Grounds for Coffee founder Dan Hilton bakes it to 30 years in business

The café recently hit what Hilton calls its toughest stretch yet.

The café recently hit what Hilton calls its toughest stretch yet

It was 1992 in Vancouver and Dan Hilton, a Royal Bank employee, started seeing green awnings  everywhere and reevaluating what he wanted to do for a career. “Starbucks had 200 stores back then, and I thought [starting a coffee shop] seemed really easy,” he recalls with a laugh. “Which is pretty comical, on many levels.”

Quickly, Hilton found out that it was a lot harder than he imagined. He opened Grounds For Coffee in 1993 on Alma Street with a business partner in a storefront that used to be a jewellery store.

Slowly but surely people started coming in, but about a year into running the business, Grounds For Coffee was losing some $650 a day. Hilton knew he had to do something, so he spent the last bit of his credit on an oven, a commercial mixer and a proofer.

“I didn’t have a lot of culinary skills, but I thought I could get good at one thing,” he recalls. “I thought maybe I could do cinnamon buns.”

After a lot of trial and error that included first learning how to make bread from a video he rented from a Richmond library, Hilton eventually mastered the art of cinnamon bun making—so much so that Grounds For Coffee now boasts to have the world’s best version of the pastry. Most Vancouverites would probably be inclined to agree.

In no uncertain terms, cinnamon buns saved Hilton’s business. In 2019, Grounds For Coffee sought expansion and opened up a second, larger location on Commercial Drive. The neighbourhood residents weren’t exactly sold at the time. Hilton tells a story about a contractor who was talking with a Fortune 500 investor who lived in the area.

“He said that it’s all about coffee on the drive, and the last thing we need is another coffee bar,” recalls Hilton. “Now he’s a regular, he has more points than anyone else on our app.”

That app was coincidentally ready to go just in time for COVID and helped Grounds For Coffee weather that storm without much fuss. It’s what’s come after that’s been particularly challenging. Hilton says that the last year, with inflation and tough economic times, have been the hardest since he’s been in business.

“One hundred percent, and I’ve been through some crazy stuff,” he says. “Everything is so expensive. My catchphrase lately has been, ‘No, that’s too expensive, Okay I’ll take it, Oh it’s gone.’ We couldn’t get cups last year and when we did, the quality was terrible. How do you run a coffee bar without cups?”

Hilton has had to raise prices to the tune of some 20 different small increases over various items over the last year and a half. He’s had to do that in order to keep product coming in and to keep his staff of around 50 employed.

While he wants to continue growing the business and open a third location, he admits he’s being cautious. “We don’t know what’s ahead,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a good time. I’m a bit on the conservative side and taking a wait-and-see approach.”

He doesn’t have to look far to find a cautionary tale. Right next door to Grounds For Coffee’s Commercial location used to be Café Deux Soleils, which recently closed after almost making it to 30 years in business. “It’s really sad,” says Hilton. “I was so happy and proud to be opening next to them.”

Unfortunately, cinnamon buns can’t save every business. “I feel fortunate,” he says. “We have a loyal following at both stores. And I get to let the smell of cinnamon buns waft me to the store every day.”

*Grounds For Coffee celebrates its 30th anniversary on May 10 and will be hosting a Buy One Get One cinnamon bun day at both store locations.