Published by Tanya in Coffee Insurrection Hero · 15 April 2022
Tags: JonAllen, OnyxCoffeeLab, Arkansas
Tags: JonAllen, OnyxCoffeeLab, Arkansas
1- Introduce yourself: who are you, where are you from, where do you work, and what’s your job.
I’m Jon Allen, and I am the Co-Owner & Founder of Onyx Coffee Lab in Northwest Arkansas. Day to day, my job entails operating in a number of different roles, but my primary focus is typically centered on serving as the Executive Director of Onyx, the Head of Business Development and Cafe Design, and as a Green Buyer sourcing coffees and developing relationships with our producing partners around the world.
2- When and why did coffee become important to you?
My entry into the world of coffee was becoming a barista in high school at the same coffee shop as my now wife and partner, Andrea. In 2008 we had the opportunity to purchase the cafe where we both worked, and we really came to love and appreciate the community and the culture of coffee. As we became more and more involved in the industry and as our ties to the coffee community grew, I realized I had actually become pretty obsessed with coffee and that it was something I wanted to apply myself to learning about and taking seriously, both for the benefit of our cafe and to satisfy my own desire to learn and pursue excellence.
3- Do you remember the first coffee you had that was more than “just a cup of coffee”?
My love of coffee wasn’t born from any single moment or experience, but rather from a long maturation of interest and exploration. Not long after we acquired that first cafe (which was still operating under its original name), we opened a second location and began doing much more volume. From 2008 to 2010, our cafes were using coffee purchased from a local roaster, but as we expanded our operations I became interested in learning to roast coffee myself in an effort to improve the quality and consistency of the coffee we were serving.
I began noticing differences in the taste of the coffees based on roast settings and realized that we could control and improve this aspect of our customers’ experience by sourcing great coffee and consistently roasting it in ways that maximize and clarify its flavor. Gaining this perspective helped awaken in me a love for coffee as a beverage. That love led us to launch the Onyx Coffee Lab brand in 2012, rebranding our cafes and expanding our operations to include wholesale. We now have the opportunity to source, roast, brew, and distribute some of the world’s best coffees to people all over the world.
4- What’s your favorite thing about going to work in the morning?
The most rewarding part of going to work is getting to engage with the team we have built at Onyx — a team of people who are deeply passionate about what they do and who are committed to always improving and helping us push Onyx forward towards greater excellence. Being able to do that in partnership with Andrea each day is really rewarding.
5- What’s your favorite brewing method and why?
My honest favorite is batch brew because of its accessibility, but I also enjoy using a chemex. I love the symmetry of the chemex vessel, and I enjoy how its thick paper filter leads to a clean, crisp cup of coffee.
6- Which is the best coffee you ever tasted?
I’ve had the privilege of tasting some truly incredible coffees. It would be impossible for me to pick one out as the best. My favorites are washed coffees from Colombia and Ethiopia. I’m particularly drawn to pink bourbon, pacamara, gesha, and typica varieties.
7- Is there a country of origin that you tend to favor coffee from? Why?
I love Colombian and Ethiopian coffees for a variety of reasons. I enjoy the flavor profiles in coffee from those countries, and I’ve built some great relationships with coffee producers there.
8- Suggest us a roastery to check (not the one you working at/you use at work).
I love what Fidel & Co is doing out of Little Rock, Arkansas. Fidel & Co is a cafe that was started by Fidel Samour, an Arkansas roaster, and Jorge Raul Rivera, the owner of the Finca Santa Rosa coffee farm in El Salvador. I love what they stand for, and they are putting out some seriously great coffees. The partnership of a producer and a roaster embodies what I see as 4th Wave Coffee, and I hope to see more collaborations like this going forward.
9- What’s the most important things you’ve learned while working in the business?
I’ve learned so much working in this industry, but one of the greatest lessons I’ve taken away from my time in this business so far is the importance of remaining authentic and striving to have a clear vision for each aspect of what we do. We operate from a place of clearly understood values and commitments, and those determine how we go about everything we do — the way we plan and operate our cafes, the way we treat our staff, the kind of coffees we purchase, the flavor profiles we pursue, and so much more.
We aim to keep everything holistic and aimed towards the same place, with the same ethos and the same dedication to quality, to give us a strong foundation for everything we do.
10- How your work and the specialty coffee world are coping with Covid and the new challenges for hospitality?
As was the case for so many businesses, the emergence of the pandemic forced us to pivot and rethink numerous aspects of our day to day operations and how we served our customers. I have a fresh perspective and sense of gratitude that we survived and are now thriving due to some of the changes we executed during the early months of Covid. When the majority of cafes across the country closed down, it had a huge impact on us because of the role wholesale plays in our business. We were able to pivot quickly and leaned hard into direct to consumer sales and subscriptions.
We place a high priority on being agile and making sure systems and operations can pivot quickly if and when it is needed. Covid exposed a lot of vulnerable areas and forced us to address things that needed to be changed and updated. In the end, I’m glad we were forced to look at things the way we did, because it made us better.
11- How do you see the specialty coffee scene in 10 years?
I believe the specialty coffee industry is going to continue growing quickly, but in ways that are different from what we’ve seen over the past decade. I think the effort that has gone into educating consumers has paid off, and that consumers are going to become more and more knowledgeable and interested in specialty coffee. With the increasing adoption of at-home specialty coffee brewing (both filter and espresso), I believe some of the best baristas and coffee professionals will be people making coffee at home.
My hope for Onyx is that it will be the top choice of coffee for coffee enthusiasts both at home and at their favorite cafes.
12- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
If I’m lucky, in 10 years you will find me doing the same things I am doing now –– growing and running this business with Andrea, dreaming and aiming for excellence with our talented team, and working with long-term producing partners in an effort to offer the greatest coffees on earth to people all over the world.
13- Any last word? Any tip or suggestion you wanna share with someone that want to start this path?
Stay kind and stay humble. It’s never worth it to burn a bridge over money or pride.