Has Coffee Gotten Too Fancy?

Locol Restaurants wants to provide wholesome foods at a good price
By Oliver Strand. Source: New York Times.

LOS ANGELES — The $1 cup of coffee is divisive, as drinks go.

For some, it’s a staple of the American morning: a comforting routine, a good deal. Anything that costs more than $1 is needlessly expensive, a waste of money — the coffee from a deli, diner or doughnut cart is all you need to start the day. For others, the $1 cup is suspiciously cheap. Maybe it tastes bad, or its production does harm to the land and is unfair to laborers. If you have to pay more, then that is probably a reflection of a drink’s true cost.

Can the two viewpoints be reconciled? Is it possible for high-quality coffee to be inexpensive? At Locol, the self-described “revolutionary fast food” chain opened last year by the chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, the answer is yes.

Locol’s stated mission is to bring wholesome, affordable food to underserved neighborhoods. The coffee delivers. Obtained and roasted according to the same lofty standards found at Intelligentsia Coffee, Stumptown Coffee Roasters or any of the small, innovative companies that have transformed the high end of the industry in the past decade, Locol’s coffee is clean and flavorful.

But unlike those shops, where a cup can cost $3 or more, Locol charges just $1 for a 12-ounce coffee, or $1.50 if you want milk and sugar. Rather than offer free condiments and pass on the cost to all customers, those who want milky, sweet coffee pay for their pleasures, while drinkers of black coffee get a break. As for getting it chilled, that’s on the house: Iced coffee costs the same as hot.

The argument about charging for milk and sugar — why should the black coffee drinkers subsidize? — doesn’t make a lot of sense given that…

“Coffee still thinks that mass appeal is a sign of selling out and inauthenticity, but everybody wears Levi’s,” he said of the culture. “I think contemporary coffee has failed to find the consumers it should be finding.”

A few of those consumers were lingering at the Locol in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles on a recent bright day. Some were nursing aguas frescas, others were holding court while R&B played at block-party volume from an array of speakers embedded in the ceiling. One person was sorting through a small tower of paperwork.

Locol is rolling out a coffee brand called Yes Plz and plans to eventually open coffee windows and stand-alone shops in addition to supplying its three locations: a restaurant and a bakery in Oakland, Calif., and the restaurant in Watts. A 12-ounce bag of Yes Plz coffee sells for $8 to $9. (By comparison, a 16-ounce bag of Dunkin’ Donuts Original Blend is $8.99.)

There is, of course, another fast-food chain that is known for its coffee: McDonald’s. The company has embarked on a project to make all of its coffee sustainable by 2020 by innovating at every level of its supply chain — investing in its farmers, for instance, as many of the much smaller high-end coffee companies do. (Coffee sold at McDonald’s restaurants in Europe already meets the company’s sustainability standards.)

The scale of McDonald’s business is vastly different from Locol’s, but the consumer experience isn’t, not when it comes to coffee: Both offer a cup that is cheap and approachable.

The efficiencies of the fast-food model are what allow Mr. Konecny to buy high-quality beans for about three times the price of commodity coffee and still sell it for $1. The coffee comes from Red Fox Coffee Merchants, a boutique importer that supplies some of the country’s most exacting roasters; Mr. Konecny coordinates closely with their buyer, who in turn works with farmers to finance them and determine best practices for growing the beans.

The coffee is brewed by Locol’s kitchen staff, and when a new batch is prepared the old batch is cooled and mixed in with cold-brew coffee to be served on ice: There is no waste. Black coffee is easy to scale up; stand-alone coffee shops, with their intricate menus (cortados, almond milk lattes, iced matcha spritzers) can’t compete.

“You couldn’t run a coffee shop selling coffee for a dollar,” Mr. Konecny said. “It wouldn’t be a sustainable business.”

Jonathan Rubinstein, an owner of Joe, a coffee chain based in New York with 14 locations, agrees that the numbers would not work. Joe’s shops are in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in Manhattan, including Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side. Next month, a Joe will open in the World Trade Center. Mr. Rubinstein pays as much as $25,000 per month in rent — he estimates that the average is $15,000 per month — along with labor, materials, utilities, insurance and the many other expenses that are the cost of doing business.

