Jorel Pepin sits in a quiet nook at his Whyte Avenue cafe, Block 1912, where he’s nearly surrounded by books. The mini library where patrons can take and leave a book is one of several new additions that Jorel and his dad — the cafe’s other co-owner — have put into effect after a major renovation in February of 2016.
Jorel has been a co-owner of the café since 2006, right after he graduated from high school. Soon after he started working at the café, he also started going to business school, working 55-hour weeks at Block 1912 while doing school on the side. It was challenging, but that’s when he really began to fall in love with the business.
“I found that after I graduated, and I had sleep and energy, that’s when I really started buckling down. And I said, ‘OK, let’s change things here,” Jorel says. The changes included a complete renovation of the space along with an overhaul of the menu, all within the space of a month. It was an ambitious undertaking, but after his previous schedule with work and school, Jorel was up for the challenge.
In the midst of the renovation, Jorel even hosted a three-course pop-up dinner crafted by Eric Hanson of Prairie Noodle Shop. It was an opportunity to offer a table service, Jorel says, something not often done in a café. Meanwhile, Jorel also asked Eric to create a new menu for Block 1912. “I approached him and I said, ‘You’re the best chef that I’ve ever met in my entire life. Let’s get together and plan a menu,'” Jorel remembers. “We spent two weeks basically just eating and brainstorming, and this is what we came up with.”
The result is a unique menu of sandwiches, including coffee-crusted steak, Thai tofu, pulled pork and a pulled chicken club. There are also standalone perennial favourites like onion cakes and sides like the mason jar salad.
Jorel also launched a cocktail menu in response to changes he was seeing in the space. He approached the general manager of North 53, Tyler Gushaty, who created the drinks, which include the 1912 Negroni, Madagascar Mule, Cinnamon Sidecar and Earl Grey Old Fashioned – all crafted by trained baristas.
The desserts also received an upgrade, which Jorel says was really important as clients generally valued the sugary treats even more than the drinks or the entrées. The café decided to start making individual cakes rather than full cakes, and so the store's display cases — imported from Italy — are now full of beautiful creations, including the raspberry crème brûlée, pistachio cake and plum crumble.
Of course, Block 1912 continues to make gelato, a classic standby of the 25-year-old café. During the summer, someone is always busy making gelato to keep up with the demand.
Everything is made in-house in the basement by a team of cooks, a pastry chef, a pastry chef assistant, a baker and a gelato maker. They're an eclectic mix of individuals, but according to Jorel they all have one thing in common — they’re ambitious and eager to make changes rather than just punch a clock. “One of the big things about working here is that we give our staff a lot of creative control," Jorel says. "We just say, ‘Stay within these guidelines, but make cool stuff, and put it into the display case."
Jorel is proud of Block 1912's evolution. Throughout the changes, the café has remained a mainstay on Whyte Avenue, where regulars gather with friends in a warm environment.