Interview: coffee professional Tony Konecny

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Coffee Los Angeles


If it isn’t already, What will it take to make the Los Angeles coffee scene great?

It would be a good thing if other roasters entered this market. One of the things I love about Los Angeles is that people here are open to embracing new concepts. The kind of coffee bar we built in Silver Lake would never work in Seattle, where customer expectations are so well established that people feel coffee is a cultural entitlement. You can’t move the bar on price or quality of concept without making people uncomfortable. In L.A., people are interested in things that are unique and challenging, and they don’t feel threatened by that.

How much value do you see in barista competitions?

From a barista perspective, they’re driving a lot of innovation. They can make a barista a better barista. And they’ve allowed a lot of us in the industry to come together and wrestle with some fundamental elements of our craft that have made everything in our industry a little better. But on the flipside, the intense focus on the barista has been detrimental to what we’re doing in coffee, maybe it’s time has passed. With the Silver Lake coffee bar concept, we wanted to have the barista front and center. When we were conceiving of this in 2006, we thought that was an important differentiator, the barista as sommelier, the barista as concierge of this experience. Coffee felt important. Now, the message that barista’ing as a craft, or as a possible career avenue, is something to be taken seriously. That message is pretty well established. I don’t think it has a lot of buy-in out in the consumer culture yet, and I think there’s some valid skepticism about the cult of the barista that has emerged. We can start to move beyond that.

As a tangent, coffee is grossly underpriced. A cup of coffee is still underpriced. You’re selling a product that costs as much as a double double at In-N-Out Burger, but with a significantly lower margin and a significantly higher training cost involved in preparing it correctly. Ultimately for any coffee bar to be successful, it has to be doing volume. Pushing prices upward is important and is necessary, but it doesn’t change that a coffee bar is fundamentally a volume business. The amount of messaging and customer interaction you can do as a barista, while working an espresso machine, is pretty limited. In a barista competition setting, you’re on a microphone, you have your judges, sitting with you for 15 minutes, and you can give a whole presentation, you can give a whole message and talk about the coffee. You can educate. Any espresso bar that’s doing enough business to pay a barista a living wage, the opportunity for that type of communication is going to be very limited. I’m not sure that there’s too many economically viable ways to bridge that.

James Hoffmann’s Penny University concept was a good step in that direction. What’s going on right now at Coffee Common at TED is also a step in that direction. More vital than us pushing our message on audiences right now is really listening to customers and understanding what ideas about coffee they’re still holding on to and how they perceive what’s going on in our industry. You can see a lot of backlash against the kind of hoity toity expertise-driven positioning and differentiation that’s happening at the vanguard of the industry. I don’t think it has a lot of buy-in. The general foodie-centric consumer perceives wine or beer or cocktail culture with a much higher degree of acceptance than what’s doing on in coffee culture. It’s still feels pretentious, and I think we have a lot of pretensions, and I feel a lof of those pretensions are defensible and worth defending and I embrace them, but I think we’ve done a poor job of communicating the legitimacy of them to consumers. That’s because it’s really, really hard that coffee consumption has been well established in this country from long before coffee bars were a part of foodie culture.

What do you think the takeaway of Coffee Common is?

I’m not involved in Coffee Common, but I was involved in Slow Food Nation, and I think there’s a lot of Slow Food Nation DNA in Coffee Common. People are seeing the hype and spectacle about what’s going on in specialty coffee, and they’re legitimately curious and interested in understanding that and figuring out what’s going on. And you don’t get that opportunity when you go into a busy coffee bar. Something like Slow Food Nation or Coffee Common, there’s potentially an opportunity for real dialogue.

How do you feel about coffeehouses that features multiple roasters?

As a coffee consumer, I’m a big fan of it. From an operational perspective, I know from experience that it makes inventory management a little more challenging. But I think no one would think twice about a brewpub that has beer from multiple micro breweries. In principle, a coffee bar ought to be able to pull off the same thing. Operationally, getting dialed in with a small handful of coffees with even one roaster is a bit of work for a barista. Throwing in the curveball of dialing in multiple coffees, particularly when you’re dealing with single-origin espresso, while it can be fun for a barista, having too big an offering list can be stressful. While some consumers are drawn to variety and novelty, the vast majority wants something that’s simply good above all else. If you’re sacrificing quality for novelty’s sake, then that can be a problem. The person operating a multiple roaster coffee bar has to succeed on quality, has to have a really good sense for what good coffee is, because even the best roasters in our industry have some not-so-awesome things on their offering list.

What are the multi-roaster cafes that are doing a good job?

Barista in Portland. The newly opened Coffeebar here in L.A., they seem promiscuous with the number of roasters they’ve featured already in their first week, and I’ve had some nice shots there. Full disclosure, my wife is the manager there. I don’t think the multiple roaster phenomenon has really taken off yet. It’s definitely something that’s talked about in the industry. Most roasters want to build strong relationships with their accounts. The margins in coffee aren’t that great and you want to know there’s some reciprocal investment in the wholesale roaster-coffee retailer relationship. It makes salespeople who work on the roasting side nervous when clients may need a lot of hand holding to get it right, in the long term may not be loyal as customers. This is part of the maturation process in our industry, but everyone’s going to make this work, and in the end, it’s going to be great for consumers and that’s something everyone needs to be more focused on.

There seems to be a movement away from the Clover toward pourover coffee preparation. How do you feel about that?

I’m very pro pourover. The Clover had its time and place. It helped us establish the concept of brew by the cup and vertical pricing, and an offering list for brewed coffee, but it also overshadowed the coffee. People were focused on the price of the machine. People were more wowed by getting a Clover coffee than anything to do with the beans that were used to make it. With pourover, we’re demonstrating that this is a method that you can make coffee at home. You don’t need to spend $10,000 on a machine to get a good cup of coffee. That makes baristas a little uncomfortable, and I think many of my colleagues want to portray the pourover method as being so fussy that it takes a masters degree in physics and chemistry to pull off, but I think pourover represents a really good bridge between the best stuff that’s happening inside the coffee industry and the consumer being able to experience a great cup in their own home.

What’s your preferred brewing method when you’re at home?

Lately it’s been the Hario V60. Especially when I’m on the road. I’ve been an Eva Solo fan for years. It delivers a great cup. I can scale it to however much coffee I want to brew, but the V60 lets me be a little fussier. But it also delivers consistently good results when I’m not in the mood to be fussy. And it’s important not to be fussy about coffee brewing all the time.


Joshua Lurie

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

Blog Comments

Thanks to this impressive article.

Wait, so what exactly is his job? How does he make money?

A lot of good points and insights into the specialty coffee business, I enjoyed reading this interview!

However, I’d say there was a nascent quality focused coffee / espresso culture in LA before Intelli opened in Silverlake (some better than others, but Urth, Caffe Luxxe, Groundwork at the time was doing good things, there were some small roasters like Coffee Roaster in Studio City, etc). It just exploded after the buzz generated by the one-two punch of Intelli and then Lamill opening shops. Which is a good thing, but I think it’s a shame some earlier places aren’t mentioned often.


One of the most important factors in the coffee business, or any business, is being able to sustain it. You’re absolutely right that the L.A. coffee scene didn’t start from scratch in 2007/08, but companies like Intelligentsia have been able to take the conversation to the mainstream media and generate buzz about coffee in new ways. Companies like Caffe Luxxe remain relevant, and could certainly up their game once they start roasting their own beans. Urth is more of a scene than it is a coffeehouse, and Groundwork has faded. Other people have told me that Coffee Roaster was at the vanguard for years. Thanks for mentioning them.

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