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First Nations Business Award of Excellence: Twiggs Coffee Company

"It's been a long road, and we've seen a lot of challenges, but it's all come back in spades."

In a market typically dominated by a chain bearing the name of a famous Canadian hockey player, Twiggs Coffee Company has skilfully carved out a space for itself with a name that's become famous in its own right.

These days, owner Jennifer Twigg roasts coffee and the competition at her 13-year-old North Bay location, which offers fair trade organic beans alongside sterling service and perfected passion.

The business, which also features an espresso bar, fresh juice bar and deli, has seen consistent 14 per cent growth in profits throughout the last four years. By the end of 2008, Twiggs is expected to see incomes in excess of $1.1 million.

In fact, success has been such that the business is in the process of being franchised, with various parties from across the North having shown an interest.

After years of struggling and powering through 15-hour days, Twiggs Coffee Company has finally hit its stride.

"It's been a long road, and we've seen a lot of challenges, but it's all come back in spades," says Twigg.

"I'm really proud of what's been accomplished."

The journey to the company's current caffeinated success hasn't been an easy one, however.

Since she moved to her current home on the Nipissing First Nation in 1995, this endlessly energetic entrepreneur has struggled with countless obstacles from the get-go, including the very culture of coffee consumption in the North.

Having spent several years in British Columbia after growing up in Kirkland Lake, Twigg had already been exposed to the higher-end way of approaching the coffee business, which has since stood at the core of her own company.

As Twigg discovered, a new way of approaching coffee requires a gradual sea change in thought in the community. Nearly a decade passed before local residents came to fully appreciate the higher-quality experience that accompanies its higher prices, driven in part by the growth of Starbucks and the promotion of specialty coffees.

Still, Twigg has been committed since its opening day to maintaining a healthy-eating menu, complete with as many local items as possible, including bread delivered by local bakers and meats brought by local butchers. Juice is freshly squeezed every day, and fair-trade organic beans are brought in from Montreal before being roasted on site.

"We were about 10 years too early, so we had quite the struggle, but I'm nothing if not tenacious," says Twigg with a laugh.

What's more, her husband, Doug, was so determined to support the family's decision to return to the North that for 12 years, he commuted every weekend from the Ottawa region, where he managed a Domtar fine paper plant.

Every week since the business opened, he would bring batches of bagels special-made at an Ottawa business, boiled in honey water and baked over an open flame. As a sign of the success in offering these types of items, Twiggs now goes through roughly 150 dozen of these bagels every single week.

Doug has since left behind his career and the associated commutes to help with the business as it transitions into an exciting new phase of growth.

Over the years, more and more people have come onboard, and the business now has 25 part-time and full-time employees, most of which have been part of the team for an average of six years. While these are unusually high numbers for the food service industry, Twigg says it's a result of finding people who love what they do and properly motivating them.

Twigg attributes some of this broader success to the hard-earned lessons she picked up in the 1980s. This includes one where she turned homemade Aboriginal arts and crafts that her grandmother taught her into a larger-scale venture.

Every year, Twigg takes on placement students from Canadore's business programs, and Nipissing First Nation schools giving them an opportunity to earn precious job experience.

The business also hosts an annual mini-telethon during the Christmas season to raise money for less fortunate families. In its first year, it raised roughly $3,500; last year, it saw more than $40,000 in pledges.

Twigg has also developed a "quick pay card" system where five per cent of every dollar spent on the card goes to the North Bay Regional Hospital. Her business has nearly completed a separate $50,000 pledge for the children's medical treatment room.

"I'm in love with North Bay," says Twigg. "I have roots here, and I can't imagine doing this anywhere else."