Liz Abene is a get-to-work, behind the scenes kind of woman. Her speech is quiet and calm. Her presence is natural and unobtrusive in her surroundings, yet her personality and talent are everything behind her baked goods business, Canteen Girl, and her shop, Canteen. Over a year ago she took over the former Urban Bean space at 33rd and Bryant in South Minneapolis and transformed it into a place to highlight her own work and serve delicious toast and coffee!
Canteen Girl goodies—vegan bars, granola, nut butters, are created out of a true homemade mindset. Liz’s business was developed out of a genuine love of baking and years of true homegrown experience. Though Liz herself isn’t, everything in the Canteen Girl line-up is vegan. Not only does Canteen serve Dogwood coffee and espresso, all three of Dogwood Coffee’s Minneapolis shops offer Canteen Girl Holly Bars (named after our resident vegan and educator, Holly VerHage!) We’ve known Liz a long time now and it’s exciting that we’ve both grown together. Oh, and she does a bang up job making coffee. We sat down to chat with her about all kinds of exciting things, like toast.
Tell us a little bit about the beginning of Canteen Girl.
It’s been over two years since I’ve been making the granola and the bars. I started making them at home first before we had an oven here because we were practicing. We started making them in the shop and slowly switching it out with the store bought stuff we were buying and they kind of just took off. I made the original Holly Bar for probably about a year, then I brought in the peanut butter and jelly and then just maybe six months ago I brought in the chocolate. It’s just been a progression of wanting to make something vegan that tastes good. A lot of the vegan and gluten free stuff tastes terrible—you know, cardboard, dry, weird and grainy. I just wanted to make something that would taste like your grandma made it, but not have dairy in it. I worked with coconut oil, brown sugar, maple syrup and sea salt to create that salty sweet thing that butter and brown sugar have. That’s my favorite; I’m a salty-sweet person.
Right now Canteen Girl offers the Holly bars, granola (and sometimes coconut macaroons!) Are there other products you’d like to create?
Just the products I have right now I have now and the nut butters that I have on the toast bar. I make peanut butter, maple almond butter, vanilla cashew butter and a mixed nut honey butter. I don’t want to do too much—that’s why I’m only doing the granola and the bars. I feel like when you start doing too many different things you lose quality.
The toast bar concept has been known as a bay area/San Francisco trend, is that why you started?
That isn’t why. I only sort of knew about that when I decided I wanted to do it. When I knew I was going to take over the shop, I thought, ‘what can I do without a kitchen?’ I decided I would do toast. The reason wasn’t because of San Francisco. In 1995, instead of going home for Christmas, my ex-husband and I drove up to Vancouver from Portland where we were living. During our stay, we went to this place every morning—you’d get your coffee and a baguette and they had a bread condiment bar. It was just little packets of peanut butter and honey, you know—little Smuckers containers, but to me it was amazing! I thought, ‘Look at all these different things we can put on our bread!’ I thought it was the coolest thing ever. We went there every day for five days. What I do at Canteen is like the 2015 version of that Vancouver shop. I don’t remember the name of it or anything, but it always was in the back of my head that that was a cool thing and that someone should do it. That’s really where it all came from.
Toast bar is on all the time. During the week we have baguettes from Rustica and then on the weekends we have three different kinds of breads. I have a rotation of Rustica, Sun Street Breads and sometimes A Baker’s Wife because it’s hearty and good for toasting.
What sorts of things do you see happening in the future for Canteen and Canteen Girl?
I think the toast bar is what I need to highlight the most because I think it’s what differentiates me from other stores. Now that we’ve been up and running for almost a year, I’m ready to start working on what Canteen actually is. I know I want it to be more of a community and neighborhood spot. I want it to be for people in the neighborhood and very welcoming for everybody. We’re hoping to do a parklet this summer, I think that’s going to be amazing. We’re right off the Greenway so I’d like to draw in bikers. I think there’s a lot of room for prosperity, even though the shop has been here for 20 years and it will always sustain itself, I want to bump it up and change some stuff.
I have to do a big renovation here for the city. I am going to add more counter space and maybe get a bigger convection oven so that I can have more output for Canteen Girl and then I’m going to push the wholesale. I love the store don’t get me wrong, I love being here and running a coffee shop. I’m sad to step away because I love making drinks and being on bar--I think it’s really fun. One of the most challenging things for me is being able to let go and let the staff do their thing when I’m not here.
You’ve made Canteen your own after taking over Urban Bean’s space over a year ago. Is owning the shop what you envisioned?
The shop wasn’t my plan from the beginning, but I love being here. I always knew I didn’t want to leave here. Even when I left Urban Bean in 2012 I was sad because I thought I could just go work in another coffee shop and it would be the same, but it wasn’t even close to the same. I like this particular space. It’s beautiful, the energy is really good in here and I would rather be right here.
I’m excited for the shop, I’m excited for whatever is going to happen and I’m excited to keep doing the actual customer service part of owning a store. I really do like it. We’re really all about good customer service. I’ve been in the service industry for 30 something years in some fashion or another and I like that I’m getting a chance to put my stamp on something and do customer service the way I think it should be done.
I think the best part is meeting all the people, I really love it. I think I know everybody’s name that comes in here. The difference between here and a restaurant is that you get the same people every day. I see the same baby every morning. I hang out with Agnes, we talk, she tells me her story even though she’s only 6 months, I tell her mine. It’s fantastic!
I was a stay at home mom for 10 years and baked everything from scratch. Our breads, baby food, pizzas, all of our soups—everything was from scratch. We made homemade pasta. What I’m doing now is never what I intended to do, but it makes total sense because I like it. It’s calming for me to bake. I do think that things happen for a reason, you know? I kind of always knew I wasn’t going to be working in corporate America. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs it’s not unusual that I am. A lot of people fall into what they end up doing but there’s a reason they fall into it, it’s not usually as far off the mark as it seems like it is.
Canteen Girl Holly Bars can be found at all three Dogwood Coffee locations, Black Coffee & Waffles, the Lyndale BP and Lake Wine and Spirits.
3255 Bryant Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Canteen Girl wholesale information here.
**Canteen is holding a Fundraiser for their Parklet this Friday May, 8th from 7-11pm! Call or stop by the shop for more info.
Photos by Eileen K Photograpy.