You have to be up and out early to see them — men and their coffee clubs.
It’s worth it, though. You won’t find a more genial group of guys than those who gather in the wee morning hours at local coffee shops to share news, gossip, opinions and above all, good humour — there is always some good-natured ribbing going on, and lots of laughter.
I learned about this sub-culture of Niagara-on-the-Lake when I began delivering The Local Wednesday mornings. The bulk of the papers go straight from the printer to the post offices, to be put in mail boxes at each of the four stations, or sent off with rural drivers. But between those stops are drop-offs to local businesses, including the coffee shops, which turned out to be one of the best jobs of producing and delivering a community newspaper. It provides a great opportunity to meet some of the early-bird locals who begin their day with coffee and camaraderie.
They are always friendly and sociable, with warm, welcoming smiles, joking with comments such as “don’t give him a paper, he can’t read,” or “he only wants to see the centrefold,” but they also share some of the happy and sad news of people in the community — their love of the town and its residents evident as they speak.
For some reason, all but one of the groups are men-only. Many are retired, although some of the earlier groups have men who stop in for coffee before heading off to work. And the time they leave for work, some of them self-employed, apparently depends on the topics of conversation and how lively they can become.
One group that almost didn’t make the cut for a photo was of three men at a table of mostly women at Silks Country Kitchen — they didn’t fit the category of men who do coffee, but they are the group with the longest history. They’ve been meeting there weekly since 1992.
The group that gets the vote for the most determined, resolute bunch of coffee drinkers is the one that meets at the Avondale in St. Davids at 6 a.m. daily.
Since some arrive before manager Crystal Simons, one of the guys usually heads for the coffee machine to get it started as soon as she unlocks the door.
Then, as the tiny store quickly becomes crowded, they grab their cups of Donut Diner coffee and head outside to drink it, daily, 12 months a year. Some stand, some use the Muskoka chairs out front, some make it a tail-gate party, and one regular brings his own chair.
The originals of the group, brothers Ron and Ross Bateman, go back as far as meeting at Surgeoner’s Gas Station, now the site of the Avondale at the corner of Four Mile Creek Road and York Road.
After the gas station closed, the group shifted to a coffee shop/convenience store across the street, and when it too shut down, they moved to The Bench, another short-lived coffee shop located just behind the Avondale.
What do they talk about? “We solve all the problems of St. Davids,” one says, then another chimes in, “there are no problems in St. Davids. We solve the problems of the world.”
For an American politician, President Donald Trump gets a lot of coverage at several of the morning coffee shop discussions, including in St. Davids, and none of it good — or at least not that anyone’s admitting.
They also talk about local politics, but most of the discussion is light-hearted.
“We have a lot of fun,” says regular Joe Typer, who is often still around when a smaller group meets a little later.
“It’s a great way to start the day.”
With nowhere else to go, and a good cup of hot coffee readily available, the men are willing to brave the weather for their community gossip, sometimes for more than an hour, and they are only half-joking when they say they wish the Avondale owner would put up a canvas overhang that covers a little larger area to protect them from the elements, maybe provide a heater and a few chairs. There is nothing else close by for the St. Davids residents, and they likely wouldn’t want to move too far away anyway — the manager has become part of the group, although she doesn’t join them outside for coffee.
She does meet with them for barbecues, an annual Christmas breakfast at the Husky Truck Stop on York Road, and other social occasions they arrange.
“They’ve become family,” she says. With a real estate licence that keeps her busy, she is asked why she continues to take the early shift at the Avondale.
“How can I leave my family?” she replies.
At McDonald’s in Virgil, there seems to be a group of men filling one corner of the restaurant from about 7 a.m. on, through to late afternoon.
The early group is mostly farmers, although not all — Ray Hunter, a town employee, stops in before heading off to work.
The two early groups, at 7 and then 8 a.m., are always welcoming, and will reach for a copy of The Local — some for the news and others as anxious to do the crossword and sudoku. They’ll ask what’s new, and sometimes offer some news or commentary themselves — again, lots of jokes and light-hearted ribbing.
Some say they began their early morning coffee when the restaurant opened. They agree they talk about “everything and nothing,” calling the theme of their discussions “town buzz.”
“We cover topics like vineyards and orchards, traffic and roads,” and sometimes share the odd stock tip, one man says.
“If someone has a problem, somebody else here will be able to solve it,” says another.
The next group arrives at 8 a.m., again with some farmers, “who like to talk about the millions they make,” says Tony Sapielak, who only began hanging out for coffee two years ago, when he retired from a helicopter plant in Fort Erie.
He’s definitely the joker of the group, and is chosen as spokesperson, although he has a hard time being serious.
When asked why so many men like to start their day meeting over coffee, he says, “so they can talk about women.” He also says they like to tell jokes — clean jokes — but then goes on to tell one that can’t be printed in the paper.
Although voices get raised — sometimes everyone talks at once and nobody is listening, as they share their strong opinions, he says — it is never in anger.
“We can’t solve the world’s problems, although we try. We’d like to.”
