Coffee queen

For Sandi Barton, it was always more about community than coffee. Sixteen years almost to the day since she opened Jigsaws at the corner of Ward and Baker, she insists it better resembled a family than a business.

Sandi Barton enjoys a cup of coffee from one of her former competitors. The local coffee pioneer simply likes her  favourite cup black.

Sandi Barton enjoys a cup of coffee from one of her former competitors. The local coffee pioneer simply likes her favourite cup black.

For Sandi Barton, it was always more about community than coffee. Sixteen years almost to the day since she opened Jigsaws at the corner of Ward and Baker, she insists it better resembled a family than a business.

“It truly was a family in every sense of the word,” she says. “It was a place for people who had nowhere to go.”

Barton recently sold her popular shop to Amy Stewart, who is in the midst of renovating and rebranding. But while she felt the time was right for a personal and professional change, she’s still emotional about it.

“My last few days were awful,” she says. “I can’t walk down that street. I’ve been struggling because I feel like I let people down by closing.”

She figures several hundred customers came into Jigsaws daily, making it part of their routine. And over the years she got to know them.

“Everybody has a story and everybody needs somebody to listen,” she says. “Anybody can sell coffee, but it’s what you do when you’re selling it. That’s what I’m going to miss so much.”

AN AMAZING CORNER

Before Jigsaws, Barton ran a high-end shoe store in the same space. After about five years, she felt the shoe business had run its course and wanted to try something new.

“I had this location and thought what am I going to do? This is such an amazing corner. I’m not going to do shoes anymore. What about a coffee shop?”

At that point, Nelson only had one, and it was across the street: Wait’s News.

Barton decided she didn’t want to hurt another business and consciously chose to create something very different.

As opening day neared, however, she still didn’t have a name. Passersby were encouraged to write suggestions in felt pen on a Gyproc wall, but it didn’t produce any finalists.

“My husband finally said ‘It’s a puzzle to me how you can get this to work. I don’t know how you’re able to make all the pieces fit.’”

With that, inspiration struck, and on February 1, 1995, Jigsaws Coffee opened.

THE COFFEE REVOULUTION

Barton’s timing was propitious: Starbucks was then taking the world by storm, opening a new outlet every day and converting the masses into coffee consuming connoisseurs. Her business was an immediate success.

“It just worked,” she says. “It was new and hadn’t been done in this town. Really, from day one it was an absolute thrill.”

It was also a lot of work. For many years, the shop was open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Barton put in 17-hour days.

“My staff had pictures of me collapsed on my office floor sleeping,” she laughs.

She never did slow down much, although by the end, they only stayed open to 7 or 8 p.m.

In the beginning, they also made sandwiches, but she later decided to stick to coffee and bagels.

The coffee itself was Seattle’s Best, procured through a friend with a shop in Kelowna. After a few years, Craig Bennett of Kootenay Coffee Co. approached her about carrying their product.

“I was a hard sell,” Barton admits. “I’m really stubborn. But he convinced me. They had great coffee.”

From then on, she carried a mix of the two.

(Barton herself favors Kootenay Coffee’s Colombian brew. “I’m just a simple black coffee drinker,” she says, but then chuckles: “Or a large mocha.”)

Many other coffee shops opened in Nelson in the following years, and Barton says she welcomed them.

“I never felt threatened, because the moment you do, you need to look within: is there something I’m doing wrong? This town is obviously able to sustain it all, and I think that’s good. I like to have variety. I wouldn’t want just one restaurant to choose from.”

Far from hurting her, the growing number of coffeehouses “just made business better.”

TACKLING TROUBLE

After about four years, Jigsaws added a patio — the second in town, following DJ’s restaurant. However, it attracted a different clientele, who loitered rather than sip lattes. Other customers didn’t always appreciate them, although Barton made a conscious decision to welcome all comers.

“I remember this group of kids was driving me nuts on Baker Street,” she says. “I watched them for a few days after school. They would be swearing and spitting.”

Eventually she figured out the ringleader and brought him into the store.

“I said ‘Obviously I’m not going anywhere, and it’s clear you’re not going anywhere. So you and I have to become friends so you can live out there and I can live in here.’”

From that day on, the spitting stopped.

Another boy from the group came to her years later and asked for a job.

“I hired him and he worked for me for years. We still talk all the time. It was learning to go with it rather than trying to fight it.”

PEACEFUL, EASY FEELING

Over the years, Barton employed an average of nine people, although she started with 16. She says there are “hardly any” she doesn’t stay in touch with.

“I was really blessed with long-term staff — girls who were there eight or nine years. Now they come back with their husbands and babies.”

Although she still enjoyed the business, she was getting tired and felt it was time for new blood. Barton listed the business with a real estate agent, and immediately had potential buyers. The sale closed within weeks — “almost too fast.”

January 29 was her last day. She’s still thinking about what to do next, but she and husband Ed will pile into her red Volkswagen Beetle convertable and take several weeks off.

“We’re just driving to get away. It’s really hard for both of us right now. He was as involved as I was. He was our maintenance man and did the milk run every night for 16 years.”

Selling the business will give her an opportunity to do things with family and in the community that she couldn’t before.

“As much as I loved it, it was seven days a week. You couldn’t go on holiday. It was hard for me to stay away.”

Her parents moved here in December, and she’s planning to do lots of volunteer work, “to give back to this community because it has really given to me for a lot of years.”

While her days as a coffeehouse doyenne are over, her staff presented her with a book full of customers’ comments and pictures, which “I will cherish the rest of my life.

“It’s been the most wonderful 16 years of my life,” she says. “It was never about the coffee. It was about a million and one relationships.”