpful for making more happen for Crema. My manager can put together an order and it arrives next day—now that’s fast service!


What advice would you give people who want to start their own business?

GP: Firstly, do your market research before you decide to start a business. Secondly, work harder and smarter than your competition.  Lastly, make sure you differentiate yourself from the competition.


By Adam

December 30, 2013