Interview: coffee pro Zayde Naquib (Bar Nine Collective)

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Coffee Los Angeles

Zayde Naquib worked in post-production and clocked time in South Bay coffee bars and Santa Monica’s Espresso Cielo before teaming with Jereme Pitts on Bar Nine Collective, a coffeehouse, roastery and platform for culinary creativity near Culver City’s Hayden Tract. On April 5, we met at Bar Nine’s communal table, and Naquib shared several insights.

Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living? Did you consider other careers?

ZN: No, I used to do post-production work, mostly freelance, in the film and video industry…I thought eventually I’d do a lot more serious film stuff, but I quickly learned it wasn’t as glamorous as a profession as I had imagined it to be, and being a freelancer I had a lot of time between projects, and so I took a job at a café nearby my house, which wasn’t that terrific, but it was one of those things like yeah, “I could do this for a while.” Very quickly, I fell in love with coffee in a big way.

What was the café?

ZN: It was called Planet Earth Eco Café in Hermosa Beach. It’s no longer there anymore, but I was there for about three years, and I started off completely clueless about coffee except that I liked it, and learned a lot outside of the job, and eventually managed that place and did a lot of baking for it and had gotten a lot better in coffee and tried to revitalize or actually vitalize the program to give it some life.

What do you remember about your very first shift?

ZN: Utter confusion as to what to do. I just didn’t know what to do. I had heard these terms, cappuccino and latte, my training was nonexistent, and everyone was like, “Yeah, you can do it.” I said, “Sure,” and tried, and I do not wish to take a look back at what those drinks looked like. They were just me understanding that the milk had to be hot, and there had to be espresso in it. That’s all I really knew. I quickly realized that it tasted awful, and thought I’ve had this good at other places, I need to learn how to do it. That slowly at first, but then very quickly, became a kind of obsession in improving at it. I realized that there was a lot of just craft and science into it, and I just started to get really excited about that. Doing editing work is very tedious, I got really excited by the details in coffee. I still even thinking about it, or even when I left that place, would not want to get a drink from me then, but I grew a lot in a short time, out of interest and wanting to get better at it.

Along the way, did you find people who inspired you or guided you, or motivated you in the coffee industy?

ZN: I was definitely on my own, a lot just self-taught. At first it was mostly like, “Oh, latte art, what a cool concept, let me watch a lot of Youtube videos.” Then I realized oh the taste of the espresso underneath is far more important. That took a little bit of time. I remember when Intelligensia Silver Lake opened, that definitely opened my eyes a lot about coffee, and it got me a lot more into what coffee can be. Then when I’d go around to other cities and I started to check out the coffee scene, and I just really liked the vibe and the feel of it, and then on a certain level there’s definitely a lot of romance involved in cafes and that was the initial like, “Oh, wow, this is pretty cool.” Within a year of doing it I realized, “I don’t want to do any film work anymore, I want to make a career in coffee.” Which financially speaking is not always the most sound decision, because you’re just not going to make a lot, in most scenarios, but that was worth it to me. I’d never done food service before at all, and I was definitely a rookie at hospitality, but I got really into the idea, of, “I can, in a short period of time, make somebody’s day better.” That got really exciting to me. And it became kind of a constant journey, which I’m still on, just trying to get better at that and create an environment where we can celebrate all aspects of it in as good of a way as I’m capable of doing.

What were the stops on the way between Eco Café and Bar Nine?

ZN: There were a few. Right when Two Guns Espresso opened up in Manhattan Beach, I helped those guys out for a while and got friendly with Stan [Stanisich], the owner. A few brief stints at some places that weren’t very inspiring and aren’t worth mentioning. The longest time I spent serving specialty coffee was Espresso Cielo in Santa Monica. That was a really fun job, I really loved serving 49th Parallel. A lot of serving 49th, and understanding how nuanced and delicious that could be, got me excited about roasting. I bought a home roaster after roasting for many months on a Whirly Pop Popcorn Maker on my stove, which was very primitive, I roasted a lot of very bad coffee, but it was a great way to learn the basics of roasting.

