Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we spoke to Andrea Allen, co-founder of Onyx Coffee Lab, whose ambition to make coffee more transparent has put her brand on top.
Back in 2011, specialty coffee was a closely guarded secret. Many in the sector were reluctant to share their expertise, leaving those with ambitions to launch their own specialty coffee companies more or less in the dark.
For Andrea Allen, who has worked in coffee since she was 18, this seemed odd. Making a latte or a cappuccino wasn’t a secret, so why should other aspects of the coffee supply chain be?
“My husband, Jon, and I were working in coffee together, which was really fun,” she tells me. “And after a time, we decided to run some coffee shops locally.
“We started to realise there was a lot to coffee – way more than we were doing. We began looking into roasting and sourcing, basically trying to scratch the surface of that.
“But when we first went into roasting, it was so hard to find any information. Even just getting samples from importers was difficult. No one wanted to share information, everyone that we asked said it was a secret, they said they couldn’t help us.”
With or without the help of the specialty coffee community, the couple decided they were going to launch their own brand of coffee shops. Andrea could use her experience as a barista, while Jon could apply his gift for branding.
In 2012, the first Onyx Coffee Lab was born. Situated in their hometown of Northwest Arkansas, the aim was to bring better coffee to the region – and transparency was going to be at its core.
Brand building & barista bouts
If knowledge gathering was the biggest stumbling block in 2012, then finding an authentic brand voice was a close second.
An increasingly saturated market meant that even if you claimed to have the world’s best coffee, encouraging people to try it in the first place was an uphill struggle.
In the early days, Andrea and Jon would dedicate a lot of their time to making calls, sending out samples, and generally drumming up interest around their coffees.
Today, things are a bit easier. Onyx has appeared in a number of publications, from GQ to Forbes, while their Instagram account boasts a following of more than 140,000.
Andrea explains that a large part of this success comes down to a clear focus on the multisensory experience of coffee.
“People’s idea of how nice something is or what something is worth is built on different factors,” she says.
“So you can have really great coffee, but if you’re presenting it in a way that someone doesn’t perceive it as nice, what is their assessment of your coffee going to be?
“If you give people something that looks great, feels great, and tastes great, they’ll go away thinking it’s amazing.
“Our branding stems out of that mentality. We can’t just source and roast nice coffee, we have to show that it’s really nice and get people excited about it in every sensory way.”
This approach is evident in every corner of the business, from the takeaway cups to the interior of the shops. It can also be seen in Onyx’s boxes, which Andrea likens to the distinctive iPhone boxes, complete with the company’s slick embossed branding.
Another big boost to the brand’s following was Andrea’s success in national barista competitions. Having competed since 2013, she was crowned America’s Best Barista in 2020 – just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.
“It’s been really great for the brand. I started competing in 2013 and I had got second in the US competition like three times. There were definitely these moments that I started wondering how I could actually get there, I was so close.
“It has helped us so much through the pandemic. Having that boost of notoriety and media publication and all of that stuff has been incredible. In retrospect, I’m so glad I didn’t win earlier. The timing ended up being perfect.”
HQ at the 1907
Andrea and Jon are moving Onyx forward so quickly that it can be difficult to keep up with everything they’re doing.
When they’re not on the hunt for the world’s best coffees, they’re building their e-commerce, offering barista training courses, developing cocktails, repairing espresso machines, and opening new locations.
One of the most exciting developments over the last two years has been the opening of their stunning headquarters, 1907. Named after the year in which the site was built, 1907 is a sprawling 30,000-square-foot café and roasting lab located in downtown Rogers, Arkansas.
While serving as the company’s base, its main purpose is to showcase each part of the supply chain, from green coffee buying to sample roasting to pulling espressos. Andrea tells me that this is all part of Onyx’s aim to create a more transparent industry.
“When we started, we said, ‘If anyone asks us a question, we’re just going to answer it’,” Andrea says.
“1907 allows each person to see and appreciate one another’s talents and expertise in coffee.
“The more knowledge people have, the better it is for them, the better it is for us, the better it is for the industry as a whole.”
It’s no understatement to say that this approach filters into everything Onyx does. The “Find My Roast” feature on their website, for example, lets customers track their coffee and see the data recorded on their exact batch. And under each coffee, the exact prices paid to farmers are openly published for all to see.
But it also plays into another, perhaps more overarching, philosophy; something that’s apparent whenever you come into contact with their brand, be it opening their boxes, drinking their coffees, or stepping inside their shops.
It’s a theme that I’m struggling to put my finger on – but then Andrea tells me something and it clicks.
“We’re always trying to see where we can do a better job,” she says. “Make better decisions, make better coffees; to continue doing what we’re doing and move things to the next level.
“That’s kind of where our saying came from, our tagline: ‘Never settle for good enough’”.
Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? Next time, we’ll be speaking to Yardstick Coffee, the roasters transforming perceptions about what specialty can be.
Photo credits: Onyx Coffee Lab