The moment when “things got real”, according to Handsome Coffee Roasters's Tyler Wells, was at 6:30 a.m. on May 25, 2011. Six hours earlier, Handsome tweeted an offer many followers could not refuse: the Handsome Wager. In exchange for a $50 ante, Handsome promised to send out at least four bags of coffee. The catch: there was room for only 40 gamblers. By sunrise on Wednesday, the room was overflowing. Not bad for a newly formed company that had yet to roast a single bean.
The First Forty, as this group of beta tasters came to be known, waged wisely: odds are, Handsome would send nothing short of great coffee.
Of Handsome's three founding members, Michael Phillips probably is the most recognizable. The only American to win a World Barista Championship — the Bocuse d'Or of coffee — he honed his skills at Intelligentsia Coffee and was, until he left, its Director of Education.
The other two-thirds of Handsome also have an extensive coffee background. Chris Owens was a head roaster at San Francisco's Ritual Roasters before moving to Intelligentsia's Venice shop as a barista and educator. Tyler Wells was the general manager at Intelligentsia's Pasadena location. All three resigned their posts to essentially become their own men.
“We left not for any reason other than to move forward,” Wells explains. Phillips adds, “I think Intelligentsia is one of the best roasting companies in the world. But the opportunity to be part of a company where we can take all of our experience and do what exactly what we want” was just too great to pass up.
And what they want to do is to serve great coffee without the pretension. Given their experience, the coffee part almost seems easy. Wells notes, “Our standards for excellence are probably higher than anyone. The coffee will be very good. Not that it's a given, but that's what we do, by trade.”
The second part of their vision involves resuscitating the dying art of hospitality — no small feat in an industry that often seems to be deliberately esoteric. The “Handsome” name, besides being (slightly) tongue-in-cheek, is intended to invoke an era when “handsome” described both men and women and the emphasis was on craft, quality, and hospitality. All three share a marked disdain for cafes that elevate coffee as a specialty accessible only to a self-selected few, and are determined that their own shop — opening this year downtown — embody the complete antithesis of that culture.
Rather than preaching to the unconverted, they will assume the average Joe simply would like a cup of above average joe sans lecture on, say, coffee sourcing. Unless someone “opts-in” and actively asks, Handsome will just make the coffee. “We'll get as nerdy as people want. But that's not our default,” Wells says.
Similarly, recognizing that most customers have little interest in fine-tuning their drip coffee the way they would build a burger at The Counter, there will be no need to decide between various brewing methods (pour-over, siphon, Chemex), because there will be only one: “We want you to order a cup of coffee. We don't want you to order a brew method,” Owens says.
Espresso drinks, too, will be stripped to their elements. Inspired by World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies, Handsome will offer espresso and “espresso plus milk” in different sizes. At any other shop, these would be listed as macchiatos, cappuccinos, and lattes, but, as Owens points out, “Everyone has a different idea of what those drinks are. This removes the concept of you thinking, 'Well, I didn't order that' — 'that' being something that was in your head. You got exactly what you ordered.”
And though the welcome mat is out, there will be house rules. No sugar. No decaf. No tea. Whole milk. Only. Handsome anticipates indignant reactions from those accustomed to one or all of the above, but is confident that so long as their service is welcoming and friendly, customers will be open and trusting.
Which brings us back to the Handsome Wager. Expecting to produce good and bad coffee as their roasts developed, the Wager was conceived as an outlet for the good batches. That so many placed their bets surprised the trio. “Before, we had no real validation,” Wells says. “And then all of a sudden, holy shit, we're viable. It became a real sense of responsibility when that happened. It's an honor to meet these people. They made our business.”
Indeed, the First Forty treated their bounty like a traveling gnome, photographing the coffee with everything from pets to bikes. “People embraced it in an extremely heartfelt way and became their own awesome community,” Phillips says. The community increased with Wager 2.0, when Handsome borrowed a page from Google and rewarded the First Forty with two invitations to distribute as they saw fit.
Handsome's gentlemanly modesty aside — “We're just normal people who like coffee,” Wells says — the company likely will be one of the most significant coffee roasters to launch in Los Angeles since LAMILL. Ante up.