A blanket of snow covers Calgary on an early March morning. Inside Gravity Espresso and Wine Bar, Andy Fennell is giving service with a smile.
Nestled on the Music Mile in Inglewood, regulars flock to Gravity to escape the blistering weather.
Fennell greets his customers with a big grin and British accent, his trademark, along with his hand-drawn cup designs and mason-jar cheesecake. Local art, soft music and friendly chatter complete the cozy atmosphere.
The business itself is unique, and the way it came to be is even more so.
Andy Fennell spent 20 years in the corporate world but, after the death of his father in 2006, he re-evaluated his priorities and decided to open the coffee shop.
“I was actually sitting in a Starbucks, drinking hot chocolate, trying to figure what it is I wanted to do,” explains Fennell.
“And everything pointed back to doing the same things, sitting behind a desk, and I just couldn’t fathom that that was the route I was going to take. It wouldn’t have made me happy.”
Fennell spent his time working for WestJet Calgary and another cruise line out of Miami, before making the transition to a small business. He found it easy to switch environments because he felt he never fit the corporate mold.
“It was a lot of moaning and backstabbing and different philosophies and nothing really getting done,” says Fennell, “To a place where now I just talk to people about everyday life and it’s so easy, and it’s real.”
Although Fennell was never entirely content with his profession, it was only by way of tragedy that he considered making a change.
Back in England, his father had been given six months to live. As it happens, Fennell arrived back in his home country one day before his dad slipped into a coma.
“Before he went into a coma, he sort of told me how he’d felt like he wasted his life sitting behind a desk when he’d had ample opportunities to do other things and never took them.”
Fennell and his father had a solid relationship growing up. His father was a war evacuee, and very proper. He rarely expressed his emotions.
“I think it was very vulnerable the way he came through with it. From a man that had been quite stiff-upper-lip [throughout] his life, it was quite a vulnerable moment to hear him say that,” says Fennell.
He credits his dad with giving him the push to leave the world that made him unhappy: “And, although I didn’t act on it right away, it was always there and when the moment was right I was going to work on that.”
Fennell and his wife, Zara Verge, welcomed their first child, Cedar, right around the time Gravity opened, which allowed them to work together to launch their business. With a new baby, it was another responsibility for the couple, but they were ready for the challenge.
As a new small business owner, his goal was to create a space that was aesthetically pleasing, felt comfortable, had exceptional service and was family-owned — as opposed to Starbucks, the coffee shop he had been sitting at while thinking about his future.
Julie Van Rosendaal, a food writer, remembers the first time she came into Gravity.
“I came in with a friend of mine, who is a painter, and we were having coffee, and Andy was sort of popping around and talking to everyone at the tables and introducing himself.”
Van Rosendaal and Fennell sat in the shop and discussed food for two hours that day. She still thinks about the impact that his business has had on their community. She compares the café, which celebrated its sixth anniversary mid-March, to the television show “Cheers.”
“Everybody knows your name, right? You come in and there’s always people,” says Van Rosendaal.
Fennell works hard to ensure that regulars like Van Rosendaal, and anyone else he serves, enjoy their experience at his business. But he makes sure that his dedication to the shop doesn’t keep him from his two sons.
“I’m doing something that I love, and I have two children that I deeply love, and so, it’s all natural. Just finding the balance so that the business is supported, and the kids are being supported at the same time.”
Along with finding a new passion in his business, Fennell found himself a new hobby.
Fennell originally enrolled in a climbing course to conquer his fear of heights and fell in love with the sport. He likes sharing that enjoyment with his boys Cedar, 5, and Oakley, 3.
When Fennell is not working behind the counter at Gravity, or doing other work from home, he and Verge enjoy spending time with their children, and the family enjoys spending their time at the Calgary Climbing Centre.
Verge and Fennell have been together for nine years, Verge says that the kids are always his first priority.
“Andy is a great dad! He’s hilarious. The kids think he’s totally funny. He says a lot of off-the-cuff things, so the kids have this funny little sense of humour. They also both have slight British accents because, obviously, Andy has a British accent.”
Fennell prides himself on his friendly personality, his welcoming atmosphere, his unique coffee and food, but most of all, his kids.
“Ultimately, it’s a business and it doesn’t define me. I’m defined by the type of person I am. Life for everybody is rocky — there’s no straight line in life, and we’ve all had our ups and downs,” Fennell says.
Establishing a café has allowed Fennell to develop a sense of togetherness within his community. The authenticity is one of the many things he appreciates about his career change.
“I get a lot of my community out of this place, whereas the corporate world can be so fake. You go there and it’s fake, you go home, and your personal life is really the support that gets you through that fake-ness. Now, this is all integrated into one and I just enjoy myself.”
- By Lauryn Heintz