Tony Konecny continues to be a man on a mission. Tonx, as he’s known in the coffee community, has had at least one cup of coffee every day for over a decade. And when he’s not sipping or slurping, he’s figuring out ways to improve the coffee experience, during the roasting process, behind the bar and for the customer. Konecny started as a barista at Victrola Coffee in Seattle before transitioning to roasting. In 2006, he moved to L.A. to help Intelligentsia set up their Silver Lake café and Glassell Park roasting works. He helped to organize the Coffee Taste Pavilion at San Francisco’s Slow Food Nation and most recently oversaw the training program at L.A.’s Paper or Plastik. He splits time between Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles and recently joined me at the Intelli Silver Lake back bar to further discuss his background and outlook.
When was the last day you didn’t drink coffee?
That would be in August of 2000. I’m in my eleventh year of continuous coffee drinking. There have been some pretty miserable cups to maintain that streak. I’ve had to have instant coffee, coffee from a can, gas station coffee, stuff I wouldn’t recommend any coffee professional drink, but in the spirit of the streak.
Why is the streak so important to you?
I felt like I had one cup of coffee that was a life changing experience, that burst of caffeine changed the course of my life in such a way that I figured I would drink coffee every day for the rest of my life, which as far as chosen drug addictions go, seems like a pretty tame on.
What was the moment where you’d build a career around coffee?
My first legit coffee gig was starting as a barista at Victrola after I moved to Seattle. I didn’t really realize how deep the rabbit hole would go, how much coffee would become a passion. I feel like I sort of fell into it, which I feel like is a common story among most people I know in the industry. But today things are different, people outside the industry are drawn to it as a career without having ever participated in it. I think that’s a recent phenomenon. A decade ago, you wouldn’t necessarily know how complex it was….The consumer experience was more opaque. That’s changing slowly but dramatically.
What continues to inspire you about coffee?
My own personal inspiration ebbs and flows, grabs on to different things. The most durable piece of inspiration is knowing how much futher there is to go, to make this quality coffee movement sustainable. We still have a long way to go as an industry to deliver on the promises and hype we’ve been able to generate in the last few years. What inspires me – to put it bluntly – is that most coffee still sucks…I’m inspired by how much work has to be done.
What are some of the things you think need to happen?
The consumer has been left behind. The companies on the vanguard of our industry have built really strong brands around quality, but the real ontology of quality we have inside of the industry hasn’t been translated to the consumer in an honest and meaningful way….We rely on legacy retail philosophy about coffee. There’s a persistent folklore about our side of the coffee quality chain that needs some updating.
Most of your time is spent in L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. What’s the difference, coffee wise?
I’ve recently been spending a lot of time in Seattle, and I’m really disappointed with coffee in Seattle. They were on the cutting edge for so long, but coffee is so well established there now that you don’t see a lot of innovation, and where you do see a little bit of innovation, you don’t see a lot of customer enthusiasm about it. It’s not easy to get a really good shot of espresso in Seattle, and that’s a real shame.
Portland, on the other hand, seems to have a more vibrant coffee culture, more vibrant small business culture in general, and there’s a lot more enthusiasm about coffee from the people who work in coffee there, and it’s a lot easier to get a good shot of espresso in Portland than it is in Seattle. Stumptown set a really high bar there, and everybody who has come in after them has had to build something that works in a context of a town that’s been spoiled by having a really good benchmark for coffee.
San Francisco, like New York, tends to think really highly of itself as a city. Therefore, whatever’s going in there in terms of food culture is going to get a lot of attention. There’s a lot of new stuff happening in coffee in San Francisco. There are also a lot of places that have reputations…San Francisco has a lot happening now. Four Barrel is the most exciting coffee roaster in the country right now, and the best coffee experiences I’ve had in the last year – most of them have been at Four Barrel. What the number of newer roasters in San Francisco over the next year, two, three, San Francisco could emerge as the top coffee city in the country. There are a number of people who would argue that they’re already there.
Los Angeles, I continue to think is a great coffee city, mostly by the fact that it hasn’t been poisoned by mediocre coffee culture. When Kyle [Glanville] and I came down here to start Intelligentsia, we felt that it was a total blank slate. You had old school, dirty couch places and big chains, but you didn’t have any sort of espresso-focused progressive coffee culture here at all.
Intelligentsia made a huge splash here. They redefined a lot of how people conceived of what a coffee bar is, and set a very high expectation for people around quality. It’s a difficult place to open a small business, but I think that more shops are going to emerge in the next few years in Los Angeles that are going to be forced to deliver on an expectation Angelenos have.
If it isn’t already, What will it take to make the Los Angeles coffee scene great?