It's 5:59 a.m. and the only things breathing outside the Fix Café and Deli at Nita Lake Lodge are me and a dragonfly.
Dragonflies rarely get up so early. Me, either. But I'm here to pitch in with this Creekside institution's opening routine. At precisely 6 a.m., a light goes on inside, the dragonfly disappears, and Lucia Pastorekova, head barista, lets me in to tag along for the morning. Even at this hour she's bubbly and energetic, the kind of Energizer Bunny needed for such a task. I barely get a foot in the door before we're turning chairs left upside down on the tables by night cleaners.
Known for gourmet coffees, pastries, sandwiches, soups and a range of gluten-free options that aren't also taste-free, everything at Fix is made in-house from scratch — a point of pride for Lucia. A steady stream of humans passes through each morning, whether to grab a java, juice or smoothie, or a ready-made lunch to accompany an adventure. Though there's an early smattering of jet-lagged tourists or a few locals grabbing coffee on their way to work, it's relatively quiet until 8 a.m., when it fills with lodge guests, blissed-out folks spilling from Loka Yoga, and people returning from a trail run, paddleboard or dog walk. It's a decidedly neighbourhood place that always hosts a jam of bikes and dogs and strollers outside.
But that comes later. For now, Lucia dispatches two compatriots to the tasks required to ready this atmospheric octagon for customers — making fresh-squeezed juices, filling the water dispenser, getting raw vegan bars out of the refrigerated display case... and pulling "blind shots" from the espresso machine to chase any residues left from cleaning the night before.
The machine is unique, a Victoria Arduino "White Eagle" model — the only one in North America. Unlike today's computerized versions, this espresso maker is all-manual — beautiful in its chrome, art-deco way, and with far fewer things that can go wrong. Lucia kept a picture of it on her computer desktop for months before it arrived; it didn't seem real until it was there.
The machine is always on because it would take 40 minutes to heat up, so the cups stacked atop it to warm are ready to go first thing. Pulling a shot requires strength (think slot machine with a hydraulic lever). You pull the handle down, and, once coffee starts flowing, let it up slowly. I like the physicality of it — and the way it makes you pay attention. "I always worry when I'm training people on this," notes Lucia. "They might pull the handle down, then forget about it... and it springs up on its own. If they turn back just as that happens it could hit them in the teeth or break cups. One time, four cups went flying..."
From Slovakia, Lucia has been at Fix since March 2015. Before that she worked at Nesters Market, where she honed her English. Like many, she came to Whistler for the skiing, and stayed for the mountain biking. "I love meeting all the interesting people that come in here," she says of her favourite part of the job. The most challenging part of her mission to have the best coffee shop in Whistler? A familiar refrain — training and keeping new staff for a business open 365 days a year.
At 6:15 a.m., the pastry chef enters stage left, pushing a cart stacked with fresh bread, muffins, focaccias, scones, and croissants both savory and sweet. The staff — adorned in clever black T-shirts with "what's your fix?" on the back — arrange these on shelves and in baskets, laying the still-warm items down carefully, like babies in a bassinette, attentively labelling each.
Back in the kitchen, a screw is stuck on the juicer, and all three women disappear into the back to try to solve the dilemma. No dice. Lucia wants to call maintenance, but they won't show until 7:30 a.m., so instead she orders up a hammer — she's going to "give it the ol' Fonz" (Google this if you never saw the TV show Happy Days).
By 6:25 a.m., people are at the door waiting for the 6:30 opening. Suddenly, a banshee scream from the kitchen. It's actually a squeal of delight. Lucia's hammer blow has freed the juicer's screw. She emerges with a smile of triumph just in time to unlock the doors.
Lucia keeps busy pulling shots, steaming regular milk, soy milk and almond milk. Keeping track of all this requires acumen. Not to mention that she does it while managing a steady stream of conversation with every single customer. She seems to know a lot of people, or, more correctly, they seem to know her. Hers is the type of personality that requires only one visit to breed familiarity. Interacting with people helps to remember them. Of course, some are hard to forget, because the Fix has many regulars. Though not exactly a Cheers-like leitmotif of endless daily camaraderie, some show up every day and re-occupy their standard seats, whether to work or just sip quality espresso.
Unlike the dragonfly, I might be one of them.