RD Staff

From left, Jo Ruegg, Head Barista; Faith Brierley, Company Manager; Jon Hepplewhite, Owner; Deb Stanton, Kristy Hepplewhite, Philly Baumberger and Summer Beckett.

Hub Staff

"It feels like a huge milestone but at the same time it just feels like it kind of snuck up on us," said owner of Rabbit Dash Inc. Jon Hepplewhite when we caught up with him at his Port Elgin shop January 25.

Rabbit Dash Coffee House first opened their doors in downtown Port Elgin on February 26, 2013 and it's been a journey of discovery and growth ever since.

By all accounts Hepplewhite is an ideas guy and not one to shy away from an opportunity when it presents itself.

He had been working for coffee shops It's All Good, and later Crema, in the first Rabbit Dash location, and when he learned Crema was going to close their doors, Hepplewhite approached the building owner and expressed interest in keeping it going.

Hepplewhite bought all the chattels, started renting the space at zero dollars and paid it back over eight months.

For the first half of those eight months, Hepplewhite was Rabbit Dash's only staff member, working 13 hours a day, seven days a week. 

"Longer hours than we're open now," he said. "I don't know how I did it."

And he did it while also maintaining a long distance relationship, added Kristy Hepplewhite, who was attending Teacher's College in North Bay at the time. The pair married in 2020 and have since welcomed their first child.

Jon's evolution into becoming a coffee shop owner was a somewhat organic one, previously running a silk screening business out of his basement during and after high school.

"People were starting to really like the designs and I didn't have a name for it, everyone just called it Jon's Shirts," Hepplewhite joked. "But there comes a time where if you want to make this into something you should give it a name so I landed on Rabbit Dash," he said.

Hepplewhite said he has always liked the idea of names being tied to imagery and decided on the name because "when you leave for work in the morning you see rabbits everywhere."

When it came time to open a coffee shop, the concept of rabbits dashing meshed well with the idea of coffee and caffeine.

"When Jon started his silk screening business he was self taught," said Kristy Heppelwhite, adding that between his resourcefulness and a passion for studio based arts, Jon "was able to then incorporate that into this new business and have this cohesive kind of brand off the get go."

"At the time our espresso bean was called Jumping Bean as well so it just kind of worked," said Jon.

So with a simple change of an industry code and the tweak of a logo to the now iconic rabbit's head, Rabbit Dash Coffee House was born.

"The business has evolved a lot over time and it's been a lot of learning and developing skills all the way through," Jon said, adding that it's been "hands on the entire way."

Turning 35 in March, Hepplewhite was born and raised in Saugeen Shores and credits Rabbit Dash's success to his customers and staff.

Following an expansion into the neighbouring retail space in 2016 that delivered added merch, a more expansive home brewing inventory and a larger stock of vinyl records, they eventually moved out of that location, 688 Goderich Street, and headed south to 662 Goderich Street in the summer of 2019.

They closed the doors in one location at 8pm on Monday, July 15 and re-opened in their new home at 6am the following morning. It was all hands on deck to get the job done.

Long time Rabbit Dash customer Perry Gosling arrived at 7:30am on the Monday, worked until after midnight, and was the first customer through the doors when they re-opened on Tuesday morning.

Between solar powered coffee trucks, rocking record parties, coffee and tea subscription programs, a reusable cup program which keeps approximately 500 cups, lids and sleeves out of the landfill every month, and unwavering support for local events, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs and nonprofit initiatives, Rabbit Dash Inc. has always been more than just a coffee shop.

And whether it be from a green and sustainability standpoint, a health and wellness standpoint or the economic well being of their staff, the Rabbit Dash approach is to look at things holistically when entering the decision making process.

Over the years the company has evolved their staffing structure to include a number of title staff who "collectively run the show," said Hepplewhite.

"It's really neat having all this in place and many minds working on furthering the company," he said.

Rabbit Dash Inc. consists of Rabbit Dash Coffee House in Port Elgin and their second coffee shop, Dizzy Bird Coffee, which opened their doors in Southampton in 2020.

In addition to Faith Brierley, who has been with the company for four and a half years and Company Manager for a year and a half, Rabbit Dash Inc. has also promoted Brianne Maas to the position of Creative Manager, Jo Ruegg to Head Barista, and John Latimer is their Head Roaster.

Their Southampton location does all their own roasting in-house and also provides the Port Elgin shop with roughly half of their beans.

Hepplewhite said he tries to work to his staff's strengths and develop ideas within their established skill set. "I try to take the approach of like, yeah these opportunities to expand certain elements are a cool thing for the business, but it's also a great thing for the staff," he said.

In many cases staff members are working in areas for which they went to school so their work life at Rabbit Dash Inc. lends itself to their already established interests and career goals.

"It's cool to be able to take what is commonly known as a minimum wage job and take steps to make it a career for people, something that they can thrive at and be at for a long time," said Hepplewhite.

"When you think of a coffee shop, you don't think of things like that," added Faith Brierley. "It's incredible... we try to lift each other up as much as we can," she said.

This approach, coupled with higher wages as well as benefits packages and pension matching, Rabbit Dash Inc. has never had an issue gaining or retaining staff.

"We want to stay here," said Brierley. "He's making an offer you can't refuse and it's just a great positive work environment," she said.

When asked about future plans for Rabbit Dash Inc., Hepplewhite said he didn't have anything concrete but that he's always open to opportunities.

"I'm always thinking about growth areas," he said. "We have many different elements to both businesses, Rabbit Dash Coffee House and Dizzy Bird Coffee, so I'm always keeping an open mind to any one of those elements expanding into something else or exploring what that might look like."

Hepplewhite did express an interest in expanding the roastery side of the business. "I could see that growing to the point where it needs its own space," he said.

Dizzy Bird Coffee is currently being offered in various businesses in Saugeen Shores, including Vanderwerf's Independent in Port Elgin and Martin's Bicycle Shop in Southampton.

"Martin's even has their own blend," said Brierley.

"'Pedal to the Medal' was the darkest roast we could do, basically," said Hepplewhite.

Rabbit Dash Coffee House will celebrate 10 years on February 26, 2023. They plan to have a birthday cake for customers (while supplies last) and a feature anniversary drink on offer for $2.50.

They'll also mark the occasion with an anniversary espresso blend, created by Dizzy Bird Coffee, that customers can enjoy in house or purchase for home, as well as launching new anniversary merch that will be available for the remainder of the year.

RD Coffee Making

Head Barista Jo Ruegg steams some milk at Rabbit Dash Coffee House January 25.

RD Merch

Their merch and home brewing inventory has been steadily expanding every since Rabbit Dash first opened their doors in 2013.

RD Vinyl

Customers can browse Rabbit Dash's vinyl record stock at 662 Goderich Street in downtown Port Elgin.