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Sustainability by the Sea

By Jenner-Brooke Berger, Staff Contributor

It was early April. In search of the perfect place for their new café, baker Tara MacDonald and barista Zane Kelsall had one disappointment after another. Almost at the end of their ropes, driving down Ochterlony Street in Dartmouth, Kelsall and MacDonald saw the for lease sign. Within minutes the landlord arrived to unlock the doors. What they found inside was a vast space with lofty ceilings, winding staircases, and white walls.
“We fell in love with it,” says Kelsall, “It became apparent we needed to do whatever it took to make this space work.”
Seven months later, what began as blank canvas has been transformed into Two If By Sea Café (affectionately nicknamed TIBS). Under a staircase sits the custom made bar, crafted by Kelsall himself, with local carpenter Todd Wall and artist John Howse. Howse’s paintings hang above the condiment table found at Halifax antique store Finer Things. The TIBS logo is designed by Halifamous poster magnates Yo Rodeo! Just Friends Records’ Mat Dunlap, another Haligonian, designed the café’s website.
On the first Saturday of the café’s career, coffee and croissant fans bustle in, their heads cast upward and around the space, taking in the rich mahoganies of the design, and the full smells emanating from brand new ovens. MacDonald’s long lithe arms quickly whisk their way through batch after batch of baked goods. Kelsall’s toothy smile welcomes the hoards of customers while he pours artful lattes. Kelsall’s wife Alexis serves coffee in her apron handmade by another local artist, Keely Maclean.
With everyone who has cheered and lovingly shoved TIBS into existence, it’s quite a family affair. But how did two young hopefuls manage to open their own business?

The Baker

Just weeks ago, MacDonald was baking commercially from her minute kitchen.
Originally from Ottawa, MacDonald moved to Toronto in 2006 in search of a broader music community. For two years she floated through the metropolis of the Greater Toronto Area. Heavily involved in the music scene for more than a decade, MacDonald worked for Canadian indie label Arts and Crafts. Arts and Crafts is responsible for such Can-pop sweethearts as Broken Social Scene, Stars and Apostle of Hustle. But MacDonald hit a wall. The routine, the rush, it all came to a head.
“I felt that I was suffocating in that big city, ” she explains.
In a bold choice, MacDonald decided to leave the province she had spent most of her life in. She aimed for the coast. What followed her move to Halifax was a series of events narrowing themselves in the path to TIBS. MacDonald began baking in her kitchen, a room roughly one-sixth the size of her space now at TIBS. With encouragement from her friends, she started to sell her croissants at the Dartmouth Farmer’s Market every Saturday. That the response was good is an understatement.
“I don’t even know how they all got my e-mail! People were just sending me these messages about how much they loved my baking.”
From there MacDonald happened to sit in Alexis Kelsall’s chair at Life Salon on Spring Garden. Then, MacDonald approached Zane Kelsall, then manager of Steve-O-Reno’s Café, about selling her croissants at Steve’s. They hit it off, riffed on coffee, hung out, and began their business plan in January 2009.

The Barista

Zane Kelsall’s true passion for a finely crafted beverage blossomed while working in a popular tea lounge in his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta. On a vacation to Halifax in 2005, Zane met his wife Alexis, and coincidentally drank coffee for the first time. Ordering whatever Alexis was getting in attempt to impress her, Kelsall hated the iced latte. He didn’t understand how anyone could love coffee.
After settling in Halifax, Zane worked for a popular, more reputable café than the one in which he had his bitter first impression. He began to learn the life of a proper espresso. Later, during a short stint in Calgary, Kelsall’s exposure to coffee culture exploded. Kelsall was trained by three time Barista Champion Sammy Piccolo at Caffe Artigiano. Upon returning to Halifax, Kelsall worked as acting manager of Steve-O-Reno’s. Once he met MacDonald, it was clear that their visions of an independent café complimented each other.

Dartmouth and localism

Community and location have played important roles in the opening of this independent business. With MacDonald’s Farmer’s Market following, and the virtual non-existence of café s in the city, TIBS recognized demand and sought to supply it.
“Dartmouth is Brooklyn to Halifax’s Manhattan,” MacDonald says, “it has everything: musicians, businesses, young families.”
TIBS’ focus on local talent and Canadian product ensures their sustainability. Because coffee’s value as a commodity is second in the world after petroleum, coffee ethics affect everyone. As a customer, buying coffee and tea from local independent cafés is number one on Planet Green’s “How to Go Green: Coffee and Tea” List. Second is using a travel mug. In support of this, TIBS offers a discounted cup of java to anyone who brings in their reusable mug, which means less garbage, and less impact on the environment. Another important aspect of environmental sustainability is the use of organic coffee and tea. Products with organic certification are more eco-friendly because they are grown and processed without toxic chemicals and harvested in ways that protect sensitive ecosystems. They spare workers from exposure to harmful pesticides and herbicides. A little known fact is that shade-grown coffee preserves habitats for migratory birds on coffee farms. TIBS brews only 49th Parallel coffee. Fair trade ensures living wages and safe working conditions for farmers. To exceed these standards 49th Parallel actually pays a special premium above the Fair Trade price standard through their Direct Relationship Program.
“This is the punkest thing we’ve ever done” beams MacDonald. “Ian Mackaye can’t say anything.” Kelsall’s and MacDonald’s do-it-yourself attitude is what she refers to. Young entrepreneurs face many challenges in acquiring loans and funds to open their own businesses. Through their resourcefulness this duo learned about the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development (CEED), an organization which has funded other local independent businesses such as The Loop Craft Café. CEED’s website states their mission: “CEED is devoted to helping people discover and use entrepreneurship as a vehicle to become self-reliant. We have a vision of a vibrant entrepreneurial culture for all of Atlantic Canada.” (
“You know when everything kind of aligns itself? That’s what it was like. Once we decided to do this (open the café) it took about nine months. But we went slowly where it matters.” For Kelsall and MacDonald, quality is important. Fittingly, they nurtured their vision of a café for as long as it takes to have a child. Last week, they gave birth to the beautiful baby by the sea.
Visit Tara and Zane at TIBS at 66 Ochterlony Street in Dartmouth. Two If By Sea serves coffee and life-changing croissants Monday to Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday and Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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