Down the road in the Old Town, a group of men have been meeting at the Tim Hortons on Mary Street since it opened — they estimate maybe 10 years — some of them going back as far as the Sugar Plum Cafe that occupied the same corner before the coffee chain came to town.
Some are old-timers, others are “newbies,” but they all enjoy the conversation.
Ken Rive, a Niagara-on-the-Lake native, retired as a member of town staff in 2012. He recalls coming in to pick up a coffee before heading into work, and he would often get called over with a question about something going on in town, he says. He has become a regular now of the group of 12 to 15 men, not all of whom show up.
They begin to arrive by about 8:30 a.m., and are gone by 10 a.m., again, mostly retired, but a few who head off to work.
They too say “Trump’s name comes up quite a bit,” they talk about travel, health and local politics, sometimes financial issues, and often, “when is the new sewage treatment plant going to open, and how much is it really going to cost us?”
“There is a lot of teasing and ribbing going on,” says Rive. “You have to have a bit of a thick skin. And you have to be able to laugh at yourself.”
There have been a few arguments over the years, but not recently — mostly they know what topics to stay away from to avoid discussions getting heated.
They also talked about amalgamation, not knowing as they were mentioning the fear, that the announcement was being made that it wasn’t going to happen.
They talk about some regulars who have passed away — Bob Jantz, Art Wiens, and others. “All of them brought a lot to the table. We miss the guys like that,” says Rive.
Down the street at the community centre, Gerry Brand’s coffee club has been meeting Wednesday mornings for just two years.
Some of the regulars are neighbours, he says, some play golf together, and some are volunteers on the Christmas Parade planning committee.
There are 12 core members who meet at 9:30 a.m., but not all come out every week.
They talk about all levels of local government, and no surprise — “Trump comes up a lot.”
Sports are a popular choice of conversation, especially hockey. “Some are Leafs fans, some are Habs,” says Brand, and some follow basketball and are Raptors supporters.
The discussions, as the Irish would say, are ‘good crack,’” a term for news, gossip or fun, explains Mearl Obee.
“We’re all on the same wavelength,” says Brand. “There are no heated arguments. We’re all basically liberal, although that’s not what brought us together. We’re really a diverse group.”
He and John Strecker have known each other since their adult daughters were in elementary school in Markham, and both men ended up in NOTL.
Another, Roger Schmid, eats out a lot and is the unofficial restaurant critic, says Brand. Some are golfers and play together. And they all agree, the community centre is a great place to meet over coffee. “Erinn (Lockard, owner of the Sweets & Swirls Cafe) has made this place what it is,” says Brand.
He goes on to explain his group is responsible for the “egg thingy” on the menu — Lockard named the breakfast sandwich after them, because that’s what one of them called it.
“She’s made this a very special place,” says Brand.
At another table, same time slot, same location, a group of mostly-retired firefighters meet. Vic Martens, retired from the Old Town station, says they go back at least 10 years, and began meeting at the Mary Street Tim Hortons. However, the large round table they liked to use, was removed when the coffee shop went “upscale,” he says, and they moved down the road.
They also talk about all levels of government, some hunting and fishing, “and all the world’s problems get solved in an hour and a half. We often say we can never understand why the world is so complicated, when we can figure it out over coffee.”
At Silks Country Kitchen in Virgil, there are groups that come in other days, but Wednesday mornings a group of men and women have been meeting at 9 a.m. for the last 27 years.
It started with Lloyd LeGrow and his wife Ruth, and another couple, both of whom have passed away. There are two other couples who have joined the LeGrows, and some women who have lost their husbands who continue their Wednesday morning ritual, and it’s immediately evident there is a lot of joking going on and they’re having fun.
The men sit together at one end of the table, the women at the other.
Is the conversation different because it’s mixed? Yes, says Hattie Bolsby, the spokesperson for the group.
“The men talk about the things that men talk about, the women talk about the things women talk about,” she says.
That means while there is sports talk at one end, antique cars, or maybe travel, the other end might be a discussion about cooking, TV shows or what’s on at the Shaw Festival.
The LeGrows and the Bolsbys have known each other since the 1960s, when they lived in Port Credit, she explains.
Hattie, a former teacher, wanted to retire to Niagara-on-the-Lake so she could work at the Shaw Festival, which she did, as an usher, along with three other women who are now also members of the group. They tend to talk about the Shaw, and although none of them work any longer, they like to compare notes on the plays they’ve seen.
They’ve been coming for so long the waitresses over the years have all known what they order, says Bolsby.
The most excitement was a Wednesday morning this summer, with the unexpected appearance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in Niagara to make some funding announcements leading up to the election.
One of the Silks regulars, Elaine Pol, recalled her husband, who has passed away, had been in the RCMP and a bodyguard for Pierre Trudeau and his family, when Justin was just a boy.
“We had no idea he was coming to Silks,” Bolsby says. “It was pretty exciting.”
That was a morning none of them will forget, she adds.
Not all of the Silks group still live in NOTL, although they did at one time, and still come to town weekly to meet their friends.
There are lots of laughs, they have fun together and look forward to Wednesday mornings, Bolsby says. “We wouldn’t miss it.”
If there are groups we’ve missed, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the time and place. We’ll feature your groups in the coming weeks.