Laura’s Coffee Shop – one of the last industrial coffee shops in the city

This is an updated version of my original post on Laura’s Coffee Shop published last December.  Recently, a reader named Peter Lee contacted me via my Mount Pleasant Stories campaign and told me that his parents owned and operated Laura’s from 1977 to 1999. He generously shared his own family story of Laura’s Coffee Shop with me. This information has been incorporated into the revised post below.

Last summer I led a historical walking tour for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation called “Lower Mount Pleasant: industry, immigrants and institutions”. One of the stops on the tour was at Laura’s Coffee Shop – one of the last industrial coffee shops in the city.

Laura’s Coffee Shop is at 1945 Manitoba Street on the corner of W4th and Manitoba. It’s in a building that started as a house in 1905 and was later was converted into a commercial space (ca. 1926).

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Laura’s Cafe exterior & interior (2018). Photos: C.Hagemoen

According to the 1905 City Directories, the first resident at 1943 Manitoba Street was Robert E. Thompson a storeman at Wood, Vallance and Leggatt, Ltd. (they sold heavy and shelf hardware). In 1904, a building permit for a frame building was issued under his name for this property. Since the value of the building was only for $100, it is likely that this permit was for an outbuilding or a shed. Therefore, it is possible that the house was built after or before 1904. (There is a gap in the historic building permits for Vancouver from 1905-1908 – the records have been lost.) Thompson didn’t live there long, because the City Directory for the following year lists Walter Lofting, a butterman, the resident at 1943 Manitoba Street.

In 1926, new owner Thomas D. Knowles opens the Manitoba Confectionery at 1943 Manitoba St.  By 1927, Italian immigrants Domenico & Laura DeFilippo (sometimes spelled as DeFillipo) are now listed in the city directories as living at 1943 Manitoba and son Samuel DeFilippo, a longshoreman, is listed at 1945 Manitoba. It looks like the recently expanded retail space (with living quarters) has now been given its own street address.

Domenico operated the corner grocery store here for almost 10 years before he died suddenly in 1936 (he collapsed while out walking with his wife near 4th and Ontario).

Mrs. Laura DeFillipo took over at the helm at the corner store until her death in 1953. It was then that siblings Samuel (Sam or Sammy), previously working as a taxi driver, and Violet then took over the family store business.  Sammy was also an avid bowler and he competed in many bowling tournaments in the 40s and 50s. He also ran Circle Bowling Alleys on Clark Drive at Kingsway which he opened in 1948 with partner Cyril Battistoni.

CVA 786-23.10
Laura’s Cafe ca. 1978. This would have been when the Lees were running the Coffee Shop. Peter Lee believes that the man in the doorway could possibly be Laura’s Coffee shop regular, Fred. He worked for Nelson’s Laundry (now Alsco) as an engineer and was close friends with Sam DeFilippo before Sam passed away. Photo: COV Archives, CVA 786-23.10

By the start of the 1960s, the area had shifted from a residential neighbourhood to a predominately industrial/light industrial zone. In reaction to this change and motivated by the popularity of the sandwiches that they served to the local workers, in 1964 Sammy and Violet decided to convert the grocery store to a restaurant – named after their beloved mother Laura.

Laura’s Coffee Shop has been serving breakfast and lunch to the workers in the area ever since. It was Peter Lee who told me that Sam’s sister, Violet Clara Scott (1912-1983), also played an important role in the early days of Laura’s Coffee Shop. [I’m currently following a lead to find out more about Violet and the DeFillipos – hopefully, more to come.]

The_Province_Sat__Jul_3__1965_
Classified ad for a waitress at Laura’ Coffee Shop. Source: The Province July 3, 1965.

In 1977, Sam and Violet sold Laura’s Coffee Shop to Walter and Wai Ching Lee. Prior to purchasing Laura’s Cafe, Walter and Wai Ching worked together running George’s Grill at 2204 Broadway for 10 years. They operated Laura’s Coffee Shop for over 20 years until their retirement in 1999.

Peter told me that his parents kept the exact same menu and look of the cafe as the De Filippo’s. Describing the interior, he told me that Laura’s used to have a long counter with the traditional red button seats that spun around. He said that Violet’s grandaughter “remembered spinning around those seats as a kid as her nonna served her a milkshake”. The new owners, unfortunately, tore out the counter after his parents sold the business in 1999.  Peter also remembers that there used to be “an old fashioned Coca-Cola cooler for pop (in upright bottles back then), an Export ‘A’ Clock hanging at the back, and of course the Pepsi Cola sign outside”. Today only the faded Pepsi sign, the booths, and the wood paneling are all that’s left from the original interior.

Kam Sheung Cheung (Peter’s grandmother), Walter Lee, and Wai Ching Lee (Peter’s parents) in Laura’s Coffee Shop on the day of their retirement in 1999. Photo courtesy of Peter Lee.

I asked Peter if he ever worked or spent time at Laura’s Coffee Shop:

Me and my siblings (older sister Karen and older brother William) would work there over the summers growing up.  We would help by bussing–wiping off tables, doing dishes and serving guests.  My dad ran the front of the house and my grandma stayed in the back.  My mom would float between front and back.  Every Saturday morning the whole family would go to the coffee shop for bacon and eggs in the morning and then go to Chinatown in the afternoon to shop and attend Chinese school (which we all hated!).  They would be closed on Sundays.

