Earlier this year, longtime coffee pro Chris Owens teamed with World Barista Champion Mike Phillips and Intelligentsia Pasadena manager Tyler Wells on Handsome Coffee Roasters, building a cafe and roastery in downtown L.A.’s Arts District and positioning themselves as coffee celebrities. Owens previously worked with specialty coffee at Gimme! Coffee in New York, Counter Culture Coffee in Atlanta and Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. At Handsome, Owens is in charge of green buying, roasting and quality control. One night a week, he even takes time to bartend at The Varnish, where he demonstrates a complementary craft. On October 19, we met Owens in the alley behind Handsome’s future home, and he shed even more light on his background and vision.
What are the biggest challenges about opening a coffee roastery and café in Los Angeles?
Probably navigating the permitting process of the city, which has presented its issues, but to be fair, they’ve been amazing. The City of Los Angeles has actually been awesome to us, for the most part. We don’t really have anything bad to say. It’s frustrating and you’ve got to go through it, but they really have done a great job for us.
What do you look for when you’re hiring people to work at your roastery or café?
Customer service ability. Understanding service, because with Mike Phillips and myself and Tyler, we can train the coffee side of things, but if you don’t have that innate service ability, that’s not going to work out for us, and it’s a huge portion of our model, is the customer service side of things.
Do you feel like you have to do anything to differentiate the café experience, or just do it better than other places in town?
Better is one thing, I guess, but really for us, we want to serve the things that we’re most excited to serve customers, and we want to be nice. We want that understanding of service and hospitality. We’re not going to have a lot of offerings.
What are the offerings?
Coffee and milk. Coffee and whole milk. That’s really all we’re going to have. And then a few pastries, but as far as the beverage side of things, coffee, whole milk.
What brew methods do you plan to offer?
We’re not 100% on that. We have some ideas on what we’d like to use, but for us, it’s not going to be a focal point, the brew method. We want to talk about the coffees, although we’ll give the customer every opportunity to opt in and learn about brew methods and have discussions and dork out, as far as the main interface, the brew method is really not going to be mentioned. Obviously it’s not secret or anything, we want you to focus on ordering a coffee and not ordering a brew method, not ordering a V60 or ordering a Clover or ordering a French press, or ordering whatever. We want you to order the coffee.
And then you present it in a way that you think works best for the coffee?
Yeah, exactly. We’re going to brew excellent coffee, and hopefully do it in a way that hits all the speed and service and quality, and then if you want to know how we did it, of course we’ll tell you, but otherwise, the conversation is mostly about the coffee.
You talk about customer service. Walk me through it. I walk through the front door of Handsome Coffee, what will the experience be like from a customer service perspective?
There’s always going to be somebody who’s there to meet you. You’re always going to be presented with a person, as you enter the door. The experience has to be intuitive for the customer. We refer to it as, you don’t have to run a dog agility course to get your coffee. You should learn how everything works as soon as you walk into the space. We want you to be comfortable, we want it to be warm and welcoming and inviting and all of those things, so it has to instantly make sense to you. That’s kind of how we’ve structured it, so flow makes sense, and ordering makes sense, the menu is simple, everything is clear. We sort of stripped away nomenclature that can get confusing.
Like macchiato, cappuccino and latte?
That’s why you did that, you feel like it’s confusing?
Yeah, we’re not taking credit for that idea. That came from [2009 World Barista Champion] Gwilym Davies, but we think it’s just brilliant, and it makes perfect sense. If you polled 20 people on a street corner, they’re all going to all have a different idea of what that is. Our plan is to give you a menu, you pick the size you want, we are going to provide you with a beverage we think is the best.
This might seem obvious, but why is it important for you to roast your own coffee at Handsome?
There are a lot of reasons. Again, it’s about the expression – Tyler and Mike and I did this to execute our vision of things, the way we want to provide for the customer. One of them is choosing the coffees and roasting them the way we want, and having that quality control in-house. Then it presents its own challenges, and it’s a whole separate business, the green buying and roasting and wholesale and retail. It’s actually three businesses, because you have the retail component, you have the wholesale component and the roasting and green buying side of things. We just wanted to do it. We went back and forth for awhile and we just wanted to do the whole thing.
What was your first coffee related job?
My first real coffee related job, I worked at a restaurant in New York City called Sidewalk Café, where I was in charge of making coffee. That wasn’t my only job, but that’s where I first started making espresso beverages. I was already kind of an espresso nerd, reading online forums, trying to figure out what home espresso machine I wanted to buy, and that sort of thing.
I started out at Gimme! Coffee in Williamsburg and made friends with Mike White, and finally after presenting myself, he finally hired me, and that’s when I started with the real coffee, if you well, getting better training and understanding what goes into espresso and coffee and that just sort of set me on my path.
Do you have a first coffee memory, good or bad?
Well, the most striking coffee memory I probably have is after starting at Gimme!, in 2006, I went to train with Tim Wendelboe in Oslo. I just wanted to really take apart espresso and learn about it. I went over there and I went to Java Espressobar & Kaffeforretning, Robert Thoresen’s cafe, and I had their Crescendo espresso blend, and it was the first time I really experienced that super bright, fruity – it was everything I wanted in an espresso that I sort of didn’t know could exist, but thought it could exist – and then there it was presented to me. Still to this day, one of my favorite coffee or espresso experiences ever.
Would you consider Tim Wendelboe a mentor?
What is it that you’ve learned from him in your repeated visits, and how has that manifested itself back in the States for you?
Tim is great. He’s researched it, but he’s also sort of staunch in his opinions. He’s always willing to learn and challenge it, but then he presents it in a very sort of affirmative way. Just sort of challenging conventions and challenging ideas of how brewing and how everything in coffee works, in roasting, and he’s done it all himself, so he has an understanding all the way through, from preparation to roasting to green buying. Everything, and I trained in coffee with him, and we did numerous tests, testings and cuppings and tastings and different ways to evaluate all these things, and different ways to brew it. It was sort of illuminating in that, and then the same thing when I went over and hung out recently, we were roasting coffee and tasting. It’s a lot of affirmation of my own ideas, the way coffee can be. I don’t want to say should be, it’s just the way that I like coffee to be. Hopefully our customers like coffee that way.
With two other partners, is the way that you like coffee also the way that they like coffee?