Democratizing Coffee Consumption

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Tony Konecny, the head of coffee operations at Locol, outside the branch in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times

We have no reason to debate the logic of a more reasonably priced cup of quality coffee:

Has Coffee Gotten Too Fancy?

By

LOS ANGELES — The $1 cup of coffee is divisive, as drinks go.

For some, it’s a staple of the American morning: a comforting routine, a good deal. Anything that costs more than $1 is needlessly expensive, a waste of money — the coffee from a deli, diner or doughnut cart is all you need to start the day. For others, the $1 cup is suspiciously cheap. Maybe it tastes bad, or its production does harm to the land and is unfair to laborers. If you have to pay more, then that is probably a reflection of a drink’s true cost.Can the two viewpoints be reconciled? Is it possible for high-quality coffee to be inexpensive? At Locol, the self-described “revolutionary fast food” chain opened last year by the chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, the answer is yes.

Locol’s stated mission is to bring wholesome, affordable food to underserved neighborhoods. The coffee delivers. Obtained and roasted according to the same lofty standards found at Intelligentsia Coffee, Stumptown Coffee Roasters or any of the small, innovative companies that have transformed the high end of the industry in the past decade, Locol’s coffee is clean and flavorful.

But unlike those shops, where a cup can cost $3 or more, Locol charges just $1 for a 12-ounce coffee, or $1.50 if you want milk and sugar. Rather than offer free condiments and pass on the cost to all customers, those who want milky, sweet coffee pay for their pleasures, while drinkers of black coffee get a break. As for getting it chilled, that’s on the house: Iced coffee costs the same as hot.

“There’s an extreme democratization that I really want to make happen in coffee,” said Tony Konecny, the head of Locol’s coffee operation, who goes by Tonx. Good coffee, he said, should be brought to a broad audience, not just a “self-selecting group” of epicures.

“Coffee still thinks that mass appeal is a sign of selling out and inauthenticity, but everybody wears Levi’s,” he said of the culture. “I think contemporary coffee has failed to find the consumers it should be finding.”

A few of those consumers were lingering at the Locol in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles on a recent bright day. Some were nursing aguas frescas, others were holding court while R&B played at block-party volume from an array of speakers embedded in the ceiling. One person was sorting through a small tower of paperwork…

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