CAFFEINE & MOTORCYCLES: FINDING HEAVEN AT STEELTOWN GARAGE COMPANY
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘This is the spot I’ve been waiting for someone to create,’ I murmur reverently to TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis when we step through an admittedly unremarkable doorway off Barton Street in Hamilton. And into my personal heaven. I stop in the entrance and breathe in rich scents of coffee, and notes of some of my other favourite smells – conditioned leather and, yes, motor oil. All together they produce an intoxicating aroma. Of comfort. And nostalgia. And aspiration. ‘If our magazine was bricks and mortar,’ I continue, ‘this would be it.’ Cai nods in agreement. ‘This is it,’ I add, a bit quieter this time, and in a state of reverie.
To our right, a gorgeous turquoise La Marzocco espresso machine dominates a large wooden countertop. A small mountain of shiny black espresso mugs – many of which are emblazoned with the tagline ‘Death Before Decaf’ – are stacked on this workhorse of a machine. Vintage motorcycle helmets are paraded on the wall behind it. The soul of the joint. An experienced barista deftly prepares espresso-based drinks – americanos, lattes, cappuccinos – for a handful of folks gathered at the counter. Folks who, I must say, all look to be straight out of a Herschel Supply catalog. Or Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Or TOQUE Magazine, for that matter. I revel in the unanticipated familiarity.
A restored 1976 Honda cb750 Super Sport motorcycle is positioned centre stage. This beast, a perfect blend of patina’d original yellow paint, refurbished chrome, custom pipes and vintage Dunlops could very well be my spirit animal. The walls all around the rig are festooned with the hippest merchandise I can imagine. Deus Ex Machina duds. (I quickly snag the last ‘Deus Custom’ ball cap – before Cai can take it for herself.) Levi’s denim. Red Wing boots. Schott New York leather jackets. Iron & Air magazine. The aforementioned Herschel collection. An entire wall designated to new motorcycle helmets and supple leather riding gloves. And other desirables that might complete any café racer’s uniform.
I wonder whether we’ve just stepped inside the coolest coffee shop inspired by motorcycle culture – or into a badass lifestyle shop that just happens also to sell great coffee. No matter, we’ve stepped through the looking glass. And it’s good.
‘It’s neither one nor the other,’ Steeltown co-owner Jeff Campagna answers when I put the question to him. ‘We’re a bunch of things at once. A retail store. Coffee bar. Hub for motorcycle and gasoline culturein downtown Hamilton. And a place to connect with friends and strangers over shared passions – whatever they may be.’ I am entranced when Jeff, a former journalist who wrote for organs like The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Delayed Gratification and more, begins to tell me about when and how he and his wife and business partner, Tania, came up with the concept. ‘We lived abroad for a decade – in Central and South America, Indonesia, and other places,’ he tells me. ‘And I became enthralled with the old school motorcycle culture that pervades much of that part of the world.’ He continues: ‘In Panama I started working on old bikes – creating custom beach blasters for sand and stuff. When we moved back home in 2014, I brought this passion for motorcycle and gasoline culture back with me. And reincarnated it here, in 2017, as Steeltown Garage Company.’
Tania, who has offered me a glorious espresso with homemade biscotti, enlarges the story: ‘While this place is our physical address [a space that Tania, an interior designer, envisioned and executed], our brand has gone international. We’re pretty excited that especially our in-house Steeltown merchandise – available in store and through our online shop – is gaining a following all over the world.’ This isn’t at all surprising. Afterall, even a cursory glance at the Steeltown brand reveals a design and application that effectively convey what these two are about. Cohesive. Fresh. Inclusive. Hip. As Jeff reveals: ‘Everything about what we produce articulates a particular narrative that’s rooted in our passions. For bikes. Caffeine. Past and present. Nostalgia.’
I recognize in these people and this place a tapestry of shared passions. Between Jeff and Tania and the hordes of folks across this region – and around the globe – who have been waiting for something like Steeltown to come onto the scene. A very particular and compelling version of (my personal) heaven.
Steeltown Garage Co.
8 Barton St E, Hamilton