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3 min

More than a hipster haven

Raw Sugar: café, lounge and local hangout

"It's not just about coffee; it's more about hanging out, a meeting place," says Nadia Kharyati. Credit: Ben Welland

There is a steady hum of people chatting: a group of writers sits around a table discussing possible stories; a guy in a checked shirt sits in the corner reading a book, and a queer couple lounges on the red velvet sofa, deep in conversation.

The only harsh noise is the sound of the door pinging as customers enter Raw Sugar Café. The barista behind the counter is the unassuming and quietly spoken Nadia Kharyati, the hipster owner of one of the city’s coziest — and funkiest — spots.

Kharyati opened Raw Sugar three years ago.

“Chinatown had an energy that I really liked,” she says. “I didn’t realize that it wasn’t just a coffee need I was fulfilling, or am fulfilling. It’s not just about coffee; it’s more about hanging out, a meeting place.”

It’s a busy afternoon in fall and that’s what I am doing — hanging out with Kharyati. We are sitting on mismatched chairs in the front of the café, sipping coffee and chatting.

Our conversation is sporadic as Kharyati keeps getting up to greet customers as they come in. Some come to chat with her, others to meet friends; the majority just come for the vibe.

Owning a café was a dream Kharyati mulled over for years before turning it into a reality.

“I think a lot of people have had this dream, the fantasy of opening up a coffee shop. You really have to believe in your idea. I talked about it for so long, for over a decade,” she says. “I think there was something in me that felt this was a way of expressing myself, I guess the ultimate way. I knew I could do it, the instinct was just working, and I thought it was finally time to take the leap.”

And leap she did.

She left the non-profit world and battled with the logistics. She sought advice from other business owners, searched for a good location, signed a lease and then power-shopped for two months to gather the eclectic furniture that has become a signature of the café.

When Kharyati finally opened Raw Sugar she had one purpose in mind: to create a place where everyone felt welcome.

“I wanted this to be a space for everyone; to be pigeonholed makes me feel crazy. It’s not a hipster hangout. I want people’s grandmothers to feel comfortable here,” she says.

She was successful. Diverse groups, such as the queer femmes tea party, various book clubs and youth members from the Sexual Health Advisory Group, have all held meetings at the café.

While Raw Sugar’s hours are short (Kharyati opens only from 10am to 7pm so she doesn’t burn out), there are nights when the doors are swung open for art exhibitions and live music.

The latter was something Kharyati had not planned, but as the space became known, people would approach her and ask if they could use it.

“The next thing was that this ball was rolling and I had no idea how it was happening,” she says.

Kharyati’s unassuming attitude is part of Raw Sugar’s appeal. The café reflects her relaxed persona: there are well-thumbed books to read, board games to play and no wireless connection, so people tapping away at keyboards are few and far between.

Kharyati understands that some people want to have internet connection, but she says she is happier with people lingering in the café, reading and chatting, than she would be with having WiFi.

“Some people think I am crazy — it’s a never-ending debate and I have wavered, but I am standing my ground,” she says.

Raw Sugar has just hit its third anniversary and Kharyati is happy. She wants to take the café further and has toyed with the idea of extending the hours, adding more food items and possibly doing a light brunch, but she says, “these small things are huge logistics,” and she wants to keep things manageable.

To mark the anniversary, Kharyati is launching a new blog that will keep customers up to date on what’s happening. She hopes the blog will extend Raw Sugar’s comfy space online, where people can share their stories — three marriages have come out of couples meeting over coffee — and she sees it as a way to keep her fingers on the pulse of what keeps her customers coming back.

“I love it when people get excited about what we do. I love that people can get inspired; I love jump-starting people’s imagination. I just love it,” she says.