For the my second Q&A, so happy to have the chance to interview Jon Allen, co-founder of Onyx Coffee Lab in Springdale, AR.
Q: When did you first discover coffee?
A: I was working with Andrea [Jon’s wife and biz partner] as a barista all through high school. Back then, I liked coffee, but it wasn’t something I was serious about until much later.
Q: How did you end up in the coffee roasting business?
After high school, I actually was in a band that toured. After being on the road for 7 years, Andrea and I purchased the coffee shop she had been managing – one of Asarga’s Coffee Roasters shops. During all that, I started studying microroasting. After running the shop for a while, we decided to jump all-in to the coffee business – roasting/sourcing. First, we started Anonymous Coffee and then began working on the development of the Onyx brand. In 2012, we launched Onyx as a brand because we wanted coffee that represented our philosophy that really exceptional coffee is the result of merging science and art in the sourcing and roasting of the beans. We really took the time to plan the Onyx brand from the ground up – from the sourcing and roasting, to our cafes, to our customer service.
Q. What are some of your favorite cities for coffee in the U.S.?
Kansas City’s got a pretty amazing coffee scene. Tons of little micro roasters. It’s known in the mid-west as a great coffee hub. Paris Brothers is food and beverage importer that also offers underground storage for other business. Quite a few importers started housing green coffee there, and out of that a lot of these micro roasters have sprung up because they have access to great beans.
Q. Where do you plan to go on your next vacation?
A. Most of my travel is for sourcing so those are business trips. I was in Ethiopia in January, I just came back from Columbia and at the end of March, I’ll be going to El Salvador. We have friend there who is a coffee farmer who we’ve been buying from for a while, and so that will be the first sourcing trip that is a both work/pleasure. Don’t get me wrong – sourcing is actually probably my favorite part of this job. But I wouldn’t say it is necessarily vacation material… I’m sleeping in tents or on the farm.
Q. What time of year does bean sourcing usually happen?
A. Sourcing usually runs Dec. – May for most parts of the world. Columbia has a year round harvest, though, so you can go anytime. Sometimes it is fun to see the pre-harvest… but most of the time you are wanting to go when you can cup coffees, so you can get a good idea of the quality of the bean.
Q. Are there any coffee places you really love from your sourcing trips?
A. Usually – it is rare to have a good cup of coffee at origin because everything good is exported because that is how they make the money. So 99.99% time the coffee that you can buy or drink at origin is coffee didn’t make the cut for exporting.
Q. How do you brew your coffee?
A. Ha. This is going to be telling. I don’t even have a coffee brewer at home. But, my favorite method is the Kalita Wave – up-and-comer pour over set up. It’s good because it is pretty easy to use – you don’t have to be to nerdy about it in order to make a good cup of coffee. But, usually have a shot of espresso in morning followed by pour over. Then I am cupping coffee throughout the day.
Q. What is your favorite thing to eat with your coffee?
A. Anything I dunk in a cup of coffee, I am a fan of. I’m a dunker.
Q. What is one item of clothing you love?
A. I kind of wear a uniform – plain white tee-shirt and jeans and a jacket – that is probably the item I like the most.
Q. How did you end up with sugar skull as part of your brand?
A. A friend of mine I graduated with opened up a graphic design firm. He knew I wanted something sort of aggressive that had something relevant to Central America. And I like tattoo art.
Q. What is the one thing that you feel has had the biggest impact on your success?
A. I think there are two things. One, unwavering commitment to quality. I am kind of all-or-nothing. If it isn’t perfect, I dump it. Once we committed to really doing the best specially coffee we could, we kept to that commitment even when it didn’t make sense financially. That is why our motto is “Never Settle for Good Enough.” Two, our staff is incredible and we are like a family. Having great staff is essential.
City-dweller, designer, writer and lifestyle consultant practicing the art of living well in the 21st Century. Fixated with good coffee, great design, and any little thing that makes life better.
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