A loud chitter chatter of tiny voices came from behind a closed door, hidden from anyone entering the unusual coffee shop on Bloor Street. Then silence. Next, suddenly, there was a united cheer singing, “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you…”
“Are you one, are you two, are you three..”
Joyful screams followed the cheers coming from the basement.
Entering the cafe for the first time, it’s often a struggle to take a step without pausing for a couple seconds. Whether it’s to squint your eyes in confusion or pop them out with amazement, you can’t help but notice the two colourful machines sitting on a wooden table a couple steps into the cafe, on the left.
The buzz of these machines resemble that of a printer, the kind you’re supposed to find in a library or at home, except quieter and colourful – almost toy-like. Even the ink seems to be acting up. Instead of creating a flat image, it slowly layers higher and higher. Right next to the printer lay some plastic toy-like models. Some Pokemons, Darth Vaders, witch hats, plants, Frankensteins… and the list goes on.
The cafe is located on the borders of Dufferin Grove, a neighbourhood that has seen many changes over the past couple of decades. Various different stores have opened here, celebrating its multicultural community, such as Tino’s Shoe Repair and Art Ink Collective.
On a chilly Sunday evening, the barista ended his conversation with a customer just before I asked him for a cup of hot chocolate. The chatter was louder than the gentle music playing in the background, and the cafe was crowded but not every table had a drink on it, nor a snack.
“The 3D printer?” a woman with a pleasant smile and long black hair, braided to her side, confirmed with the barista. She then opened a tall white cupboard, which was stuck to one of the few plain white walls in the cafe. All the other walls were filled with colour, artistic designs or wooden frames. The barista, a man and two young boys next to the man, waited patiently as the black-haired woman brought out a medium-sized paper bag. The barista carefully took the bag from the woman, walked behind a long counter-top, which carried several decorated wooden pieces, stopped half way, and handed the bag over to the man. “Looks pretty good,” the barista said as the man took out a black block out of the bag. “What’s this do?” the taller of the two boys asked as he explored the block.
The cafe is located on the borders of Dufferin Grove, a neighbourhood that has seen many changes over the past couple of decades. Various different stores have opened here, celebrating its multicultural community. Each store offering something unique, just like like The Maker Bean Cafe.
But why in a cafe?
According to Digital Trends, technologies like laser cutters and 3D printers have been around for almost 40 years. But they’re not always accessible to everyone. Universities with 3D printers or laser cutters may offer free-usage, but only to students. Many makerspaces also require a monthly membership which often exceed over $50. The intent behind embedding technologies, like the 3D printer and laser cutter, in a cafe environment was to make them more accessible to people.
Chris Caira explains how The Maker Bean Cafe differs from other makerspaces in Toronto:
How it all started
Coffee-making and 3D printing was far from where Caira and Sit started off.
On October 2014 Chris Caira and his wife Lorraine Sit left Canada for a two-year-long trip to East Asia, residing in various countries including Singapore, Shanghai and Taiwan..
“We did a few odd jobs while we were in Asia but the real focus was around experiencing cultures, learning Mandarin and coming up with a new job in a way for ourselves,” said Caira. Prior to starting The Maker Bean Cafe, Caira worked in management consulting for eight years with a Masters of Business Management from the University of Toronto, and Sit worked as an art director with a few ad agencies. After a while, they decided, it was time for a change. “Both of us I think just wanted something very tangible, very real, different from our kind of office jobs,” said Caira. One of the goals of their stay in Asia was to come back to Canada with an idea to launch a new career.
Caira tried to recall the exact location of their inspiration. It was Hong Kong. In an unusual mall, just unusual enough to spark an idea.“We went to a mall, a plaza and I think it was called a private military quarters or something,” he tried to remember. “They turned an old military barracks into a shopping area.” One of the vendors in the mall had a 3D printer. It was printing jewelry at the time, “doing its magic” as he put it.
That’s when it clicked.
“This technology is becoming much more common, much more prevalent you know, why doesn’t it have more of a centre stage and you know retail production?” Caira and Sit wondered.
The couple then returned to Taiwan, where they resided at the time, bought a 3D printer online, built it themselves at a local makerspace in Taipei and started learning laser cutting, robotics, coding and many other technology-oriented skills, aiming to bring it all to the people back in Canada.
The Maker Bean Cafe’s Bloor Street branch opened in the spring of 2018, bringing coffee and creativity under one banner.
Not a kids’ cafe
Aside from the 3D printers, first-time visitors may be impressed with the overall outlook of the cafe. Everything is filled with colour, including the chairs–some red, some blue and some yellow. They are purposely made colourful, but this architectural design may be somewhat deceiving.
“It’s been a little bit of a challenge where I think when people first see this place they might think oh it’s a kids cafe because people associate colour and variety and frankly even messiness with kids,” said Caira. “Adults need things that are kind of…,” he paused for a good minute or two to think of the word. “…Consistent,” he said.
But it’s for this exact reason the cafe is made colourful. “We want to show people that you know adults can have fun too,” said Caira. “You think about a party, what separates a party from a normal room? There’s gonna be colourful balloons, there’s gonna be gift wrap, presents. If anyone gave someone a gift wrap present that was just flat gray they would say like is this like a…joke?” he gave a small chuckle.
Yes, there’s more. The cafe offers 3D printing workshops for adults on the first Monday and laser cutting workshops on the last Monday of every month. Caira says these workshops allow adults to release their artistic side as many adult jobs “aren’t very fun or creative.”
The cafe also hosts private workshops for companies, workshops to teach people how to draw for comic books and more.
The kids’ workshops have bit more of a variety, separated into four categories: PA days, March Break, Summer and ongoing weekly campus. They participate in different technology-oriented programs like robotics, which is one of the more popular ones as it is multi-disciplinary, involving coding, 3D printing, laser cutting and so on.
As for more casual activities, kids often ask if they could create a tool from the Minecraft game. “You can actually get like a physical pickaxe that looks just like the Minecraft one pixelated with little boxes,” said Caira enthusiastically. It can take around eight to 10 hours to make a pickaxe that you can hold in your hand.
Caira emphasizes how he engages with the customers whenever he can.
“Even [when] the parents are thinking of signing them up for a course or whatnot, we’ll give kids a laptop and they can sit here, browse through the designs,” said Caira. “They can just play with that while the parents have some coffee and a snack. They don’t have to sign up for an official course or anything.”
Whether you’re into coffee or art, an experienced maker, or a total beginner, The Maker Bean Cafe has something for everyone.