Community Confections: Bean-to-bar with East Van Roasters


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Photography by Kerria Gray

Photography by Kerria Gray

When I eat chocolate, I try to savour it. I resist the urge to chomp, and instead extend the experience by letting it melt. Now that I know how much work it takes to make chocolate, experiencing it with anything less than reverence seems wrong.

It is the complex and laborious production process of chocolate that appealed to Shelley Bolton, the Director of Social Enterprise at the Portland Hotel Society. She was developing a project to create employment opportunities for women living in the Downtown Eastside’s Rainier Hotel, which provides housing and support services for women struggling with mental illness and addiction. While researching potential ventures, she learned that there are many stages before chocolate is ready to eat: planting, nurturing, fermenting, drying, sorting, roasting, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering, and forming. The Rainier Hotel had a group of women eager to work if someone would give them a chance, and chocolate was a product that required a large amount of effort and time. East Van Roasters opened its doors in April 2013.

“It takes about seven days to produce one 30 kg batch of chocolate,” says Bolton. Once the cacao has been planted, nurtured, and fermented, the work at East Van Roasters begins. “We come in at [the sorting stage] and carry out the remaining steps right on the premises.”

The East Van Roasters storefront, located on the ground floor of the Rainier Hotel, has big glass windows that invite passersby to witness the bean-to-bar journey. “We wanted anyone who walks by to be able to see the chocolate being made right before their eyes. There can be no question about who is making it for them,” explains Bolton. “And if they choose to walk in and want to learn more, it becomes an educational experience that enlightens people to the very precious—and delicious—nature of chocolate.”

With backyard chickens and farmers markets, Vancouver’s foodie culture makes us increasingly aware of where our food comes from. Bolton views this as a reaction to a growing disconnect with the food people eat. “It’s an unhealthy trend that we need to try and correct,” Bolton notes. “Supporting local artisan producers creates a richly connected community. Eating locally-created foods makes much more sense for us physically, mentally, and spiritually.”


In addition to employing residents of the Rainier Hotel, East Van Roasters also employs women facing similar barriers to health and employment living elsewhere in the Downtown Eastside. “For some people, the opportunity of a job, even a part-time job, can be life changing. Many people within the community tell me they need and want to keep busy, but that no one will take the chance on them because they can only manage to work a four-hour day or 12 hours a week, or they have long gaps in their employment history,” observes Bolton. “Our program is a self-motivated one that allows for individuals to set their own pace while receiving the support, training, and encouragement they need to succeed. Applying for a job is not easy for most people, as it can be an intimidating and deflating experience. We aim to remove those obstacles and make the first steps a lot less painful and a lot more fun.”

For Sheree McKay, the opportunity to work in a supportive environment has changed her outlook. “My eyes have been opened to a whole other way of living,” says McKay, who has bipolar disorder and for a time was homeless. Her life began to change with a move into the Rainier, where she still resides. “It was the only place that was drug-free and women only,” she says. “There’s never a shortage of someone to do up a zipper or colour your hair. There’s always a girlfriend on standby.”

McKay, who just turned 45, has worked at East Van Roasters since it opened and says the work environment has had a tremendous influence on her. “They’ve shown me the world’s really an open place. I kind of felt like it was a done deal, that my window of opportunity was basically closed. But I’m seeing that I have an equal number of years in front of me as I have behind me,” she says. McKay dreams of going back to school and one day getting a job working with animals, perhaps as a veterinary assistant. Employment at East Van Roasters has given her a future, perhaps because it gave her something vital first: a community. “I think the most important thing about being human is being connected, and that’s what food does, it brings us all together. It’s not a solo project, I feel like I have a lot of sisters.”

East Van Roasters is committed to their principles of support and respect at every stage of the production process, which is why Bolton only uses organic fair-trade beans. “I believe strongly that all businesses should do their best to be transparent and honest about their sourcing and supplier,” she says. “Food should be good for all people involved, from those who produce it to those who enjoy the finished project.”

This piece was first published in 2014 for Issue No. 15: Grit & Gristle.
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