Tony “Tonx” Konecny is a bit like the Forrest Gump of recent specialty coffee history: if you look hard enough, chances are you'd find him somewhere on the scene, sipping coffee quietly in the background, observing the events he helped frame. And, even as he is taking the lead with his own microbatch roasting company, Tonx Coffee, he insists he is just part of the supporting cast to the real star of the show: the beans.
Back in the 1990s, Konecny was wearing a tie and managing risks at a healthcare company. Fast forward to 2000, when he was at Burning Man and nursing a crush on a girl in his group. Exhausted from the weeklong festivities in the desert, he almost gave up the pursuit. Then he had a cup of coffee that was spinach to his Popeye: reinvigorated, he got his moment with his Olive Oyl. After, he vowed to have at least one cup of coffee every day. That vow remains unbroken.
It's telling that this romance romanticizes the coffee more than the girl. As it was, the promise was more a “coping mechanism” than anything else (“Really, I should have followed this girl across the country, but instead I went with the easier commitment”), but once he committed, he didn't stray far. He left the corporate world for good and started over as a barista at Seattle's Victrola Coffee. He eventually became the shop's head roaster. He moved to L.A. when Intelligentsia tapped him to design its first L.A. location and roasting facility.
With Intelligentsia's blessing, Konecny helped create a space that emphasized the interaction between customer and barista. “It was important at the time to establish the concept in people's minds that the barista is a craftsman, that this is a serious thing,” Konecny says.
Indeed, the concept established itself – maybe too well. Konecny, who moved on to become what he describes in air quotes as a “coffee consultant” for various shops like Paper or Plastik, is a little apologetic about how far the culture has shifted since Intelligentsia opened just four short years ago.
“The pendulum has swung too far in the direction where, from the public's perception, we fetishize the craft, we fetishize the equipment,” Konecny says. “We made it more confusing, and we're not teaching customers to understand that they can better coffee themselves.” As a result, “The story often ends up being too much about brands, and machines, and expertise, and not very often about what's in the cup. And why what's in the cup is good. Which 90% of the time, has nothing to do with the machine or the barista, and everything to do with the coffee.”
Which brings Konecny back to the roaster. With business partner Nik Bauman, he quietly launched Tonx Coffee over the summer. The stealth landing was a noticeably gentle ripple in a year full of loud splashes in the coffee world. “We figure, we're going to learn a lot of stuff in the beginning and make a lot of mistakes, and there's no reason to publish any manifestos or blow any trumpets until we know what we're doing,” Konecny says.
Avoiding hype may very well be Tonx's mission statement. “What we're trying to do with Tonx is to build a business that doesn't have a lot of distraction,” he says, alluding to the pretty machines, nicely tailored baristas, and show-stopping brew methods that too often overshadow the greatness of the coffee itself.
And so, the company is determined to give the bean its due with an exceedingly simple subscription-based model for its coffee. For $35 a month, subscribers receive a 12-ounce bag of freshly roasted beans, delivered straight to their doors, every other week. Konecny promises to “nail the roasting,” so that every subscriber can make a damn good cup of coffee at home, no coffee geek-level expertise required.
“We're working on a baseline where we're putting out a product so good that if you like coffee, 99% of the time, you should like what we're shipping,” Konecny says. As for the roasting process, he is very serious in staying out of the coffee's way. “A coffee should have inherent sweetness,” he says, “The roasting process should accentuate that. Clarity and articulation of the intrinsic flavor of the coffee is the role of the roaster. It's a sacred duty to not screw up the thing that went through some tremendously convoluted supply chain.”
Only a few months young, Tonx already has quite a devoted following in town and across the country. And this is just the beginning: next year, Konecny is looking forward to offering coffee for home espresso fiends. More generally, he hopes the industry will develop an approachable vocabulary to teach customers to appreciate the coffee bean and its journey from crop to cup, and to be able to distinguish good coffee from bad.
“I just want people to taste the coffee, and to experience it as good,” he says. “And if it is good, I don't want them to look at me as the roaster as being the one that made it good. I want them to understand that it was the producer who grew the coffee, the people who processed this coffee, and all the care that was taken before it got into my hands that made that coffee great. And all I did was just not fuck it up. “