The thing that really turned me on to creating an experience for people was an exhibit at MOCA Geffen called Transmission LA, that Mike D of the Beastie Boys put together. That was in 2012, and it was just utterly amazing. It was sensory overload with every exhibit, a lot of visual and audio medias. There were concerts and DJ sets from people like Tom York, and the Kogi truck was popped up the entire time, and there was an installation that was also a coffee bar, and I had the pleasure of being able to run that while the exhibit was open, and it was just a spectacle. I thought wow, the environment you create can have such a huge impact on guest experience, and I got really excited by that idea, and that happened as I started working at Cielo. I knew at the time that I wanted to work for myself, and a couple months after doing Transmission LA I started writing the business plan for Bar Nine, and figuring out how I wanted to pull it off.

How did you meet your business partner?

ZN: His name is Jereme Pitts. We met because he moved next door to me in Hermosa. There was a house next door to mine that he was renovating and making beautiful, and we met, we had some wine, we hung out, we got very friendly very fast, and I think we both saw a lot of good things in the other person. Then he said to me, “You know, I’ve always been interested in getting involved with the food industry somehow.” He’s been in software, and garment sales, many industries, and he’s done well in all of them, and he said, “I know you’re into coffee, do you have any ideas?” I said, “Well I have this business plan I’ve been working on for a while.” He looked at it and we decided that we had a really good synergistic working relationship, and thought we could create something special together. So we made a decision very early on that we didn’t want anyone else involved on and ownership level and investment level, and then just went for it. Neither one of us knows how to put on the brakes or do things in a small capacity. Our ambitions are both very very big, so at first we thought, we’ll do a small roasting operation with a kiosk, we’d have a really awesome café where we’d eventually work up to roasting. Obviously that didn’t happen.

Why should people come to Bar Nine instead of other L.A. coffeehouses?

ZN: Well, I hope first of all, that people will still go to other coffee houses, because we are a really cool community. I hope mostly L.A.-based businesses, because I think in terms of specialty coffee L.A. is where it’s at. I mean, there are so many good things going on, so many great minds working to make the coffee community stronger. On the same note, I think what we offer is an incredible attention to detail in our extraction, I can very safely say that the way we approach coffee is unique, and very detail oriented, and I think people will dig the flavors we’re trying to bring across. We care a lot about making people happy. Everything that has been set up here, the way we brew coffee, the low bar, a lot of reliance on machines to automate the process, is so that we can make eye contact, have great conversation and connect over something that we’re excited about. So I think more than anything that’s what we can offer, is an experience where people can feel comfortable. That’s always our first priority. As much as great coffee in theory should be the first priority, it’s not. It just goes along with hospitality. There are a lot of people in this business that are just coffee people, and not people people. Those people should probably not put themselves in a customer service scenario. They should be working on recipes in the back room. We’re all baristas at heart, even our roaster Mitchell [Tellstrom] has been a barista as long as he’s been a roaster. We come from food service and we just get excited about sharing our passion for coffee.

When putting together the team for Bar Nine, what were important factors when hiring, what were you looking for?

ZN: Personality was the first thing, because you know, again, being in a hospitality-oriented business, we had to have people that care about making people happy. But the biggest thing beyond that was just people who were hip to the vision that I had come up with. There are a lot of lovely people in this business and I have so many friends in the coffee community, but not everybody is right for this scenario. We approach things differently, we like a lot of transparency, and we like to obsess over very small details of extraction, from modal grinding to pressure profiling and all these kind of concepts that aren’t being explored. We all had to relearn how to approach espresso, and how to approach coffee. That’s really exciting to me, that’s not exciting to a lot of people because it takes work, but to me, nothing is rewarding if you haven’t fought for it. So we, for a couple months, just fought on how to attack the idea, how do we make this coffee awesome? And everybody who has joined the team has been really excited to go along with that ride, and they want to grow with us, and I know it’s not realistic, but I don’t want any of these people to leave, I love them like they’re my family, they’re amazing people. Some of them I’ve known for years, some of them I met in this process of putting the café together, but I wouldn’t trade these guys for anybody.

What does a coffee have to be for you to roast it and serve it, at Bar Nine?


Address: 3515 Helms Avenue, Culver City, CA 90232

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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