You know when you meet someone, and you want to hear their story because they seem interesting? If you haven’t, you haven’t met Michael Ellis, owner of Michaels coffee shop and bakery in Estevan and Carlyle.
There is something about him; his energy and tenacity are welcoming, his laugher and good spirit are infectious.
Be a fly on the wall with the conversation I had with Michael Ellis.
1.Tell me about yourself?
Well, I grew up in Charlottetown, PEI. I lived in both coast provinces and settled in the middle, Saskatchewan. I live in Arcola with my wife, Cindy. We will be celebrating our 30th anniversary this summer. She says our relationship is like an amusement park where she is a merry-go-round, and I am a rollercoaster. (laughing) It works for us.
2. You are the owner of Michaels Coffeeshop and Bakery that started in Carlyle?
I am the owner, funny everyone thinks it started in Carlyle, but I first opened in Arcola in 2007. Then, after 7 years there, we decided to move to Carlyle, and in 2020, we opened in Estevan during the pandemic’s peak. So we are now in our 15th year of business. Wow, it’s been a ride.
3. What got you into the business at the very start?
Well, I use to work for the town of Arcola, and really, I had many jobs throughout my life; when I lived back in Nova Scotia, I was a baker. One day I was in the cafe in town on my coffee break and noticed the mixer, and it just planted a seed. I loved baking, and some things aligned in my life that guided me to take the leap of faith. I didn’t have any formal training for owning or operating a business. As my son pointed out, “Dad, you should have failed!” (laughing)
4. Why do you think you didn’t?
I just felt my way forward. Some things I succeeded at and some things we attempted didn’t grow. I didn’t hang on to the failures, just focused on what was next. Just the like Eggs Benny Month. We didn’t make Eggs Benedict on our regular menu. But I gave it some thought and wanted to participate in helping the industry, and guess what? Consumers thought we knocked it out of the park.
5. What was it like expanding to Estevan from Carlyle?
Well, the expansion started before the pandemic; I was fully committed, the papers were signed, equipment bought, we were in full throttle with renos, and then everyone shut their doors. It really was a pretty dark time with a ton of uncertainty; then we just moved forward. I initially had to lay off my entire staff and worked by myself when I could by serving curbside and doing deliveries – Anything that I could do to keep the business running. As days wore on, I was able to gradually bring people back. When our health inspector for Estevan gave us permission to open, her words were, “We need something good to happen here right now!”. We were able to bring everyone back to work; that was a great day. Our Carlyle staff would commute to Estevan in those first days and started training the staff in Estevan. We went from 12 people before the pandemic to a summertime peak of 30 people on the team!
6. Why did you choose Estevan?
The timing was perfect. I was looking at expanding into Virden; I had the quotes and a business plan and was ready to roll. But things just never materialized, and I parked it. Then my daughter, who was living in Nova Scotia at the time, said she might move back to be a part of the business and run one of the stores. We looked at some locations and found this one, we liked it, and we signed the lease. It was a great choice.
7. Who is your biggest supporter?
Well, of course, the standard answer – and truthful one – is my wife. She is amazing. I am lucky to be married to a woman who has created stability so I can venture out and be that rollercoaster.
But someone other than family, hands down, the answer is Ken King. Everyone needs a friend like him. When I first started, he would drive customers out of his store to mine. Once I asked a young man at the store how he heard about us, and he said my brother across the street said I need to come here. (laughing) He IS, like a brother to me. Another time he had this big sale and had about 100 people in his store for a big draw and after he said, NOW LET’S GO OVER TO MICHAEL’S TO CELEBRATE. (laughing) That was a lot of fun. 50 people in this little shop. He always makes new businesses feel welcome and knows the value that more business makes us all stronger. He is an amazing mentor and friend.
8. Talking about parties – if you had a dinner party and it was your last, what would you be eating?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. The one thing I can tell you is that I would NOT be doing the dishes! (laughing)
9. What are you most proud of in your career?
Ok, that’s much easier. Definitely the ability to touch the lives of staff and their families. Making their life a little bit easier. This place is not about money, work and leave; it’s about being part of something bigger, a family. All of the staff here in Estevan have stayed on since we opened, which makes me really proud. This family, hands down, makes me the proudest. And when I shared with my Dad about the lives we are touching here and hearing in his voice the sense of pride that he has for me made me feel like a kid again- not a man in his 50s. I always want to make my parents proud of me, and they are.
