Let me just start by saying that it was a true pleasure meeting you in Los Angeles at the Breville Coffee Thinkers Summit! I’m so excited for readers to learn more about you and your amazing work!
In this installment of the EmmMeetsCoffee interview series, I’m talking with Andrea Allen, owner of Onyx Coffee Lab and also, a well decorated competitor from the United States Barista Championships.
Emmeline Wang: What influenced you the most to dive deep into specialty coffee?
Andrea Allen: When I was 18, I started working in coffee and fell in love with the nuts and bolts to making the beverage. It’s inbred in my personality and skillset. Working as a barista, I had this idea to do and accomplish something great. At first, I was in coffee just for fun, but I also wanted to pursue something greater as well. After coffee, I continued to work in the industry. Fortunately, as I was managing two cafés at the time, I was able to buy both of those shops!
In 2011, my husband Jon and I dove deep into the specialty industry. We started to learn more about the chain of relationships involved from farmers to exporters, all the way to coffee roasters. Through understanding and learning about the process of how coffee moves along the chain, it’s only gotten us to fall more in love with being a part of this industry.
So much of what is special about coffee is the relationships we get to build with the people who start the process from the very beginning, everyone in between, and all the way to people who serve it into a beverage to customers at the finish. Each person has a hand in the chain and a role in pushing quality up.
EW: Knowing that you’ve been in coffee for quite some time, what are some challenges you’ve faced and overcame?
AA: The initial thought that comes to mind is that my job mostly takes up managing staff and logistics. That comes with the responsibility to be willing to recognize when you’re wrong or when you need to ask for help. It also heavily involves learning a new skillset, or to work on strengthening the current skillsets you possess. Having to learn and grow, to have hard conversations is something I am still honing in on. I regularly have conversations with my managers so they don’t have to go through similar situations before issues escalate.
EW: Onyx Coffee Lab is killing the specialty coffee game! What are some values you instill that gives the company its slight edge?
AA: The main value we want to hit all across the board in all of our departments and relationships are headlined on our logo and bags: “Never settle for good enough.” We always need to push ourselves and that may sound overbearing, but we want to push ourselves forward not because we’re not good enough, but because we strive to constantly enhance, innovate, and re-invent our practices to make things better.
For example, one of our cafés are so busy on weekends that we realized our baristas are screaming names and there’s got to be a way to better optimize the delivery of drinks to customers, so they too can have a wonderful experience. To tackle this feat, we are implementing to start a position in which a lead barista kindly delivers drinks and chats with customers. Not only does this help with bettering customers’ experiences, but it will also elevate the overall standards we hold for hospitality. It will give our staff the opportunity and incentive to work towards this level of prestige and experience.
EW: You’re a veteran when it comes to placing in the US Barista Championships. What are some takeaways you’ve gotten from competing that has inspire Onyx’s growth?
AA: There are SO many takeaways from competition. My approach to competition is ten fold. I am hyper-competitive; I constantly try to compete with myself, to compete with the score sheet. When I go to competition, I try to represent our company well, but to also ask the industry hard questions to ultimately push us all forward. Everyone goes to competition with the goal to win in mind, if not a priority. But if I go to competition with the goals to push myself forward, push the industry forward, and be better than I was in the previous years, I’ve accomplished my overall goal.
My main objectives when in competition is to bring value to my company and to the industry, and I’ve realized that winning is not the main goal.
EW: I am absolutely enamored by the thoughts and ideas that go into Onyx’s packaging. Can you tell me about what inspired the skull and bones design that outlines the bottom of the coffee bags?
AA: My husband, Jon does all of the designs for the company. He loves tattoos and was in a traveling metal band. When it comes to branding, we go for aggressive designs because that’s what we gravitate towards. I was a bit skeptical at first using skulls and bones because we also have middle-aged ladies come in for decaf lattés, for instance. However, we’ve received much praise from people as they’ve really enjoyed the designs and see it as fun and catchy.
We started having small design aspects like the box you receive your coffees in, so it gives the customer the “never settle for good enough” feeling. Feelings and experiences can really alter the way people view a company. Can you imagine the good energy and feelings being taken away when a coffee shipment is served in a beat up envelope? These are intricate things to think about, as we believe that people eat with their eyes, just like how they drink coffee with their senses too.
EW: Can you tell me more about what makes the El Salvador Finca Santa Rosa one of your favorite current offerings?
AA: I have a special admiration for Finca Santa Rosa. I had the pleasure of meeting Jorge Raul Rivera at SCA and he was like “I’d love to have you visit our farms.” I then, got to spend a week in El Salvador with him and to experience origin and his farm for a week and it was truly a special experience. The whole farm was shaded in pine trees. He’s super meticulous with his practices in cherry picking, keeping track of moon cycles; I was so drawn to how invested Jorge was with making his coffee great.
I love the acidity of this honey process coffee, as there is a heavier coating with the body and flavor. It’s truly a great casual drinking coffee with comforting notes of warm amber honey, but if I want to cup this coffee, there is also such immense delightful apple acidity that comes through. On top of that, the heavy coating of the mouth is so complex that it just gets me reaching for more. There’s so much to this coffee that makes it special.
EW: What are some future plans in store for Onyx that you are most excited about?
AA: We’re in the process of opening a new space in Rogers, Arkansas. There will be other businesses in the space and we’ll get to possess an open market feel to the ambiance. There will be specialized businesses all in one space. Because the market is open space format, we’re going to have a new position in this coffee bar, the finisher. The finisher will be able to ensure that everything is right and hand the drink, tailored to the highest quality for the right customer with exactly how he/she wants it. It will be the highest position on bar, something we’re super excited about.
EW: Thank you so much for your time Andrea! Please extend my love out to the team at Onyx Coffee Lab for doing such an outstanding job with making a statement and delivering fire coffees time and time again.
To purchase the Finca Santa Rosa, check it out here!