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What's Up With All the Dapper Baristas?

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Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 9:00 AM
click to enlarge Handsome Coffee's Michael Phillips - PHOTO COURTESY OF HANDSOME COFFEE ROASTERS
  • Photo courtesy of Handsome Coffee Roasters
  • Handsome Coffee's Michael Phillips

In a city known for its casual dress, someone wearing suspenders and a tie can stick out like a sore (but dapper!) thumb. Especially if that person is not, say, a lawyer or an actor on his way to an audition to play Butler #1 but instead the person behind the counter at a coffee shop.

The nicely dressed barista is not a new thing, it's not going anywhere, and it's seen more at smaller independent shops than at their uniformed polo/apron corporate counterparts.

Perhaps the shops most notorious for their sharply dressed workers are Intelligentsia Coffee and Handsome Coffee Roasters, with employees often donning a button-down shirt, tie, vest and maybe even a 1920s flat cap and an elaborate moustache here and there. It's a look inspired by another time. A time when flip-flops were only found on the beach, you dressed up for dinner, and Spandex was years in the future.

So is this a dress code, or do Intelligentsia and Handsome just hire nostalgic individuals who love a pair of suspenders as much as they love roasting coffee?

Tuns out, yes, there is a dress code, but not at the expense of employee individualism. Tyler Madden, manager at Intelligentsia in Venice, tells us, "For the baristas on bar, the dress code here is collared shirts, ties (ladies optional), either waistcoat, suspenders or vest along with pants, dark jeans or skirts. More people wear work boots or sneakers over dress shoes because they're more comfortable. As far as fabrics go, linen or canvas are popular and usually in dark colors, brown, or hickory stripe. Colors that will mask a few coffee spills. We go for an individual professionalism."

click to enlarge Handsome Coffee Roasters owners Mike, left, Chris and Tyler  dressed in Brooks Brothers, with L.A. Deputy Mayor Matthew Karatz - PHOTO COURTESY OF HANDSOME COFFEE ROASTERS
  • Photo courtesy of Handsome Coffee Roasters
  • Handsome Coffee Roasters owners Mike, left, Chris and Tyler dressed in Brooks Brothers, with L.A. Deputy Mayor Matthew Karatz

There appears to be a correlation between how earnest a company and its employees are about the coffee process and how nice they look. Intelligentsia and Handsome Coffee take their brews very seriously and the employees seem to be more along the lines of "expert coffee enthusiasts" instead of "actors at a day job." I don't know the last time I've been inside a Coffee Bean and heard the employees talk about competing in the U.S. Barista Championships, whereas both Handsome and Intelligentsia seem to breed competitors and winners.

Madden explains that there's a much bigger thing going on than just dressing nicely. "We want to communicate that we are a legit profession," he says. "At the same time, we don't want to have a uniform with no individuality or personality. [In regard to the dress code], if everyone is doing it right, it looks like we broke it. The spirit of the law vs. the letter of the law."

Each Intelligentsia outpost develops its own guidelines. With locations in Silver Lake, Pasadena and Venice, Hudson says the neighborhood and store build plays a part in the dress code as well. The Venice location, filled with Edison bulbs, wood and metal, gives off a "classic-era cocktail" look, while the Silver Lake location is a little more casual.

Handsome Coffee Roasters shares a similar sentiment. (Founders Tyler Wells, Michael Phillips and Chris Owens have all worked at Intelligentsia.) Mike Hudson, the creative director, explained, "There is no dress code, specifically. There are general guidelines but with your own spin. The way we looked at it was that you fancy yourself as a professional of your craft, so you want to look like you're at work. We just want to exude a sense that we put a lot of thought into this, we're proud of what we do, and just want to look like we're at work. One of the founders, Tyler Wells, has a particular style, and I think a lot flowed from his personal style but everyone has their own thing. "

Handsome Coffee takes the coffee/fashion relationship to another level partly, no doubt, because of the founders' love of style but also because of the location of their shop: smack in the middle of the Arts District, surrounded by clothing companies where much of the customer base works in fashion, takes pride in what they wear and notices and appreciates small details -- down to the stitching of Handsome Coffee's custom denim aprons.

Plus, because it's a smaller company, it has the ability to form collaborations with clothing designers without jumping through a million corporate hoops. Apolis, a neighboring clothing company, influenced the look at Handsome Coffee with styling tips and pieces from its collections. Hudson says Apolis "gave us advice -- a great group of guys and coffee enthusiasts. We got a nice vibe from them -- button-down shirts with throwback, working-class ties." The company also partnered with salvaged-denim experts Nudie jeans, and with Brooks Brothers, who dressed founders Tyler, Michael and Chris for the opening party here and are planning on doing the same for the New York City store opening.

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