Coffee professional Gary Chau first befriended Mark Wain when they were both in school at USC. They went their separate ways, Wain to Seattle, where he worked for Microsoft, and Chau to London, where he led global marketing efforts for Bacardi. In 2006, they teamed on a Santa Monica coffeehouse with a European sensibility called Caffe Luxxe. The business partners celebrated their five-year anniversary in June, and now have three Westside locations. On October 6, Chau met me at Luxxe’s original Santa Monica location to discuss his company’s background, distinguishing characteristics and future, which includes roasting.
What was your original goal with Caffe Luxxe, and by having all these other coffee companies, does it alter your objective in any way?
Not really. Our primary objective at the beginning was to deliver an amazing product, so really amazing tasting coffee, also to recreate a European lifestyle and approach to what a cafe meant in Europe, which is really more of a social venue. That comes from my business partner Mark’s experience traveling around Europe. In my early years, I always sought out, where is this place that I can go to meet up with my friends that’s not about alcohol that’s daytime friendly.
What’s the biggest challenge in owning and operating multiple coffeehouses?
One of the biggest challenges is about making sure that consistency remains as we try and expand. That’s always a big challenge with any kind of business, because we want – it’s very easy when Mark and I sit ourselves in one café and if that’s the only place we’re managing – it’s easy for us to convey to the community of people and it’s easy to convey to the people who work with us, as baristas, that this is how we want to treat customers, this is how we want to serve our coffee, and now with three cafes, we start having to spread ourselves out. Our challenge is always to make sure that the quality of people is exactly the same at three as it was when we were only one.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work at Caffe Luxxe?
When we first started, it was virtually impossible to find what we consider a professional barista, so we had to train our own people. Over the past couple years, we actually created our own apprenticeship program for people who want to get into the world of coffee, but don’t know how, and don’t want to go to a push button type of setting. They want to come and learn craft style coffee. What we look for in people – because there isn’t a large pool of trained professionals to hire – we really look for the right type of person. It’s about the personality. It’s about the character and somebody we think fits with our type of business. We’ve had a lot of success by looking for the person.
What type of person is that?
It’s very hard to put an identification on that, but I would say some of the characteristics we have found are very successful for us have been people who are in an artistic field, and they come to first supplement their income, because an artist, an actor, a painter, an architect or a singer, we recognize that’s their primary focus in life. That’s their given talent, but then they need something to help them sustain their livelihood while pursuing those ingredients. We provide that outlet for them, and those people seem to have been the most successful, first coming and learning the art, because it’s something you make with your hands, and that could be the artistic connection.
Then also the right kind of attitude in terms of how they like people, if they care about people, and also have a sense of pride in what they make with coffee, and then deliver that to a person. You almost see, sometimes, a sparkle in their eye when they deliver a beautiful cup of coffee. This person just has a smile on their face, and it’s something money can’t really buy you in terms of the reward or satisfaction.
Once you hire somebody here, are they baristas straight away, or do they have to accomplish certain goals?
We have a strong regimented program, and I would say, typically, on average, if we find someone who doesn’t have any coffee making experience, it is literally a six or 12 month program to get them to the level that we would consider a professional barista.
What are the different steps?
There are a lot of levels people have to go through. It starts with developing operational skills. In the food business, in the restaurant business, you’ll see people have to multi-task. It’s not a desk job. There are people who have never done this type of work. It’s actually quite complicated. People who work here also have to bus the stations and keep things clean, and also have to help other people behind the bar, and also to oversee the delivery and exchange of money. So there are a lot of steps. Most people don’t actually appreciate until they start in this type of work and realize, “At the end of the day, when I go home, I’m actually kind of tired.” It’s mentally and physically quite exhausting and challenging.
And then other phases involve…?
And then other phases involve the technical aspects, to do a hand pour or drip coffee, that person’s studied for at least a month to do pourover easily.
What brew method are you using here?
Hario or Clever?
No, just a simple ceramic cone, with a paper filter, and then we hand pour. What we like about it – we’ve tried all these very expensive methods that you mentioned – we found that the flavor of this very simple method of pourover through a ceramic cone through the filter provides us the right level of control that extracts the best flavor. I was reading that it’s about a 125 year old extraction process. It’s something that’s existed for quite a long time, so a lot of the things we do are all about being very simple. It doesn’t have to be complicated to taste good. For us, we like things that are simple.
Why is it important for you to roast your own coffee?