I hated working there over the summers as a kid.  It was hard and dirty work.  But, of course, looking back, you can’t help being nostalgic about those days–and you gain an appreciation for how hard your parents worked.  Between 11:30am and 1pm the place would always be packed with the local workers, mainly from the Laundry next door (called Nelson’s Laundry at the time).  Everyone smoked like chimneys back then and there’d be a thick cloud of smoke hanging in the air.  

The food served there was completely foreign to me but I loved it!  Bacon and egg sandwiches, Clubhouse sandwiches, hamburger steaks, beef barley soup–everything home made.  They even had liver and onions back then!  The signature dishes were the Superburger (bacon/cheese/lettuce/tomato with fries), and the Fish and Chips (which was only served on Fridays).

Today, my favourite foods are inspired by what I ate there–bacon and eggs and fish and chips (I’d even order liver and onions if a menu had it there).  As a kid, my mom would only ever cook Chinese dishes at home like rice and steamed fish and pork so eating at the shop was always a treat!  Ironically, she disapproved of me eating at the shop because she felt the food there was unhealthy (with all that lard and gravy) or maybe because I was eating away all the profits!  Speaking of unhealthy–my Mom cooked the best homemade apple pie there!  Any unsold pie they’d bring home for me and my siblings to eat.  It’s now my favourite dessert to have and I’ve learned to make it myself the way she did (minus the lard of course).

The coffee at Laura’s was great too (although I didn’t really know it at the time as a kid).  The ground beans were from Neate’s coffee–a local east van coffee brewery.  I’m not sure about the exact history but I believe Neate’s was sold to a larger company and the son John Neate Jr. would later establish JJ Bean in the 90s.  I think I recall John delivering ground coffee to the shop weekly back in the 80s! – Peter Lee, 2020.

 

Laura’s Coffee Shop along 4th Ave. The side door leads to the kitchen and you can see the suite above the shop. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Since the DeFillipo’s left, there have been tenants living in the suite over the shop and in the attached bungalow. Peter told me that his family “never lived in the neighborhood and only worked there from 5:30am and went home to East Van at 5pm”, he went on to say that “the industrial area became pretty much a ghost town after all the workers went home around 4:30pm”. In recent years, Peter has noticed a change to the rhythm of the area, “nowadays there is a bit of a return to a stable neighborhood like in years past with growing foot traffic day and night with the number of multipurpose buildings going up”.

 

There are very few photos of Laura’s Coffee Shop in its early days (if you have one please contact me!) Even the Lee’s who owned the place for over 20 years only had one photo from their last day in 1999. However, Peter did tell me that many films were shot inside Laura’s.  He referred me to the 1984 made for TV movie, “The Three Wishes of Billy Grier” starring “Karate Kid”, Ralph Macchio.  This slightly odd movie is available on YouTube (curiously with Spanish subtitles)  the short scene that shows how the interior of Laura’s Coffee Shop looked like in the mid-80s starts at 1:13:25.

Screenshot from “The 3 Wishes of Billy Grier” shows the original counter.

Laura’s Coffee Shop is one of the few industrial coffee shops left in the city. In the 20th Century, these popular-priced eateries could be found in industrial areas, like lower Mount Pleasant, all over the city.  These coffee shops would be open early (for pre-work breakfast) and all through the working day, Monday to Friday. They were reliable, local establishments where single workers, who may or may not have kitchen facilities at home nor the inclination to cook could go and get two good hot meals a day. I can imagine workers from nearby businesses like Alsco (Nelson’s) Industrial Laundry or the Reliance Foundry, frequenting Laura’s during lunch and coffee breaks.

Grilled cheese, fries, and coffee from Laura’s in 2018.

Peter filled me in on what happened to Laura’s Coffee Shop after his parents retired at the end of the last century and gave some insight into the current situation:

Edwin and Nancy ran it for the longest during this period from about 2007 to 2019.  Currently, Emma and Fei are the new owners of the business.  There were a couple of other owners between my parents and Edwin.  While it was tough running the business during my parents’ time, it’s even tougher now with all the competition and change in demographics.  And with the current pandemic, people are working from home now and Laura’s has always depended on business from the local workers.

Laura’s Coffee shop. You can see the SW corner of the Alsco laundry building across the street. Photo: C. Hagemoen

Today, Laura’s Coffee Shop is still a family-run,  friendly place that is busy serving ‘greasy-spoon’ style meals to lower Mount Pleasant workers (now more tech-based and less factory-based) and beyond – they also deliver via Skip the Dishes! Laura’s is also open Saturdays.

I wish I could go back in time to visit Laura’s Cafe in the 80s. I’d sit down at the long counter on one of those spinning red button seat stools and order the Superburger, a cup of Neate’s coffee, and a slice of Peter’s mum’s homemade apple pie.

 

As part of the Vancouver Courier’s Vancouver Special neighbourhood series, Heritage Vancouver’s Anthony Norfolk discusses the residential, commercial and industrial heritage of Lower Mount Pleasant, while sitting down at Laura’s Coffee Shop in this video from 2013.

 

In 2008, Peter wrote a really interesting piece for the Vancouver Sun about the history of how his family immigrated to B.C. starting with his great-grandfather at the turn of the 20th C.

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