“What he’s doing is interesting, and what fun to try to do it out of a window — if you sold nothing else,” he said of Mr. Konecny. “But what a volume you would have to do.”

Still, Mr. Rubinstein says that Mr. Konecny makes a good point. “Kudos to him for trying something so out of the box,” he said. “It makes you think about all the restaurants that are doing exactly what he’s doing, and literally are charging five times what he’s charging.”

Mr. Konecny’s ambitions for Yes Plz go beyond selling a high-quality cup of coffee at that magic price point, though he knows that it sends a powerful message. What he wants to do is shift the very nature of coffee culture. He has no patience for what he calls the “culinary burlesque” of pour-over bars, with their solemn baristas and potted succulents. “It’s dress-up,” he said.

Those settings and presentations, he said, send the wrong message: that good coffee must also be expensive and fetishized.

“We have become overly focused on this ingredient preciousness, single-origin puritanism,” he said. As a result, he added, coffee just keeps getting “fancier and fancier.”

In a sense, Mr. Konecny is facing off with his own history. A respected veteran of “specialty” coffee, the industry term for the high-end market, he worked for Victrola Coffee Roasters in Seattle starting in 2002, when the company was a hive of innovation. He was then hired by Intelligentsia Coffee to help direct its expansion to Los Angeles, and later started his own roaster, Tonx, which he sold to Blue Bottle Coffee in 2014.

“A lot of my colleagues don’t understand what I’m doing here,” he said.

The mistake, in his view, was for independent coffee shops to define themselves in opposition to Starbucks and other chains, and to create — inadvertently — a culture of nerdy superiority.

“You throw at all your customers that coffee is this delicate, special thing that has to be done exactly right on exactly this equipment,” he said.

But does the $1 price go too far? “My worry is that this will reinforce the idea that specialty coffee is inherently overpriced, when it’s the opposite,” said Charles Babinski, a co-owner of G&B Coffee and Go Get Em Tiger, in Los Angeles. “The best coffees in the world cost nothing when you compare it to the best beers or a fancy glass of wine, and the margins that businesses take on coffee are smaller than you’re going to find in a bar.”

Colby Barr, a founder of Verve Coffee Roasters, says he supports Locol’s mission but feels there was value in highlighting the wonkier aspects of coffee, just as it makes sense to ask customers to pay more for something that requires care to produce.

“The difference between O.K. coffee — what we all drink with friends at diners and those times when we just need coffee — and exceptional coffee takes a lot of work,” said Mr. Barr. He also pointed out that pushing any product to its highest end required more investment. You pay a premium for that extra grade of quality.

Verve, which is based in Santa Cruz, Calif., also has locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tokyo, each one airy, laid back and elegant, in California style. The setting is a part of Verve’s equation: It signal that the coffee is premium, and also gives customers a nice place to sit.

Mr. Konecny is following a different formula. If Verve and other high-end shops identify with the world of gastronomy, Locol looks to street culture. “There’s something about street wear in particular, where a kid from around here and a billionaire getting off a private jet are both wearing the same thing,” he said. His vision is for Yes Plz to be the shaded part on a Venn diagram where the tastes of wildly different demographics converge.

That’s why there is no gastro-sermonizing at Locol, no talk of farms or varieties. The coffee on the menu is either hot or cold, and served with a cheerful lack of ceremony.

Still, the information is there for those who want it: A dedicated Twitter feed will relay details of that week’s coffees. “People who want to go down the rabbit hole can, but it’s not what we put on the bag,” he said. “You don’t have to buy into a set of conceits about how to buy or understand coffee to enjoy it.”

The way Mr. Konecny sees it, good, inexpensive coffee can and should be everywhere, and not just at Locol: “What we know about coffee sourcing, coffee roasting, coffee brewing, coffee service — there’s really no reason why you couldn’t make the coffee at every bodega taste good.”

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