10. Who cooked meals when you were a child?
Mostly my mom cooked, but my Dad did cook a little bit. It was mostly just a mixture of anything in the cupboard or fridge that he could find. He threw in some spices and nailed it. I think food prep is a mixture of art and science. My needle leans to the art side; I got it from my Dad.
11. Has your eating changed over time? If so, how has it changed?
Growing up in PEI, you eat a lot of seafood. There, seafood is the equivalent to steak here. It’s abundant and normal to go digging for clams or catching lobster. We had a little hobby farm with cows and pigs, and my parents dabbled in sustainable living, kind of like the first version of farm to table. But I wasn’t very adventurous back then. Now I am a lot more, but I do have a line; it might move around a lot depending on who is cooking it.
It reminds me of when I won a contest for Campbell’s Soups, part of the prize was to have Massimo Capra come. He is a celebrity chef who was on Chopped, Restaurant Makeover and Top Chef Canada. Well, he came to Carlyle and cooked and served us a seven-course dinner. I had the staff join us. It was brilliant. He served everything from steak tartare to steelhead to lamb, and it was all very delicious.
12. Where do you draw your creative inspiration from?
There are three things Massimo said that day that has stuck with me. One, “Michael, you are on the right track. Keep it simple.” Two, “It is your business! Run your business! Give the people what you want and help them see that it is really what they want.” And three, “Sometimes you just have to shut the f*&$ up and get to work.”
13. Name your favourite ingredient that you think people should use more in their cooking at home.
Garlic and Ginger. Both of the items have such wonderful aromas; it makes the whole room smell good. And you can’t buy more flavour with any other herb for less money.
14. Describe the single best food experience you’ve ever had.
It was such a unique experience when Massimo came. The food he made was incredible. There was this time in Nova Scotia, and it was our 20th wedding anniversary; the food was terrific, a jazz band was playing; that is a great memory. But then there was a time that as a child we were travelling from PEI to New Jersey, and we stopped at this Denny’s Restaurant. And I don’t know if I was just so hungry or the hamburger I ate was out of this world, but I always look back fondly at that dinner.
15. …and the worst?
Ohhh ya. (laughing) I had a piece of glass in my pasta that cut the roof of my mouth – it was like a pebble size piece of glass. The waitress comped my meal and gave me a gift certificate; she was excellent about it. I think about that situation often. I can see the possibilities of error. I made sure that all staff have their safe food handling training. One person on a shift is the requirement, but all our team went through the certification.
16. What do you think is going to be the next big thing in the food industry?
Farm to table is a fascinating time; I wonder about the mass food preparation and separation between those that can afford it and those that can’t. But I think now that consumers are more globally aware, it will help the food industry look at local food production.
17. What do you love most about your job?
I love the flexibility and being able to learn new things all the time. It isn’t monotonous, that’s for sure. In my adult life, I’ve had 17 jobs; it isn’t that I am flakey, it’s because those new experiences make me engaged. With my job now, I get to wear many hats, finance, baker, HR, and right now, I am learning how to oversee multiple locations. AND learning to perfect my skills as a coffee roaster. (laughing) We recently started roasting coffee and knowing that is fun. When travel is open again, I plan to go to coffee-producing countries and learn about small producers and import their goods. The future is exciting.
18. Favourite kitchen equipment or gadget?
Oh, hands down, The Alligator. We get it from Home Hardware; it’s used for chopping stuff. It works fast and is a great little tool.
19. Funniest kitchen incident?
When we lived in Northern BC, my wife would make granola bars for the kids in her class at school on their birthday. This one time she overcooked it, I mean really, really overcooked it; she was so upset. I picked up that sheet of granola that was like a sheet of plywood and cracked it over my head. It split into a million pieces. There were tears and laughter and a mess to clean up.
20. What does tourism mean to you?
Growing up in PEI, Tourism is above everything, even fishing and farming. I look at tourism like that, at the end of the day, there is no trade if there is no traffic. Our Carlyle location is lucky to have Moose Mountain Provincial Park situated nearby and is an hour away from the Estevan and Weyburn hubs. The lakes and campground fills up and, in turn, drives traffic to the community. Tourism highlights the quality of life in the area, and quality of life is so important. We don’t mind if they come to sit in the shop all day, but they like to do other things while in the area, be it shop, go to a park, fish, visit. It all drills down to the great assets of the community.
Michael, as always, it is a pleasure to visit with you. Thank you for participating in Eggs Benny Month and taking the leap of starting a business here in Estevan. Your comments about not having any team turnover after a year in business and throughout the pandemic show me that you treat everyone, not only your customers but also staff, with the utmost respect.
PS – Try their cinnamon buns. 😊