Toronto’s Culinary Scene: Interview with Chris Watton (The Sidekick)

Toronto Life, Toronto's Culinary Scene

Leslieville has really come into its own as a community thanks to super hero small businesses like The Sidekick – a coffee and comics café bringing freshly brewed high-quality coffee, great reads, and a welcoming atmosphere to it’s east end stomping and coffee grounds.

It’s warm and inviting to comic super fans, and those who are looking for a space to sip on coffee, get some work done, read, or meet with friends – something that owner, artist, barista, and comic aficionado Chris Watton prides herself on – a shop that she always wished existed both growing up, and as an adult. Located at 1374 Queen Street East, come on by to discover your newest favourite super hero, purchase some memorabilia for that perfect gift, or just hang out and see what’s playing on the VHS at the back. The Sidekick opened three years ago, and like most heroes it arrived in the neighbourhood as the only comic shop and café, just in the nick of time.

What inspired you to open a comic book themed café?

Growing up, my local café was a sanctuary to escape- a place of good conversation, a space to take a minute and tackle a new book, a creative jump-start for sketching, and so much more! My afternoons and evenings spent there are some of my coziest and most vibrant memories. I was as dedicated to my visits to that hub as I was to my weekly trip to my hometown's comic shops to pick up Wednesday new releases. However, those trips were often peppered with bad experiences, awkward encounters, and dismissive staffers. I often wished that I could have the coffee and good vibes of my favourite café spot along with the books I would trek out to pick up.

When I moved to Toronto, I opened a Pull List (A list of comics people know they’ll be buying every month. Increasingly more comic shops are offering Pull List programs and will set aside particular issues for regular clients who don’t want to miss any issues) at a comic shop here, where picking up my books and interacting with staff became a weekly highlight. We would chat on the fire escape about comics, movies, and everything in between. Then we would go in search of a decent cup of coffee. Again, I found myself longing for both in the same social and creative space. Whenever I was frustrated with school, work, or anything in between, I would imagine a future in which such a place existed.

In a way, The Sidekick was something I wanted for so long, that I hardly remember NOT wanting it.

Tell me about how you got started in the food industry and why you decided to pursue a career in the business?

I have about nine years of café experience ranging from coffee bars to bigger shops that prepare food on-site. Being a barista has always clicked with me and preparing a great cup of coffee or espresso drink for someone is an extremely gratifying experience.

Has comic book culture changed since your own childhood? How has it evolved in Toronto?

I'm a child of 90's comics, so when I first started reading comics Image had just been formed, Spawn was big, and every hero was fighting demons or getting cybernetic enhancements. Grunge in comics was alive and thriving!

While there are still some great hyperviolent grit-dark titles in comics and the Image imprint is still a mark of exciting new creator-owned comics, much has changed in the industry. There are so many new publishing houses to choose from, all showcasing their own range of unique titles and voices! Also, independent and self-published titles are huge in Toronto and a variety of cities. Events like Toronto Comics and Arts Festival (TCAF) and Canzine are just a few examples of great festivals in Toronto dedicated to showing off small press comics, and the push for diversity in storytelling has exploded! It's such a great time to be involved in such a vibrant medium. Because Toronto is a hub, I get to meet more creators than I ever dreamed I would, and showcase their work while providing a great work/meet space.

How do you make sure that your café is both accessible and interesting for comic newbies and die-hard comic fans?

At The Sidekick we take both old-school and new approaches to comics retail. We host a smattering of single issue comics released every Wednesday and offer a Pull List subscription box to regulars who have monthly titles that they wish to follow. That's the classic comics game!

Outside of that, we put a focus on our Best Selling and Staff Recommended Reads, as well as boast a vast selection of all ages books for new readers. All staff at the shop are responsible for suggestions on the monthly orders as well as staying up-to-date on current titles so that we will all be ready to make a new suggestion based on a customer's preferences. By staying in touch with some of our favourite creators over social media, we can provide early insight into titles that are coming or are only available through the creators themselves.

The Sidekick also offers a Weekly Pull Podcast on iTunes, pod bean, and Google Play where we break down the week's releases. All the episodes are sorted by date and recorded Tuesday night to keep it as current as possible.

What advice can you offer to budding entrepreneurs who want to open their own business/café /restaurant?

