Intelligentsia Coffee is at the forefront of the American coffee movement, demonstrating a nearly unrivaled farm-to-cup commitment. In 2007, Doug Zell’s Chicago based company established an L.A. presence by opening a coffeehouse at Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction. Now he’s hired Ana Henton of MASS Architecture & Design to take the coffeehouse concept to another level. Intelligentsia’s larger, more dynamic branch debuts in the former home of Scentiments flower shop in February 2009, and the American coffeehouse experience may never be the same.
Henton is a versatile Silver Lake architect and designer who graduated from the Princeton University School of Architecture and spent five years as a Frank Gehry protégée. She partnered with Gregory Williams on MASS Architecture & Design. Their commercial projects include BREADBAR Century City, the Silverlake Wine expansion, the modern downtown cafeteria Lemonade, Locali and the Auburn 7 residences in the Silver Lake hills.
“The biggest thing is we are truly limited by our capacity to serve people,” says Kyle Glanville, who goes by Manager of Espresso Research Development but effectively heads Intelligentsia’s West Coast operations. “The other thing is a lot of coffee drinkers in L.A. who come in for the first time want to know more of what’s behind the coffee, what it is about Intelligentsia that makes the coffee taste how it does,” he continues. “Here we have super efficient design. We serve 1000 coffee drinks a day, but the flipside is that the people who crave more personal attention or interaction might leave feeling it’s hard to get that here. The idea with Venice was to be able to solve both of these problems, of course in a super-stylized coffee focused environment.”
The Intelligentsia experience begins at the pre-existing iron gates that front Venice’s increasingly trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard. The pathway used to be enclosed by a roof. No longer. Now 20-foot-high walls frame the pathway. The corridor is open to the sky and lined with ivy.
According to Henton, “What we are doing for Intelligentsia is pretty different in that the space is being designed as a series of ‘machines’ and not so much as an environment for sitting and relaxing. There is no defined seating, no counter, no register, very little of what looks like a coffee shop. It’s all about the fanatical preparation and serving of an amazing cup of coffee.”
When you enter the main room, expect to find curved, 20-foot ceilings and a butcher block “concierge desk” with steel legs and a glass case that displays pastries. So far, Boule is the only solid vendor, but others are in the works.
From the “desk,” a barista will lead each customer along the concrete floor to one of four custom-fabricated “pods” to make a fresh drink. Each wood and steel pod houses a two-group Synesso espresso machine. “The pods have a hydraulic function where everything can lower or ascend,” says Glanville. “They also swivel. The inspiration is almost like a salon where individual stations will be manned by one barista. They customize the experience depending on how they like they work.” When you walk through the door, there are two pods on the right, two on the left. There’s also a center console that hosts Clover coffee makers, sinks, fridges and a freezer, which will allow Intelligentsia to store gelato and add affogato to their arsenal.
Next to the pods, there’s a drink rail, two steel supports and a plank of wood. “That’s the closest thing we have to a countertop,” says Glanville, “and that’s where people will receive their drinks.”
“It’s about serving the person the coffee, first and foremost,” says Glanville. “You stay with one person throughout your interaction. As a customer, you can be as high maintenance as you want to be and not have a line of people behind you tapping their feet in line.”
There are no cash registers. Instead, each barista carries a mobile tablet so payment is possible at any point in the store, whether it’s by the pastry case, retail shelves or pods.
In back, an Intelligentsia coffee expert will man the cupping bar, brewing single-origin espresso drinks from a vintage La Marzocco (1972), the first machine that Starbucks used at their original Pike Place Market location. “The guy who we know who refurbishes them bought it from Bauhaus in Seattle,” says Glanville. “They had it for a number of years. He bought it and said, ‘I bet Intelligentsia will want this.’ We were definitely interested.” The La Marzocco is a four-group machine. “The cupping bar is essentially a slow manual coffee service station,” says Glanville. “You can order a vacuum pot, Eva Solo, French press, a manual drip or Chemex.” Intelligentsia will offer two single-origin espresso drinks on the La Marzocco every day. For example: a single-origin Kenya as an Americano or single-origin Peru as straight shot. You can also order a cupping, a flight of single-origin, as many as you want, for $2 per cup.
The cupping bar will have an extension: the tea bar. “Our tea service will be even more fundamentalist than our coffee service,” says Glanville. “We will do no tea to-go, no tea bags. We will only have a few teas at a time.”
Zell, Glanville and the Intelligentsia team have even customized the water. The Venice location will have three different waters: for coffee brewing, tea brewing and espresso brewing. “The way the reactions are catalyzed are a little different,” says Glanville. “The system we have is a reverse osmosis system that reformulates the water after it strips it, reformulates it with minerals. There are a couple metrics we use to measure water, TDS (Total Dissolve Solids) and Hardness…With coffee, the harder your water is, the less extracted your coffee gets and the more soapy and minerally it gets. We don’t want to be at the mercy of L.A. water. We want to control it, especially since L.A. water is a new thing every day.”
As for seating, there will be no tables or chairs, which is designed to spur social interaction. You’ll never find a person at a four-top table with a cup of coffee, which Glanville is convinced is alienating. Instead, there will be two tiers of banquette and stair seating, with benches in the open-air corridor out front. “There are plenty of surfaces to set stuff,” says Glanville. “Outside you have benches and bars, so you can set it down at the bar.”
To optimize eco-friendly functionality, there will be no garbage cans. Instead, every cup and plate will be compostable, recyclable or washable.
“As it stands, the timeline points toward January 21,” says Glanville. “However, it will probably be pushed back.” As for the hours, ”It will probably be open until 11 every night. We really want to capture post-dining coffee and dessert crowd.”
Glanville isn’t the only person energized by the upcoming coffeehouse. Christopher “Nicely” Abel Alameda, a barista from Seattle’s Espresso Vivace who was the Venice coffeehouse’s initial hire, already tattooed the back of his neck with Intelligentsia’s winged espresso cup logo.