Alex Lee grew up loving coffee, and its aroma and taste. While in high school, he took a part-time job as a barista at Starbucks. His employer soon asked to design and implement a coffee master program for the stores.
“So when you go into any store you will see someone with a black apron, I probably certified them,” Lee says.
“Although I learned a lot on how to run stores and how to things worked, I realized there was a lot more out there,” Lee says.
Lee said he never pictured himself as an entrepreneur, but he thought the local market could use another café. Along with a partner, Joe Dunford, who managed a Starbucks location, the pair started researching a new business. The result is Cortdao Tasting Room. The pair started working on the idea in December 2015 and opened the business in September of this year.
The name Cortado refers to a traditional afternoon Spanish drink. While there are variations, Lee says for the most part it’s equal parts espresso and steamed milk. It’s also relatively unknown in Nova Scotia coffee culture.
“A good cortado is a test of how good their café is,” Lee says. “It has to be the perfect balance. If not it’s very easy to mess up that drink. It either gets very sour or very burnt tasting.”
The pair visited a number of cities to learn about coffee culture there. Lee went to Toronto, Seoul, Chicago, and Seattle. Dunford, meanwhile, travelled to Ottawa, Toronto, and Calgary.
But they wanted to provide more than great coffee. Lee says they always want to focus on high-end customer service, which he feels is missing in the local market.
“Anyone can be friendly, anyone can have a friendly conversation with customers, with employees, but when it comes to being really considerate and really empathizing about what the customer wants when they come through the door, we really want to hear them,” Lee says.
The staff is also highly trained and well paid. Baristas here make $15 an hour for their work.
Cortado is located on Gary Martin Drive, just off HamMonds Plains Road. It’s close to the BMO Centre Arena, new housing developments, and other small businesses, including a farmers’ market. At first, Lee says he was reluctant to open a café in the area after his business partner, Dunford, took him for a drive to scope out locations. But he soon changed his mind when he saw master plans for the area, which include more housing and commercial developments.
Cortado uses only triple-filtered water and freshly roasted coffee, never past seven days. The menu includes espresso, macchiato, latte, cappuccino, Americano, cold brew, and nitro brew. Sweet treats are provided by Bedford-based caterer, Sweet Figs.
This café also specializes in a wide range of single serve brews, including French press, Aeropress, Chemex filters, and the Yama Cold Brew Tower.
“No one is doing this wide range of manual brew,” Lee says. “Each bean, depending on the roast level, depending on the notes that come out of it, depending on your preference, you can customize anything.”
It all sounds and looks very scientific. Consider the Belgian Royal balancing siphons set up along the bar. This series of siphons and beakers make the space look like a laboratory for coffee.
Lee says he and Dunford continue to learn the science of the beans and the blend. In September, Lee attended The Canadian Coffee and Tea Show. Lee has his own favourites now, particularly any good, high-quality African coffee made from naturally processed beans. It’s the science these business partners want to bring to Bedford.
“There’s a lot of mystery in what makes a good cup of coffee,” Lee says. “There are some great cafés downtown as well, but we want to focus on the manual serve and we want to put a lot of care into every bean, every brew ratio. The science behind it has to be exact.”