Best of the City: White Rabbit Coffee Co.

The inside of the White Rabbit cafe, first renovation
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In July of 2012, the train station on Selby St. got a major restoration, thanks to a community desire to restore what a fire had damaged five years earlier. For years, the left side of the building had remained dormant—until now. The restored Nanaimo heritage building is currently home to White Rabbit Coffee Co., where the owners Adrian Symonds and Amy Ferris serve coffee and inspire collaboration.

Before opening, the pair laid dark ash hardwood flooring, painted the walls a vibrant white, and tested coffee beans. Symonds, a carpenter, made functional and practical furniture for the café, including a long wooden 10-seater table and lowered counters for accessibility. After two months of renovation, the café opened its doors on January 18, 2019.

The venue has undergone several renovations in the year since opening, thanks to Symonds’ expertise: more room, more storage, and patron-friendly seating areas. This summer, they will have an updated patio area to accommodate both humans and dogs.

The counter of White Rabbit cafe, with fresh baked muffins

Expertly roasted coffees, teas, and baked goods are provided all day long, but one feature that is less consistent is the ever-changing wall display. Week to week, it’s a mystery known only to the owners which local artists will be using the walls for affordable, high-visibility exhibits. The gallery rotates from solo artists to groups, paints and photography to graphic design and other two-dimensional work.

For Ferris, the café has been a dream since she was 14 years old

“The biggest thing was that I wanted to be able to use all of my skills in one place while doing something I was passionate about,” she said. “I’m a graphic designer by trade, I have a degree in photography. So, just being able to be creative but in a way that I felt like I’m making a difference not just churning out work.”

Passion for coffee, tea, and people inspired her to start her café. The move from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Vancouver Island allowed her to realize those dreams. Ferris hopes that her space inspires connection between people, and that coffee might be a way to facilitate engagement.

“We noticed that Nanaimo, in terms of culture, was kind of lacking in places where you could have this sit-down culture, this art culture. We wanted to bring a piece of that here—there’s a lot of that going around in the rest of Canada, just not here.”

And it’s true: Nanaimo has been lax in that department. The city has no shortage of live music venues. But, as for hosting a consistent cycle of drawing nights, readings, poetry slams, art, and fashion shows, White Rabbit is one of a kind.

The café allows Ferris and Symonds to give the space over to people who don’t have a place to showcase their work and talent, or don’t have access to such venues at a low cost. For Ferris, the events are usually art-focused, because, as she said, “that’s where [her] heart lies.”

Coffee is only part of their business. During the day, White Rabbit is a meeting place for both casual and professional conversations. Business people conduct interviews and students work on group projects. During the evening it’s a rendezvous for artists: drawing nights and poetry readings, pop-up shops and curated exhibitions.

Local pop up for Arc goods in White Rabbit

“We try to be very accessible for most people. That’s just inclusive, in terms of the people that we want to include in our spaces, but also in our menu, in the design of our space. It’s wheelchair accessible for people with disabilities, but it’s also a safe place for people of [the] LGBTQ+ [community].”

The café’s relationship doesn’t stop with the local community; it expands throughout Vancouver Island. Roasters of both tea leaves and coffee beans are sourced from Victoria to bring a unique taste to Nanaimo.

“Learning that there is so much more to explore in terms of flavours, in terms of regions, made me try to think of it more as a craft—like you think of craft beer—and so being able to take other roaster’s coffees and being able to make my own combinations of flavours is what I like to see.”

Fernwood Coffee Company provides beans. White Rabbit uses a roaster so close to home to keep it local, but also to keep White Rabbit’s carbon footprint down. For tea, they look to JagaSilk, who imports farm-direct tea from Japan. The leaves are brought to Canada and roasted in-house. For matcha, they mill the tea in-house. This helps to retain the flavour and longevity of the tea.

White Rabbit aims to provide its drinks in an eco-friendly, sustainable, and ethically conscious way.

“Specialty coffee can sometimes be stuffy, pretentious. I’ve oftentimes felt uncomfortable in third-wave coffee shops, like I’m not supposed to be there or I don’t know the lingo. We try our best to make sure we meet people where they’re at with their knowledge of coffee. She said “It’s all a learning process.”

The drink menu is fairly standard, but with a hint of seasonal flavours. Last summer they featured Rosemary Sparkling Green Tea and Watermelon Mint Soda. In the fall, Turmeric and Maple Cinnamon lattes made an appearance. On the side, Ferris bakes donuts (on Fridays) and muesli.

“We [want to] be as accessible with our food as we can. I am restricted by a lot of allergies, and I found that in Nanaimo I was shocked how difficult it was to get quality gluten-free or dairy-free items. We want to be able to put that forth in a way that is normalizing that sort of thing rather than being ‘we’re so accessible!’ We want to [normalize] the use of lower counters and normalizing gluten-free baking because it can be as good as regular baking.”

Now just over a year old, White Rabbit is a popular location for university students armed with homework and in need of caffeine—or a social life.