Years after Portlandia and SNL started poking fun at the elitist barista, the cliche of the mustachioed, bespectacled, houndstooth-vested coffee snob persists. Over the past decade, terms like “fair trade” and “single origin” entered the vocabulary of a larger swath of the American population, denoting quality, as coffee’s third wave gained steam. Consumers of craft coffee at once-independent shops like Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown stopped ordering their coffee by size — small, medium, or large — and instead began ordering it by geographical origin. Coffee prices skyrocketed.
Now, two long-standing coffee experts are about to, well, disrupt the world they helped create.
Tony Konecny — founder of LA-based subscription service Tonx coffee, which Blue Bottle acquired in 2014 — and longtime barista and roaster Sumi Ali are the founders behind Yes Plz, a forthcoming coffee subscription service that will sell one product — a 12-ounce bag of coffee beans — direct to consumers. And in a departure from the strict adherence to single-origin roasts of the third-wave coffee movement, its coffee will be a blend of “high-quality” beans, roasted and delivered fresh each week (or every other week, or every three weeks, or every month) for $15 a bag, including shipping. “We trust that our customers know what’s good,” Ali says. “If we deliver good coffee to customers, they’ll recognize it. We don’t need to explain this anymore.”
Konecny was among those who were vocal about single-origin brews. “That was about, how do we drive up prices to support the farmers, how do we make it more sustainable?” he explains. “We do that by creating an audience of people that appreciate the nuances, that learn how to taste coffee.” Konecny says that he and others in the space believed the first step of that was to teach people to taste coffee like they taste wine.
But now that that appreciation and awareness exists in a small but thriving segment of the craft coffee world, Konecny and Ali are reframing the narrative. “It’s not true that blended coffee is bad; it can be very good,” Konecny says. “As a roaster we can manipulate those flavors, do all sorts of [things], making [different beans] taste good together... there’s been a tendency in last five years to be a roaster that’s monastic — and I’ve been guilty of spouting that same sort of rhetoric... The truth is, we have a lot of power to change the flavor profile, and to make really good blended coffee.”
Konecny and Ali started discussing the idea of Yes Plz while they were working together on Locol, where, with the support of chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, they set out to sell high-quality cups of coffee for $1. The pair was successful for a time, but decided to move on. (Konecny’s noncompete with Blue Bottle, in which he wasn’t allowed to develop a new coffee subscription service, has expired.)
Earlier this week the pair launched a Kickstarter to fund their project; it’s already more than halfway to its goal of raising $40,000 with 28 days left to go. “We’re reaching a different audience [compared to Locol’s] here, but ... this isn’t a zero sum game for us,” Konecny says. “We’re not trying to solve the coffee problem, we’re not trying to be the One True Coffee enterprise. This feels more simple and honest to us.”
Going the Kickstarter route and avoiding venture capital funding — which in the early days of third-wave coffee was very easy for coffee startups to get — means Yes Plz can grow at its own pace, and is not beholden to demanding shareholders or risky exponential growth. Though Konecny acknowledges that consumer demand might mean evolving to sell different sizes or products, he says he’d “be content with this being a niche business if that’s all the market will bear.”
Ryan Brown, a Tonx alum, will source green coffee for the company. His background is in seeking out beans from sustainable farms and businesses that pay living wages. The group, however, does not use the confusing and sometimes false “fair trade” and “direct trade” labels.
A newsletter, similar to one Tonx subscribers received with their coffee between 2011 and 2014, comes with each delivery. Of its contents, Konecny says he’s “ultimately less interested in educating people about coffee or presenting us as experts, and more interested in exploring how we talk about coffee. The newsletter may or may not be a canvas for some of that.”
It’s not yet clear what shape the newsletter will take, or who will contribute to its contents, but it does nod at lifestyle branding. “Lifestyle brand marketing squiks me out,” Konecny says, but there’s nevertheless a value add in messaging meant to enhance the consumer experience: Coffee is already a lifestyle.
So what’s the next step its evolution? “I don’t think as a movement third wave has done a good job of building demand,” Konecny says. “Nespresso and Keurig have taken a ton of market share in the space for premium type coffee, third-wave coffee is consolidating left and right because the category can’t sustain these players because they’re not doing a good job on the demand side. They’re moving into cold brew or bottled beverages,” he says. “I still think there’s space for smaller roasters to have a go.”
Mostly it seems Konecny is surprised that in the time it took for his noncompete with Blue Bottle to expire, no one else thought about how to build a successful direct-to-consumer craft-coffee business that’s affordable. “Maybe that’ll be us?” he asks, and then hedges. “But we’re not putting all our chips on that.”