Google allows its engineers to devote 20% of their full-time jobs to “work on what they're really passionate about.” Similarly, Harvard & Stone has a “R&D bar” for visiting mixologists to beta test drinks. The closest thing to a coffee shop equivalent of the above may be Intelligentsia's slow bar in Venice, a unique platform that gives baristas the freedom to almost do anything she or he wants to do. “Working the slow bar is a barista's dream,” says Charles Babinski, the Educator at Intelligentsia's Venice cafe.
The slow bar is set up in the back of the shop and is a rotating stage with different acts each week. The headlining barista of the week is, in essence, the stage manager as well as the star performer: he or she is solely responsible for conceiving, curating, and executing the bar's menu. For baristas who drink, eat, sleep, and live coffee, this is a unique opportunity to pursue ideas with the full blessing and support of one of the city's — if not the country's — best roasters. For willing customers, sitting at the slow bar is a rare chance to try drinks not found elsewhere.
The slow bar is so named because that is exactly what it is: a coffee bar where the barista takes his or her time to make the coffee and talk to you about his or her particular menu for the week. Those who sign up to work the slow bar are given 6 to 7 weeks to plan and develop their ideas, and Intelligentsia will support the baristas so long as it's feasible, Babinski says.
Essentially, then, the sky's the limit. In the past, a barista paid tribute to '90s rock music with appropriately themed drinks. Another experimented with different milks. On our visit, barista Marcelino Martinez brewed beans exclusively from Oaxaca, Mexico. One experimental item on his menu: an affogato, made with a perfect shot of espresso and a scoop of chai ice-cream.
Unlike the shops in Pasadena and Silver Lake, Intelligentsia's Venice location was “built to have a slow bar, so we can have a conversation” between barista and patron, Babinski says. In the long run, this conversation may go a long way towards easing its sometimes “aggressive” customer service attitude that ranges from friendly at best to downright cold at worst. The relaxed, educational and experimental nature of the slow bar means that this may be a neutral space where baristas can hone those one-on-one skills as they teach curious customers about coffee.
So far, the slow bar has garnered positive responses from both the baristas who revel in this opportunity to be creative and from patrons who, despite the test lab they're walking into, are willing to hop along for the ride. For now, the ride is only open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but Babinski is hoping to expand the hours soon.
“People are willing to trust the barista more and more now,” Babinski says. And baristas are realizing the need to engage positively with customers more and more. The détente has begun.