Barista Magazine

AUG-SEP 2015

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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Page 64 of 91

o much has changed for Andrea Allen in the past three years, she's started to joke that her husband, Jon, has broken her "no-change button." The couple, whose two (soon to be three) locations of Onyx Coffee Lab have taken Arkansas by storm, have gone from baristas to shop owners to roaster-retailers in that brief time, undergoing a massive rebrand, entering and winning competitions—and even having a baby along the way. Amid all these huge transformations and tran- sitions, Andrea has kept a level (if caffeinated) head—perhaps partially thanks to the lessons she's learned as a lifetime competitive horseback rider. Lessons which, if you think about them long enough, actually relate pretty well to the life of any ambitious, small-business-owning coffee professional. "I have a healthy fear of falling off a horse," she laughs. "You should be scared of horses! That's a good attitude to have. There are people who don't know anything about them and aren't scared of them, but horses weigh 1,000 pounds! They're not typically aggressive, but they're really big. If a horse ran into you, you might go to the E.R." Opening a roastery and coffee shop in the middle of Ozark Mountain country is something else one might fear: While there isn't 1,000 pounds of muscle involved, there are probably several thousands of pounds of green coffee to buy, store, and roast, and thousands of cups of coffee to brew and sell in order to stay open. The latter relies on thousands of cus- tomers, of course—which most people might think would be hard to come by in towns like Fayetteville and Springdale, Arkansas. "I think in the big city—I totally sound like a small- town person saying that—but in the big city, you can have a shop that doesn't have milk, or only makes for- here drinks, because the amount of people you can pull from is so big. If you have five people walk in and say, 'We want a 12-ounce vanilla latte,' and you're like, 'We don't have milk,' or, 'We don't have vanilla,' and those people walk out because you don't have what they want, that's OK because five more people will walk in and be like, 'Oh, I drink my coffee black,' she says. "But at our shop, or in a small town, if you have five new people come in and four of those people walk out and don't come back, you really can't make it." That's precisely one of the reasons Andrea had a "no-change button" in the first place: In 2009, she and Jon purchased two outposts of the popular local coffee chain Arsaga's, at which both the Allens (no relation to this magazine's editor) cut their prover- bial barista teeth; Andrea had worked as a barista at Arsaga's since she was 18. A few years later, Jon discovered roasting as a kind of sideline hobby, and the pair started to see what was going on in specialty coffee around them. After a little back-and-forth, Jon convinced Andrea to attend her first SCAA Event in Boston in 2013—and that's when her button broke. "I love coffee," she says. "That sounds lame, but I say it all the time. I just really love coffee. I've been working as a barista for a long time, and I quote-un- quote 'discovered' SCAA stuff from going to Expo. My husband was ahead of me via the Internet in terms of what was happening in the wider world of specialty. He bought a roaster and he was getting into roasting, and he was like, 'You have to watch these videos, and you have to look at this online,' and I was like, 'Blah blah, I hate change, and if this is about change, I don't want to know,'" she laughs. After Boston, the Allens made the difficult deci- sion to take their businesses in a different direction entirely: Like a semiprecious gem squeezed from stone, Onyx was born, emerging from a solid foun- dation in service and a desire to open a conversation about coffee with their community and customers. It can be scary for any small-business owner to try something new, let alone a small-business owner who not only took over two popular existing businesses, but who also lives and works within a two-mile radius of the very place in which she was born. Keeping custom- ers happy, interested, and willing to come back again and again is hard anywhere, but many would likely say that in Arkansas, with specialty coffee, you might as well put that horse out to pasture. "That was really my main fear with [changing], because we were doing really well," she says. "I was really nervous about the change, but when we rebranded, people were really, really excited about having a different style of coffee, about having a place where we could answer questions, a place where we were making coffee right out front, for people to see. Now we're getting ready to open our third store." That's what's made Andrea's fear "healthy"—it hasn't paralyzed her from making change, it's just caused her to be a little cautious and deliberate. Andrea contributes Onyx's success to myriad things, but above all she knows it's their customers who allow her and Jon to succeed, experiment, and grow. "I'm really grateful and really aware that we depend on hundreds of people who walk in our doors 65

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