The office drones working in the towers above the warren of shops and restaurants in PATH in the financial district got an extra jolt one Friday morning a few weeks ago when they went for their java at the Sam James coffee shop.
The five male baristas behind the counter were dressed in razor sharp suits and skinny ties. If it weren’t for the modern orange New Balance sneakers on their feet, they could pass for suave extras on Mad Men.
What gave the scene an even more alternate-universe kind of vibe, were the Bay Street banker type customers lined up, mostly dressed in chinos and polos — their casual Friday attire.
“We wanted to flip the switch,” says Sam James, the owner of this grab-and-go coffee bar located under the SunLife Financial Building on King St. W. “We wanted to do a cheeky play on the whole Casual Friday thing.”
On the last Friday of every month, James’ baristas will be kitted out in slim fitting suits from European label Tiger of Sweden. The next dressed up Friday at the café is Sept. 28.
The idea was conceived by James and one of his regular customers, Avi Raphael, who works for the clothing agency that distributes Tiger of Sweden and New Balance in Canada.
It’s a bit of guerrilla marketing. Tiger of Sweden suits, with their sharp tailoring and skinny silhouettes typically attract a young hipster customer who doesn’t wear a suit five days a week.
Modelled by these young baristas, including a skateboarder and a backpacking Australian, it exposes the brand to the suit-wearing demographic that patrols PATH.
The first time they wore the suits proved to be a big turning point for the café, which opened in June, said James .
There are two other Sam James cafés, one on Harbord St. in the Annex neighourhood and one on Bloor St. W. in Koreatown. But the financial district location doesn’t have a seating area and most customers pay-and-dash. There isn’t a sense of community like a neighbourhood cafés.
On that Friday, customers were definitely more friendly and engaging, some taking pictures with their camera phone.
“Lots of bigger than normal smiles — and casual Friday jokes,” says Tomas Morrison, one of the baristas working the cash register.
“It’s now a reference point and everyone is asking when we will be dressed up again,” James says.
Regular customer Warren Bridle who works in the nearby TD Centre building, knew something was up when he saw the larger-than-normal crowd in front of the café and groaned when he didn’t immediately recognized the baristas in the suits.
“I was a little concerned, he said with a laugh. “I thought they were probably corporate guys from head office working behind the counter and being new, they were going to screw up my order.”
The suited up baristas brought novelty, camaraderie and business to the coffee shop, but it remains to be seen how long they will be able to continue the reverse casual Friday look.
“It’s clothing suicide,” says James. “It’s a dirty job making coffee because we are very hands-on and use traditional methods. The dry-cleaning is going to get expensive.”