Be ready for your venture to take over your life. No matter what it is, going independent will eat all your other pursuits, defy your expectations, and change the way you experience the world around you. It's easy to get lost in the day-to-day operations, but never forget what made you take on your project and the passion that fueled it. Mark your progress, celebrate your accomplishments, be grateful to the people around you, and never stop trying to make things better than they were yesterday.

What have been the biggest challenges of opening The Sidekick and running it for three years? What have been the biggest successes?

There are so many challenges to opening a small business that no one tells you about! From renovating a space, to keeping your bookkeeping on track, to staying stocked up and current with your offerings, it's a marathon you run every day of the week. The biggest challenge is seeing the bigger picture and remembering that there was a time when you wanted what you currently have more than anything else. It's harnessing that feeling and staying positive and motivated that is a big challenge I think for everyone, no matter the job.

The Sidekick has exceeded my expectations in so many ways. We are in a thriving community filled with lovely people and regulars of all types, and it's so amazing to see such a diverse range of readers enjoying the space, picking up books, playing games, and crunching out some work. As I mentioned, I have met some of my favourite creators and been able to preview books and review/edit new material, which is always a flattering and exciting request.

Also, last year I purchased a 5kg coffee roaster and now oversee not just the brewing process, but also the sourcing of green coffee and roasting itself, which is a great new challenge and joy. I have wanted to be able to curate every possible aspect of our coffee program, and now I am able to ensure quality at every point in the process from sourcing green coffee straight through to your cup.

What are your favourite items on The Sidekick menu?

I really appreciate a damn fine cup of coffee, so brewing a rotating selection of fresh-roasted single origin coffees in a classic pour-over style allows me to make that happen for even the smallest bar orders.

Our special thing is The Sidekick (which we joke is our "double-double"). It's two double shots of espresso with an equal ratio of steamed milk- so a little 8oz drink with a big kick! It'll get you where you must go.

Businesses have started to tap into adults wanting to have more fun with their food, drink, and spare time. How does The Sidekick tap into adults better tuning in to their inner child and foodie?

We put just as much love into the space as we do our selection of offerings at The Sidekick. We have a variety of music playlists according to weather and desired vibe, as well as a pile of board games and a reader bin of comics for patrons to enjoy. There is also a small VHS player at the back of the shop, so campy classic movies are always playing in the background. Basically, we try to encapsulate all the geeky things we love every day of the week in the hopes that we can build the escapist paradise we want to see in the world.

The Sidekick is essentially several businesses in one, how do you balance the demands of the café and the shop?

I juggle my varying jobs to the best of my ability every day, based on order cycles and the needs of the business. I've always been nerdy about both coffee and comics, so staying on top of trends and new and exciting offerings on both sides was always a part of my life- but now it is also my job! I want The Sidekick to be the best it can be, and that drives me to be constantly making sure our books are stocked, our coffees are on point, and that I'm always planning something new.

Why did you decided to partner with Desmond & Beatrice and Tori's Bakeshop?

I am lucky to be partnered with equally passionate people running great kitchens with awesome selections of wholesale offerings for cafés like mine. I make sure to have a smattering of different pastries from savoury to sweet, regular to vegan, to suit all tastes and food allergies. Thank the lovely kitchen wizards who make that happen!

What upcoming events/projects at The Sidekick are you most excited about?

We are currently trying a Comedy Night at The Sidekick the last Thursday of every month and bringing in local breweries to run beer tastings alongside, so we are excited to see how that goes. There are a couple of signings for local writers/artists with new comics out this year. We have a pay-what-you-can Tarot Card Reader who will be sitting in on the Saturday before Halloween to do readings for patrons, and we also participate in Halloween Free Comic Day, and encourage trick-or-treaters to visit our decked-out space for candy and free comics! We may also host a pumpkin carving night. I am also planning a Teapot Painting in November, so that kids and adults can get on crafting early Christmas gifts.

I'm open to hosting events in our space and encourage people to e-mail me to pitch their ideas. We are a creative community hub and we hope that we can foster a good environment for people to get together and enjoy that familiar coziness or try something new.

Can you name your all-time favourite comic book, hero, villain, and anti-hero?

My favourite running comic series is Hellboy, hero is Spider-Man, villain is Clayface, and anti-hero is Spawn. Come by to check out my favourite new comics anytime!

SMVLKV

One thought on “Toronto’s Culinary Scene: Interview with Chris Watton (The Sidekick)

September 11, 2018 at 9:22 am
Kelly says:

This is one of my favourite places in the city. Chris does such a wonderful job of making the space welcoming and fun, as well as brewing one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had.

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