Sunday, October 07, 2007


Go to Intelligentsia. Do it now.

I am a very bad blogger. Seven very short weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being present at the grand opening party at Intelligentsia’s new coffee shop in Los Angeles. And I am only now getting around to blogging about it. (This blog is many things, but up-to-the-minute it ain't.)

Anyway, I was in Los Angeles for four days, and I found the opportunity to get my ass over to Intelligentsia every one of those days for one simple reason: the cappuccinos are out of this world. They are fantastic. They are my idea of perfection: 5-ounce porcelain cup, delicious caramel-y sweet espresso, perfectly frothed microfoam. And all of these cappuccinos undoubtedly tasted even better because they were accompanied by memories of the YEARS of agony I endured wandering all over L.A. County in search of a drinkable cappuccino.

Beyond the quality of its cappuccinos, though, Intelligentsia is a really interesting company. It has gotten a fair amount of attention for its Direct Trade model, which was born from the very Slow Food-ey conviction that many food producers are artisans and should be recognized as such. Direct Trade also requires environmentally and socially sustainable practices and full disclosure of prices/contracts from all parties (i.e., you really CAN find out how much money actually went to the farmer). You can read more about it on Intelligentsia’s website, or in this article from the NY Times. And Intelligentsia co-owner Geoff Watts does a brilliant job of explaining the differences between Direct Trade and Fair Trade in this letter. (Seriously. I know that sounds boring, but it’s a fascinating read. Well worth it.) What it all boils down to, though, is that Intelligentsia is one of the companies that is leading the way in taking the radical position that if we acknowledge coffee’s unique qualities as an agricultural product and stop treating (and trading) it like a commodity, everybody benefits. And what I LOVE about this is that you can actually taste it in the cup. You might not give a crap whether farm workers in Colombia are earning a living wage. But if you give a crap what your morning coffee tastes like, Intelligentsia’s business practices are good news for you.

However, I have to be honest about something: the thing that made me more excited than Direct Trade (even almost as excited as I was about the cappuccinos) is the following: when you walk into the shop, there are no cash registers visible anywhere. The first thing you see is the espresso machine, with the baristas facing you. And although there are tables in the very large patio area outside, there are none inside. There’s just a large, three-sided bar. One side has the espresso machine (a synesso); one side has two clovers (the cup-at-a-time coffee brewers); and the third side – back against the far wall – has counter seating. (Coffee blogger tonx actually posted a number of photos of the interior of this place on his flickr page, for those of you who want to get a clearer mental picture of what I’m talking about.)

In short, this place is set up more like a bar bar than a coffee bar. There are no signs saying “order here.” There are no airport-style cordoned paths to keep everybody in line. You have to sidle up to the bar and order your drink. And then you have to stand around and wait for it. And maybe, just maybe, during that time, you might think about chit-chatting with the guy standing next to you. I saw a lot of that kind of chit-chatting while I was there. (Strangers talking to each other! It filled my heart with joy.) But I’ll be very curious to see if it continues. Part of me fears that people were unusually chatty the weekend I was there because Intelligentsia was brand-new. Part of me fears that we Americans are so used to getting our morning coffee in an orderly, assembly-line fashion – as quickly as possible on the way to work or whatever – that eventually Intelligentsia will succumb to consumer desires for a more regimented system. Or maybe customers will form their own regimented system spontaneously. Just because there are no cordoned paths, that doesn’t mean people won’t stand in an orderly line and avoid looking at or talking to each other. (You can take the customer out of the Starbucks, but can you take the Starbucks out of the customer? I don’t know.) I’ll be spending a lot of time in L.A. this fall, so I will be watching attentively to see what happens.

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