ALANNA SMITH Updated: June 2, 2019
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Two former backcountry-firefighters-turned-entrepreneurs are doing their part to help families displaced by raging wildfires in northern Alberta.
Co-owners Mike Wenzlawe and Jamie Parker of Calgary Heritage Roasting Co. are donating 100 per cent of the proceeds from their coffee shop’s grand opening Saturday to the Alberta Red Cross to support people affected by the fires.
“We’ve seen first-hand the destruction and damage that these fires cause. It wreaks havoc on families and communities,” said Wenzlawe. “And it’s more than just things. It’s their lives, their memories, their history. Giving back is the least we could do.”
The duo have been passionate about giving back since their venture began more than four years ago. Prior to chasing their dreams of opening a business, Wenzlawe and Parker were working as wildland firefighters for the Alberta government.
Parker was part of a rappel crew for about four years and Wenzlawe spent one season with a unit crew based out of Rocky Mountain House in 2015.
“We just learned to roast coffee in the bush in a cast iron pan. And that’s kind of where the love of roasting coffee and brewing coffee came from,” said Wenzlawe.
But he said the “soul or heart of the company” came from a backpacking trip the pair went on years ago.
“We’re sitting around the fire one night drinking Alberta Premium from a plastic bottle,” he said with a laugh. “And we were just kind of talking about this idea that nothing tastes better than when you’re in the outdoors. It’s this connection, it’s nostalgia.”
From there, the idea blossomed to create a product and experience that connected people to what they feel Alberta is all about.
“Alberta is all about the outdoors. It’s all about collaboration and community, to getting back to nature in this multi-faceted lifestyle,” said Wenzlawe.
It was soon after, and with the money saved from firefighting, that the pair went full-throttle into opening an adventure-driven, outdoor-inspired roasting company.
As things were getting off the ground, they were asked to return and fight the fires that would later ravage Fort McMurray in 2016, forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history.
It was a difficult decision for both men, but they chose to stay behind and build the business. However, it also sparked the first of many campaigns dedicated to raising funds to help communities affected by wildfires.
“Wildfires aren’t getting any better. Every year it gets hotter and hotter and (wildfires come) sooner and sooner,” said Wenzlawe. “Every year, we’ll do a week or two week period of time where we’ll donate proceeds of bag sales toward the Red Cross.”
As they celebrated their grand opening Saturday in Inglewood, Wenzlawe said it was beyond anything they could have dreamed.
The company’s flagship store is making its home in Calgary’s historic C.C. Snowden building, a designated heritage structure that’s said to be one of Alberta’s first oil refineries.
The entrepreneurs were instantly drawn to it for its historic Albertan charm and coincidental connection to their experience as firefighters, considering the building suffered damage from a blaze in 1988.
“We love the space because as soon as you walk into it, it already had a soul. It was already breathing,” said Wenzlawe.
They have tried to maintain as much of its original structure as possible, and used recycled wood from the building to hand-craft counters and furniture.
“This was the vision that we had, and to see it come to life . . . there’s not a lot of words. It’s nuts,” said Wenzlawe.