Building community with coffee

When Jim Dikaios was in his early thirties, his father showed him two 150-pound bags of coffee beans in the storage room of Java Blend Coffee Roasters.

“This is all we have left,” his father said. “Once this goes, we’re done.”

As coffee prices soared in the late ‘90s, Dikaios’s father, owner of Java Blend at the time, found himself selling beans to wholesale clients for less than he was paying for them. As a result, he owed his coffee importer more than $100,000.

Wanting to help his father, Dikaios called another importer who had shown interest in selling to them. A small batch of Colombian beans arrived. To his surprise, not only were they cheaper, they tasted better.

Dikaios realized two things: his father’s importer had taken advantage of his loyalty and coffee quality can fluctuate due to factors such as region, importer, and yearly harvest. “At that moment, I was hooked on wanting to make the best coffee for our customers,” Dikaios says.

He left his background in marine biology behind—a relief for his seasickness—to help his father save Java Blend. Eventually, they paid off their debt and salvaged the business.

Theodore Sideris founded Java Blend in 1938. He was a Greek man who believed everyone should have access to freshly roasted coffee. It was a revolutionary concept in Halifax. The original shop, located on Hollis Street, served restaurants and cafés looking for something better than commercial-grade coffee.

When Dikaios’s father Peter bought Java Blend in 1971, Sideris stayed on as a mentor. Dikaios remembers walking to work after school, cringing whenever he saw Sideris sitting in the window, munching on a handful of coffee beans as if they were peanuts.

“He would always ask about my math marks,” Dikaios says.

In the café, two framed photographs hang above the milk and sugar station. In each sepia-tinged image, Sideris, a balding gentleman in a suit, peers out from under bushy eyebrows. In one, he is standing next to Dikaios’s father, surrounded by coffee equipment.

Theodore Sideris founded Java Blend in 1938.

Sideris’s daughter, Nita Graham, still frequents the cafe. She is pleased that Java Blend is going on 80 years old. “He would have been very happy to hear it is still in personal hands,” she says.

By 1985, Java Blend had outgrown its Hollis Street location moving to its current spot on North Street. For a time, there were cafés in the Maritime Centre, Penhorn Mall, and Westend Mall. The franchise model didn’t last, and when Dikaios took over from his father, there was only the cafe and roastery on North Street. Now, Dikaios has a vendor stand at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market and a warehouse in Burnside where the majority of the beans are roasted for his 250 to 300 wholesale clients.

Java Blend offers between 15 to 20 types of coffee (including house blends and single-origin coffees) sourced from multiple importers around the world. Dikaios owes part of his success to his team’s ability to select, not only speciality coffees, but coffees they can sell at a respectable price to their customers.

Laura Arsenault, front-of-house manager, also praises the team. “We have phenomenal staff that are hardworking, kind, and approachable,” Arsenault says.

Dikaios says he wants to be a good citizen, giving back to those who have supported him. The café has an annual free-coffee day, asking people to leave a donation, which goes to a local food bank.

Dikaios has watched the North End evolve. He’s happy to welcome new businesses, including other roasteries such as Nova Coffee, Anchor, Just Us, and North Mountain.

One of the newest roasters, Federico Pasquinelli, operates an Italian-style espresso shop on Isleville Street. Most likely the smallest café in Halifax, Espresso 46 is a window in a brick warehouse from which Pasquinelli serves his own specialty blend.

A coffee-machine technician, Pasquinelli was a part-time roaster at Java Blend before starting Espresso 46. Initially, he worried that his plans would upset Dikaios.

When Peter Dikaios bought Java Blend, Sideris stayed on as his mentor.

“I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Pasquinelli says. “I talked to Jim straight away to ask what he thought about opening this place. He told me to go for it and he lent me the coffee machine. I’ve always found his passion for coffee very sincere.”

Dikaios has other hobbies, like cycling and photography. A few years ago, he traveled to Majorca, Spain, with a group of cyclists to bike 120 kilometres per day for two weeks. His two daughters live in Montreal, and he and his wife take time off to visit them. But, in many ways, Dikaios remains a product of both Java Blend and the North End.

He was raised in a two-storey house across the street from the cafe. He grew up attending Oxford School and playing ball hockey on King Street. He worked at Java Blend with his father as a teenager and young adult, and throughout all this time, he hasn’t lost the bug for seeking and serving quality coffee.

When it comes to the experience Dikaios hopes customers have at Java Blend, he simply gestures to the gentle hum of the cafe. “This is it,” he says.

There is a gentleman sitting in the corner who comes in everyday to read his newspaper. A group of students meet to discuss an upcoming project. Solitary people plug away at their laptops. Staff greet customers, answer questions, fill five-pound bags of coffee, and nod as someone lingers to inform them loudly that they’ve been coming here “since you were on Hollis Street!” The space is filled with chatter, music, clinking glasses, fingers striking keys, beans being ground, and espresso being poured.

“It’s just a regular café with a lot of familiar faces,” Dikaios says.

How they Make it

To provide enough coffee for all of Java Blend’s wholesale clients, Jim Dikaios uses three industrial-size coffee roasters. There is a 25-kilogram roaster at the cafe on North Street, as well as a 25-kilogram and a 12-kilogram roaster at the warehouse in Burnside.

Each one is programmed with all of Java Blend’s coffee recipes.

Dikaios selects the recipe, and then the roaster applies varying degrees of heat at different stages of the roasting process. Dikaios and staff determine these recipes, or roasting profiles, through a combination of past knowledge and experimentation.

It takes around 15 minutes to roast a batch of coffee, and then the beans go onto a cooling tray and dumped into a machine that fills one or five pound bags. After that, the coffee is off to wholesale clients, some of whom order 100 pounds per week.

CORRECTION: Due to a transcription error, Nita Graham’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. Halifax Magazine regrets the error. 

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