President and Founder of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, Diana Olsen, found her passion quite interestingly — while at university studying French literature. During her course, she discovered a kindred spirit in Monsieur Balzac and his genuine passion for coffee. After graduating, she immersed herself in authentic French culture, spending a year and a half in France. Passing many enchanting afternoons in the Grand cafés of Paris, Ms. Olsen was inspired to bring this sophisticated celebration of coffee and social tradition home to Canada. San Francisco was her next stop in 1993, to learn the craft of coffee roasting and bean selection at the West Coast Specialty Coffee Training Institute. In 1996, the first Balzac’s café was opened in Stratford, Ontario and now they have 14 locations across Ontario. Today, Diana oversees all aspects of café operations and coffee roasting from the Balzac’s Roastery in Ancaster, Ontario.
My first job ever was… when I was 15 working in the kitchen at IL Giardino, an Italian restaurant in Vancouver. The chef taught me how to dry a full day’s worth of bibb lettuce by becoming a Human Salad Spinner…the washed lettuce would go into a huge table cloth and I would stand in the back alley spinning it with both arms while the water flew out…It worked! One of my tasks there was making espresso and cappuccino, which I took a particular interest in and thus began my love for coffee.
I decided to be an entrepreneur… by default really, I was very restless and having a difficult time finding a career that would challenge and stimulate me. I knew that whatever I was going to do I had to love it and be happy doing it. I realized that starting my own business and following my passion for coffee was probably my best option.
My proudest accomplishment… other than raising my amazing daughter Annabelle is building a brand that is not just an overnight success, but one that has grown deep roots in the communities we serve. We are strong, we can withstand the challenges we face, and we are going to continue to grow at a healthy rate.
My boldest move to date was… also my greatest move to date — opening the Distillery District Café, at a time when no one had a clue where it was or what it was. It was a big gamble that really paid off. I’m forever grateful to my landlords there for giving Balzac’s such an incredible opportunity.
I surprise people when I tell them… I play hockey…I’m not very good mind you but I love it!!
When asked, my best advice to people starting out in business is… don’t rely too much on advice from others, especially the unsolicited kind. It’s your business and your own intuition is usually going serve you best.
Having said that there will be times when you really do need the help of someone with more experience than you — even just for emotional support — so having a trusted mentor is very important.
“Don’t cower in the face of adversity…fight for what you believe is right. ”
My best advice from a mentor was… to stand up for myself! Don’t cower in the face of adversity…fight for what you believe is right.
My biggest setback was… having to throw in the towel and close a café that was struggling. It was not a good choice of location. My bad.
I overcame it by… opening a new café in a great location!
I take my coffee with… organic cream and a splash of maple syrup.
If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… spend it with family.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that my hobby is collecting Lake Ontario beach glass… but if you followed me on Instagram you would!
The one thing I wish I knew when starting Balzac’s 25 years ago is… that business is ultimately more about the people than the product. While we do sell amazing coffee, it’s building relationships with our customers, our suppliers and our co-workers that truly matters and what gives our business meaning and success. As Balzac’s has grown, unfortunately, I’m not able to personally connect with all of my customers and employees, but I hope I have created a culture where people feel valued and appreciated. “The café is the people’s parliament,” a quote by our namesake Honoré de Balzac says it all.
I stay inspired by… our natural surroundings… I love to spend time outdoors.
The future excites me because… I never know what to expect. Every day there are new opportunities and new challenges…it never gets boring.
My next step is… to open two new cafes, one at the new Vaughan Metropolitan Center and the other is directly across from the Mattamy Athletic Centre, formerly the Maple Leaf Gardens.