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Founder of Balzac’s Coffee Diana Olsen Runs Things Differently

Whether it’s pioneering on-site roasting, serving coffee in a cone or seeking out investors on TV, doing things differently comes naturally to Diana Olsen.

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Balzac's coffee, view of the caféphoto credit: balzac's coffee

Balzac’s Coffee – A cup of whoa

As the self-described director of experience at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, Diana Olsen did her research in the late ’80s and early ’90s when she moved from Vancouver to Paris to study French and work as an au pair.

“I spent a lot of time roaming the streets and sticking out like a tourist because of the way I dressed,” she says. “I didn’t look like a chic Parisian girl, but I’d go into the cafés and feel a real sense of belonging. You only have to spend a few bucks and everybody makes you feel welcome.” The historic settings also caught her eye. “I loved that concept of being in a beautiful space,” she says. “In cafés that have been there for hundreds of years.”

After returning to Canada and feeling drained by a deskbound finance job, Olsen says her imagination continued to be captured by old-world café culture while big-brand coffeehouses were just taking flight.

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Coffee Beansphoto credit: shutterstock

When life gives you beans, you make coffee

“In the back of my mind, I knew I would start a business,” says Olsen. “I was just waiting, percolating – no pun intended – on ideas. I created Balzac’s Coffee as a fantasy, merging my love for coffee, design, the café and my experience with French culture and language. My vision was to do something more authentic.”

She named her company after Honoré de Balzac, a 19th-century French novelist and java lover who famously wrote about coffee and hung out in cafés. His impact runs deep throughout the company. “He has a quote that the café is the people’s parliament, and that’s our mission statement,” she says. “We intentionally make our spaces so that they don’t just appeal to one demographic. The inspiration was that feeling of inclusiveness that those cafés had for a lonely traveller to sit down and feel part of something.”

Olsen also tapped into the author’s personal drinking preferences. In a biography, she spied receipts of his that listed three different types of coffee, and now a mix of each creates a blend that remains a bestseller.

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Balzac's Coffee, a latte being madephoto credit: balzac's coffee

Café au yay!

With numerous current and upcominglocations in southern Ontario, there’s plenty of proof that Olsen knows all too well that a craving may draw you into a café, but the atmosphere has to make you want to stick around.

Exhibit A: the packed patio of customers enjoying the Instagram-worthy Coffee in a Cone – a must-see, must-try treat. “There are a lot of millennials who love their food, coffee and beer,” she says. “I wish there were more of those people around when I opened. I spent a lot of time explaining to people that I was roasting coffee fresh – it took awhile to really take off.”

Beyond keeping an eye out for innovative ideas, Olsen names design as the most exciting part of her job. There isn’t an inch of the Balzac’s Coffee environment that she hasn’t curated. At her Liberty Village spot, her eyes light up while pointing out the zinc bar sourced in Paris and the ornate flooring tiles she had designed in the Dominican Republic. “I kind of look at the space and neighbourhood I’m going into and pay homage to them,” she says of her process.

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Balzac's Coffee poster and cardsphoto credit: Geoffrey Ross

The art of making coffee

Olsen also commissions original posters created in the spirit of vintage European coffeehouse artwork for every location. Plus, there are always plenty of antique touches on display. “I could open a coffee museum!” she says. “I have 13 cafés that have all these collectables in them. The older and more scratched they are, the better.”

Sourcing materials and collaborating with artisans make Olsen’s current to-do list starkly different than when she started out. Before setting up a bricks-and-mortar coffeehouse in 1996, she spent several years operating seasonal coffee carts in high-traffic tourist destinations in Toronto. “It wasn’t a kiosk that you could drive like a food truck,” she says. “You had to set up the electrical, plumbing and everything. It was just brutal. I wasn’t breaking even, but it was something new and unique and I liked doing it because no one was doing that.”

When a customer at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair suggested that she open a café in Stratford, ON, she made a visit and discovered the perfect place. After opening her second café, Olsen learned the power of becoming less hands-on and the strength of a dependable team. “When you have a business with more than one location, you can’t be at both at once, so you really shouldn’t have to be at either,” she says. “I realized that nobody needs me anywhere; I just need to make sure that there are good people in place.”

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Diana Olsen Balzac's coffeephoto credit: balzac's coffee

She shoots, she scores!

At work and at play, Olsen is always on the go. Three times a week in the late afternoon, she finesses her downward dog at Moksha Yoga Studio locations across the Greater Toronto Area. She fell in love with getting her om on in a steamy setting two years ago, after bidding on a hot-yoga package at her daughter’s school fundraiser.

“I don’t like going to the gym; it’s a chore,” she says. “Yoga is a pleasure! I look forward to going. I try to get there half an hour early to have a little nap. Many times, I’ve been woken up when the class has started. You get so sweaty, you feel like all the toxins [have come out], and you get that glow afterward that I love.” A long-time runner, she enjoys the balance that adding yoga to her workout routine offers and credits the practice with improving her posture and flexibility and keeping her arms toned.

Today, Olsen’s key ring is packed with pass cards that allow her to maximize a busy schedule and access multiple studios to hit the mat regularly. “I need to go,” she says. “I crave it. And yoga is just easy – I’ve got everything in the trunk of my car. I love that you just throw on flip-flops, tights and any shirt.”

It’s in stark contrast to the prep, gear and pace of the other activity that Olsen is passionate about: ice hockey. A lifelong skater, she has laced up to play in a co-ed league for over a decade. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done where, from the second I set foot on the ice until the end of the game, I am completely, 100 percent in the moment,” she says. “I don’t sit there and think about work or anything else. It’s so fast and intense, I circle on and off the ice, so I have to be really aware all the time.”

The sport ticks off a lot of boxes for Olsen: It’s an adrenaline rush and a workout and both fun and competitive. Plus, the regular weekend games score bonus points off the ice. “We play on Saturdays and go out for beers afterward,” she says. “I’ve made a lot of friends while playing hockey, so it’s my social life as well.”

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Balzac Coffe windowphoto credit: balzac's coffee

Highlight reel

Many people are familiar with Olsen’s 2011 appearance on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, where she inked a deal with Arlene Dickinson and Bruce Croxon. It was a savvy decision on Olsen’s part (who needed financing for two locations) to tap into the exposure of national publicity and the potential of well-connected investors. “I couldn’t go back to the banks at the time, and I thought why not give it a try?” she says.

“I’ve just been really fortunate to have picked those two partners,” she says. “They will put the mentor hat on if they need to, but for the most part, they say, ‘You’re doing a great job, whatever it is you’re doing, so keep doing it.’” She also credits Dickinson’s grocery retail background as being key to developing the recent wholesale partnership between Balzac’s Coffee Roasters and Loblaws.

The small-screen moment stands out as a memorable one for Olsen, but her greatest accomplishment is far from the flash of “Lights, camera, action!” and the idea that bigger is better (such as rolling out loads of stores across Canada at breakneck speed). “I’m not ambitious in that way,” she says. “It’s not about making the most amount of money in the smallest amount of time; it’s about building up a quality business that doesn’t get too big for its britches. I’m proud of the Balzac’s Coffee family we’ve created. We’re not perfect – me less than anyone – but we all work really well together. I hope it’s a company that people who have watched us grow take pride in.”

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Best Health Canada
Originally Published in Best Health Canada