The story behind Panther Coffee and how one thoughtful business inspired the revitalization of Wynwood, Miami’s Arts District.
In front of Panther Coffee, where her work is showing for a second time, muralist Jenny Perez works through mixed emotions, poised beneath the soft, ribbed ferns and vibrant red flowers of a Royal Poinciana. Wynwood, her stomping ground since 2008, became Miami’s cultural gem in whirlwind fashion, dressing an unmistakable grit in vibrant glamour. Like many of the artists who have contributed to the neighborhood’s facelift, Perez worries that it’s slipping away, in danger of being fetishized and auctioned off, pricing out all of the people who helped build it.
Nonetheless, the district’s original coterie of artisans can still lay claim to the quarter’s aesthetic and, for the most part, enjoy a familiarity amongst most independent establishments.
Perez points to a young lady walking down the 2nd Avenue sidewalk across from Panther noting, "That’s Jill, she’s another local artist. That’s her face depicted in the black and white image facing the street she just crossed."
Perez exchanges greetings with a graffiti artist that tags under the name ATOMIK and has found a niche in painting anthropomorphized citrus. They talk about a party taking place at the iconic Wynwood Walls later in the evening while he spills raw sugar into inky black cold brew. En route to one of her murals, Perez points to the work of AholSniffsGlue, a graffiti artist whose work was appropriated by American Eagle Outfitters without permission last year.
... Panther serves as a geographical and spiritual epicenter for Wynwood, a place for artist and artisans to talk shop or wind down.
Perez's own art is a sort of spray paint Picasso accented with red lipstick and Latin curls. Her murals serve as a reflection of Miami’s pluralism and Wynwood’s spontaneous culture—all of the canvas works currently featured in Panther came to fruition within the space of an hour, some created live. She’s both a witness and architect to Wynwood’s transformation from forgotten, oft-avoided neighborhood to cultural hub. Her current place as Panther's featured artist is a natural fit given the roaster's reputation as the pioneering business which, in 2011, moved into the heart of a still desolate area of town.
Back then, graffiti artists and muralists like Perez saw the potential in an area defined by stale concrete walls crowned with rusty razorwire hugging high and tight against slim, cracked sidewalks. Artists could often be found painting on the rundown streets, tagging buildings until it became the norm.
Now, Panther serves as a geographical and spiritual epicenter for Wynwood, a place for artist and artisans to talk shop or wind down.
It’s not the first time the Panther owners Joel Pollock and Leticia Ramos have contributed to something transformative. Pollock was the head roaster for Stumptown, a leader of the third wave movement, the name given to the class of coffee pros that first obsessed over the bean's quality potential.
Ryan Willbur, a marketing specialist for the storied Italian espresso machine manufacturer La Marzocco, remembers the mid-oughts as a peculiar time when coffee culture was still new. Back then Willbur competed in some of the early U.S. Barista Championships, using coffee roasted by Pollock at Stumptown. Though it was gaining popularity in the Pacific Northwest, craft coffee had yet to ditch some of its puerile cultishness, a reputation the industry has worked hard to shed over the past decade.
"Back then I think on their website, descriptions of how they roasted their coffee had a bunch of super obscure punk rock/indie references that no one I knew could get," says Willbur. "It was something like comparing roasting to someone’s style of playing bass on a couple of weird tracks."
Pollock eventually left Stumptown’s quirky brand, which was well on course to becoming a household name, choosing to dive further down the coffee rabbit hole. He was working for a green coffee importer when he met Ramos, his now wife and business partner who had also been active in the coffee industry, at a convention in Minneapolis.
Looking to find their own expression unique to their shared passion for good coffee, the two packed up for the opposite end of the country after visiting Miami on vacation. And they soon discovered Miami's coffee culture to be tied into sugar-laden Cubanos and Starbucks. To most in Miami, coffee was a fast-paced beverage bound for paper vasitos destined for the battered dominoes tables of Hialeah and Calle Ocho.
