Everything you need to know about Mahtay Café & Lounge
Meet the owner of Mahtay Café & Lounge Chris Lowes
If you’re from the Niagara region–St. Catharines in particular– you’ve no doubt been to (or at least heard about) Mahtay Café and Lounge. Located on St. Paul Street, this coffee shop has been in business for about eight years now and there is just something about it that makes you coming back for more (sorry Tim Hortons).
Like ourselves, we often take time out of our busy schedules to walk down the street to grab a cup of coffee from Mahtay. That’s just how it works in St. Catharines culture. Everyone is very tight-knit with the community and looks to support local businesses.
But this trip to the coffee shop was different. We wanted to know more about Mahtay. We had the chance to sit down with the owner of Mahtay, Chris Lowes, over a cup of coffee as the subject matter expert himself discussed everything there is to know about Mahtay and the coffee industry.
How do you stay current in the industry?
When you’re in the food and restaurant industry you really have to stay current– coffee shops especially. We really pay attention to food trends and staying current with trade shows and industry magazines. People are always interested in what’s new and healthy. So in this particular moment, we’re doing a purple yam latte — an ube (Ouu-bay).
Social issues are also really important to us, so it’s important staying on top of that as well. A lot of that comes from having staff that are savvy. I think this really allows for us to tap into our community.
What is this purple latte you mentioned?
It’s exactly what it sounds like, it’s a purple latte– ube, which is made out of purple yams. It is very popular in Malaysia and has a ton of health benefits. But with this month [September], being a purple month with the Grape and Wine festival, we wanted to tap into the community by doing something creative with that.
What encouraged you to get into the coffee industry?
I come from a construction background, but I always enjoyed the romance style of a cafe. Creative culture always spoke to me and that’s the same environment I wanted to create here.
I’m a very “go-go” kind of person, so the times that I’ve been on vacation have really been the only times when I’ve had the chance to experience cafe life. So that’s why it was always the romance of, “oh remember when went here and hung out at this cafe and people watched?”
So that’s where the inspiration came from. Not so much when I’m at home because I have a wife, kids and a 150-year-old home that demands a lot of attention. So places we experienced all around the world like Brooklyn, the Carolinas and the incredible coffee culture in Europe certainly drew my attention to cafe life.
That’s why we don’t have TV’s in our shop. You can get that someplace else; there are lots of coffee shops that do that really well. But we wanted to create a space where creatives can gather around, talk, eat, and get away from the outside world for a bit.
Is there anything that has encouraged change since you’ve started?
I wouldn’t say that it’s more systematic than what it is symptomatic. When there’s something that needs to be addressed then we’ll do it.
When we first started I would come in on a Sunday and no one would be around, but I told my daughters that if I needed them they would have to jump in. But now that’s totally different. In the fall and winter time, Sundays are our busiest day of the week. So that certainly dictates necessary change.
But on the other hand, we’re always pretty driven so we’re always looking for innovation, new ideas and opportunities.
Recently we bought a coffee trailer which will be our next thing that will allow us to go to events and sell coffee. We’ve been asked to do a lot of corporate events or events at wineries, but not having a mobile unit can be a pain in the neck. So if we have something that is all set with everything you need, all you have to do is pull [the trailer] and drop it off.
From food to coffee, how do you come up with new products?
Everyone here is really bought into what we’re doing. So we’re drawing on our community and our staff to create new things.
They’re always saying, “hey I saw this and we should try that, but what if we did it this way instead?”
Some ideas are more difficult than others but a lot of the time we’ll be open to it an putting our own spin on it.
We tried this one particular drink [ube latte] someplace else so we thought, “hey that’s pretty good why don’t we try that out and make it incorporate something else into it?”. So that’s how the [ube latte] in particular came about.
But demand and always wanting to try and be innovative definitely plays a large role in what we do around here.
How do you look for validation in the products you sell?
That’s a good question, actually.
Customer feedback is always a big one. We have a very chatty staff so that helps us figure out what people like and what they don’t like. So on an anecdotal level that helps us get validation on what products are working and what isn’t.
But of course, sales dictate a lot as well too. If something is still selling strong, we’re of course going to keep it on the menu.
Where does the name Mahtay come from?
Okay, so it’s a phonetic pronunciation of the word “Yerba Mate” (ur-ba mah-tay) which is a South American tea.
When we were first opening up business we really wanted to distinguish ourselves from other coffee shops and Yerba Mate represented what we wanted Mahtay to be about.
[Yerba] Mate is a communal drink that you traditionally put loose leaf in a gord they call a guampa. Then you get a perforated straw called a bombilla. Then you pour hot water in [the gord], you drink it, and then you pass in on to the next person in which they do the same. It keeps getting passed around and often it’s used in a community and the end of the day with family or friends.
That was what we were trying to do with Mahtay. We wanted to connect with the community and we thought this drink really represented that well.