Building an Empire

Cozy new Toronto café brings coffee back to the basic

At this time of year, Torontonians are busier than ever — whether it’s working, transiting, writing exams or wading through the hordes of Christmas shoppers, we don’t have a lot of time to relax. It means many of us are becoming more dependent on caffeine. And with a Starbucks and Tim Hortons on every corner, it’s easier than ever to find a fix.

But in our race to refuel, have we lost something along the way? Do we take any pleasure or comfort in coffee any more, or is it simply a tool to temporarily recharge? We run in to the store, grab a coffee, throw a plastic lid over it and run to catch the nearest streetcar.

Coffee should not be treated like a Red Bull — which is the idea behind the newly opened Empire Espresso at 688 College St, which opened on Nov 2.

Lisa Young Kutsukake and her partner, Sarah Dillon, own Empire Espresso, which is tiny but has a bright and homey atmosphere.

Customers are greeted with the scent of pumpkin spice and cinnamon. And between the open kitchen, just steps from the front counter, and the shop’s single dining table, Empire feels a bit like someone’s home.

Embroidered cushions and barstools line the walls, making it easy for a group of friends to gather by the window with warm drinks and baked goods on a cold day.

Kutsukake says she was aiming for this cozy feeling. “Coffee shops always look entrenched in an aesthetic . . . very dark and wooden. We really like the idea of maybe a place with more of a zippy and more communal feel. It’s less ‘come and write your manuscript’ and more ‘come and show somebody,’” she says.

In terms of food, there is not a single biscotti in sight. Instead, the menu contains a decadent selection of treats, such as pumpkin-butter cinnamon buns, chocolate-orange shortbread cookies and blackberry-lavender biscuits.

“Hannah [Empire’s baker] and I are working together to dream up things that complement our roast, the rotating roasts and teas. Things like flavour pairing; we’re trying to emphasize what works nicely and that are a little different than muffins and scones,” Kutsukake says. “There are coffee shops everywhere on College Street, and we really want to give a distinct story. I think the interesting pairings with our really talented baker really helps flesh out that idea.”

While the menu changes almost daily, Empire does feature several staple items, such as its apple and cheddar slices and gingersnap cookies — the latter, by the way, already have lots of fans in the area.


“People are just coming in just to buy our gingersnaps,” Kutsukake says.

While I was curious to try these famous cookies, it will have to wait for another day because, true to Kutsukake’s word, they were already sold out before my arrival at 11am.

It should be noted that Empire makes its espressos with a La Marzocco espresso machine decorated with a pale yellow with red floral pattern.

“The artistry of everyday life is where we’re going,” Kutsukake says. “Coffee and tea itself are humble drinks in a way . . . but to elevate a simple gesture, I think, is a really nice start [to your] day. We really want to focus on that sense of quality and excellence.”

Now, let’s get to what counts — the coffee. After all, what would a café be without it? To properly form a verdict, I invited a sleep-deprived university student to join me — the ultimate caffeine critic.

But before we’d even received our coffee, another patron, who was just finishing up his visit, told staff members, “This was the best Americano I’ve ever had. Thank you.”

Sure enough, the coffee was strong, well rounded and smooth with a great aftertaste. It was made using the shop’s Empire blend — a dark roast with a rich Columbian taste.

Pair that with the cheerful atmosphere, lovely (and cute) employees and a damn good chocolate croissant — my first visit to Empire Espresso will certainly not be my last.

Hello! I'm an Xtra intern and Jessica Lange enthusiast.

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