The culinary scene, however showed promise, not just potential; the Panther founders discovered shared ideals in restaurants like Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, one of the earliest emissaries of the farm-to-table movement interested in fostering "artisan, local relationships" according to Michael Schwartz, the restaurant's eponymous chef.
Michael’s Genuine first opened for business in 2007 with its back to a palm tree farm in a neighborhood just north of Wynwood. Eventually, a development replaced the rows of trees with an emergent culture populated by art galleries and indie hangouts. Today, this area is known as the Design District, with retailers such as Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Tom Ford moving in. Schwartz’s culinary acumen and brand of a quality dining experience has kept The Genuine Hospitality Group afloat in the same wave of gentrification they helped catalyze. His new pop-up cafe ella calls the Design District's Palm Court home for now. Located in the plaza and erstwhile tree farm, ella serves up quality fast-casual dining including bagels & lox, daily donuts, and avocado toast alongside velvety, sweet Panther Coffee on drip. Schwartz notes the art galleries of this district have moved over to Wynwood, whose own cultural renaissance now poses a threat to the artisan tenants responsible for gussying up the warehouses they now call home just a half mile south of the Design District.
Perez sees Wynwood as a place where an early group of artists got together on empty streets, drinking wine, and tagging buildings, week-by-week building the character that makes it a cultural hotspot.
...craft food and beverage pros like Panther sought to explode superficial, corporate mind-sets ... by re-establishing the connection between producer and consumer...
"This is the epitome of what Miami stands for in terms of how people spend their time," Perez says. "It’s a trendy city. Wynwood became a trend—it blew up overnight."
Zak Stern is the gentleman behind a natural levain bakery and kosher cafe two blocks down from Panther called Zak The Baker. Stern and his staff, which has grown from three to forty three in the space of a year and a half—now bakes bread for his retail cafe on 26th Street, including numerous wholesale clients in Miami, Michael’s Genuine among them. Later this year the bakery will relocate to a 7,000 square foot space a half block further into Wynwood to accommodate demand. Stern credits the coffee roaster for blazing the artisan trail in a neighborhood many referred to as a wasteland not five years ago.
"It wasn’t sexy Wynwood when they first started, you know what I mean? They hustled in the hard time and they really paved the way for us," says Stern.
In an atmosphere of graffiti artists pursuing expression immediately visible to the public eye, craft food and beverage pros like Panther sought to explode superficial, corporate mind-sets—a movement that, Stern notes, began by re-establishing the connection between producer and consumer, reclaiming food from a previous tendency toward convenience.
Walking into Panther at Wynwood is a glimpse into specialty coffee’s grand scope, an epic process hinged on quality practices at numerous stops in the supply chain. It feels like a coffee cave, hinting at a whole universe which push-button baristas couldn’t articulate.
At any given time, Pollock will be next to a renovated 1920s Probat Perfekt roaster, peering through sight glass, pulling the trier to smell and examine the bean color.
"That roaster is amazing, and I’ve never gone to Panther and not seen that thing running like full bore," says Willbur. "That’s one thing that is really awesome about them as a company, you just see them going full tilt on that machine. As long as the doors are open in that cafe it seems like they’re roasting coffee."
Panther’s Probat Perfekt allows the company to manipulate temperature through a gas burner, culling nuances from the coffee based on environmental conditions or the current character of the green coffee. In Miami, the latter can change from week to week, the former ... well, just put your index finger in the Miami air.
"He’s definitely a guy who believes in what he does," Willbur says. "He does it passionately, in an era where people are relying on more and more gadgetry or technology to refine what they do. I think a lot of what Joel does is very sensory-based."
The human touch has proven crucial to Panther’s success, but that is not to say they are luddites by any means. Panther is one of the pioneering establishments, in a class with third-wave stalwarts like Counter Culture, to experiment with BKON technology— a coffee machine that uses negative pressure to devoid an organic material’s cellular structure of excess air, brewing quality coffee and tea at precise temperatures in less than 90 seconds. Brewing specifications are customizable and replicated to the T through a Cloud-based menu, a quality control feature that would no doubt be a dream-scenario for a roaster were it available to its hundreds of wholesale accounts.
The first in Florida to use BKON, Panther launched a made-to-order drinks menu in June highlighting single-origin coffees and loose leaf teas, served hot or cold. The single-origin iced coffee is a pioneering brew promising an immediate, high quality cold coffee—likely a godsend in sticky Florida summers when air is thick and patience is thin.
As is often the case with uncharted waters, Panther’s introduction of craft coffee to the Miami restaurant scene years ago took some navigation. Panther crafted a West Coast style espresso blend to represent the flavors popular in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, and Pollock now describes it as an "exaggeration" of that style using the brighter, "zippy" coffees found in Ethiopia, Colombia and Kenya.
"They hustled in the hard time and they really paved the way for us ..."
Willbur explains the West Coast style as one for "a more adventurous palate, more fruit forward flavors, bright acidity." Schwartz recalls when Pollock tried to introduce the West Coast profile to the Michael’s Genuine menu: "If you're not really good and dialing it in properly, the espresso is acidic, and we would hear that all the time. Everyone was like 'Joel ... Fuckin sour.' Which is not good. And he would come and make it, and of course, it would be perfect."
Continues Schwartz, "Then he developed the East Coast, and this, I think, I had a large part in because I'm like ‘You got to make it a little bit more familiar to people and a little bit easier to dial into.’" The East Coast style hues toward the more traditional Italian espresso, catering to Europe’s influence on America’s Eastern Seaboard.
Sourcing the right coffee for a profile-specific blend is yet another challenge, and this is when the roaster very much becomes the liaison between producer and consumer, the groups which, in theory, should be more connected. "I called Jacques at COCARIVE [the manager of a large cooperative in Carmo de Minas, Brazil], and said I need the 2007 Brazil Cup of Excellence winner and he was able to deliver something like it," Pollock says. The chocolate, creamy, nutty profile prevalent in Brazil is perfect for the East Coast espresso. Relying on a knowledge of premium micro-lot coffee he shared with the co-op manager, Pollock found what he was looking for, procuring a premium lot from a volume-focused country whose middling qualities often get buried in espresso blends.
As exceptional coffee and food attracts more customers impressed with its simple appeal, Panther and a neighborhood of contemporary artisans in tow are left to wonder if their quality beacon will be muffled by the new traffic and inherent rise in property values.
"We’re starting to get these businesses sprouting from the local soil," Stern says. "Panther Coffee, Jugofresh, Wynwood Brewery and they are concentrated in this one little area and I think that it’s inspiring to people ... However very quickly, you start to see national brands come in, and that sort of changes the conversation, because they are able to pay more money, they have more weight behind them. In a way, they kind of box out the local guys who might not have millions of dollars to start up a business."
Though the neighborhood’s original artists have yet to be pushed out, Perez worries that Wynwood has taken on a reputation as a place to be seen. She alludes to a recent architecture trend to replace coveted wall space with more windows, a shift that seems to point to a fate similar to that of the now posh Design District. Yet, Panther has no plans to move its original location, promising a quality coffee experience for those playing patron to the ever-evolving work-in-progress that is Miami’s most organic, inimitable neighborhood. Wynwood’s flash-flood popularity notwithstanding, the neighborhood continues to be a cultural touchstone for the fellow artists that first saw the surrounding collection of warehouses as a blank canvas.
"The best part for me as an artist: all the artists that I follow on Instagram and admire, who have a million followers—they’re having coffee here," says Perez. "I can talk to them. Meet with them. Take pictures with them and ask them about their inspiration, drink with them and you know, they’re accessible. They’re really cool. That’s awesome, so it still has its charm."