In this week's installment of 10 Questions, which turned out to be nine because this reporter evidently cannot count, Alchemy Coffee & Bake House co-owners Benjamin Farmer and Joni Alexander chat about their recent Best of Lawrence honor (first place in the competitive "best coffee shop" category), their "Portlandia"-style peers and the food world's next big trend.
Here's a condensed and edited version of our conversation with the pair, who are partners in business and in life. Really — they're engaged to be married this fall, capping off a big year of expansion for Alchemy, 1901 Massachusetts St., which now distributes its mega-popular cold brew to about 40 retailers in the Kansas City area. You can also catch Farmer and Alexander this month at KC's Chipotle Cultivate Festival.
Congrats on the Best of Lawrence win. How’s it feel?
Joni: We were both very surprised, but super grateful and thankful, really. I mean, it’s the customers and the community that are supporting us. We have a lot of people in here who tell us, “Congratulations on Best of Lawrence,” and we just spin it right back around and say, “Actually, thank you, because you’re supporting us, and this is our dream.” We’re really happy. Like, super happy, but feeling super humbled about it. We work really, really hard, so it’s nice to see the fruits of that labor.
Benjamin: It feels shocking to me because we’ve only been here three years, we’re off the beaten path and I kind of feel like the underdog in a lot of ways. Still, even now, it’s just like, “How did we … ?”
Your coffee-making process takes about four minutes, during which there’s a perfect window for a short conversation, which seems at odds with our culture’s fixation on consuming things as quickly as possible with as little human interaction as possible. Was that a mission of yours when you started Alchemy, to foster communication and community?
Benjamin: I feel like it’s become, especially in the last five years, almost cliché to say all that. At the same time, there’s a reason for that. But it was part of the motivation for me doing a coffee shop, to have a place for social interaction. We do provide something that I think there’s a shortage of. We’ve always maintained that, yeah, if you want conversation we’ll give it to you. If you want a quick cup of coffee and then get out of here, we’ll give you that as well.
I was interviewing Radiolab co-host Jab Abumrad a while back in advance of the Free State Festival, and he was talking about how the relationship between our desire for quick, cheap, satisfying content and the simultaneous rise of high-quality TV shows, which could also apply to the artisanal or “craft” movement in food and drink. Is this something you’re seeing in the dining world?
Benjamin: That’s something I see a lot of places. I don’t think that’s something we experience here a whole lot, though we do experience that at times, where people are like, “I want this really good pour-over and I want it now.” But really, overall, at least on the coffee shop side, that’s pretty rare. Generally, they understand — especially since they see us hustling, standing over there making the coffee — it’s pretty rare that somebody actually gets rude with us and says, “Where’s my coffee?”
Joni: I think the impatience comes from if they’re standing in line too long. If you’re already being helped, you’ll stand there for 10 minutes if you know somebody’s working on something for you. But it’s when you’re waiting in line and you’re not the one being helped and nobody’s acknowledging it that that’s when the frustration happens. But I think we do pretty good here. That’s what we tell all our employees — just acknowledge the person when they walk in the door … that way, they know you know they’re there. In general, across the board, in a huge community sort of way, people just want to be acknowledged.
Benjamin: In the coffee shop scene that we’re in — the style of, for lack of a better term, “Portlandia” — it can get lost and messed up. We train our employees how to handle situations with customers, so that way we’re not creating a potential situation where the customer’s getting ignored or standing there for 15 minutes not getting acknowledged.
Speaking of “Portlandia,” do you see anything in today’s coffee culture or the encompassing artisanal culture that you just can’t help rolling your eyes at? Have we gone too far in some ways?
Joni: When I hear people say, like, “We handpicked the wheat that was rolled in my grandpa’s backyard,” it’s just like, seriously? It’s over the top.
But there is great value in knowing where your products come from. It’s just such a catchphrase now. People are latched onto that, and they write about it, and then they become so focused on where they get their ingredients, maybe even more than the ingredients themselves — that’s where I get annoyed. They’re like, high-fiving themselves behind the counter, but it’s like, "What did you do?" You made a terrible cup of coffee or terrible piece of whatever.
Or when it’s so extravagantly expensive that people can’t afford it. We’ve got high-end, quality stuff, and we really put time and effort into it, but you have to do it at a price that’s affordable for everybody. That’s the point, you know? But I feel like the more artisan things become, the more out-of-reach they become for the rest of society. And we’re trying to not do that.
Benjamin: That’s what I struggled with initially. I was like, "Do I do $3.25? Do I do $3.50? $3.75?" Really, I need to be doing $3.75, but the average Lawrencian probably feels way more comfortable with $3.25.
Joni: We (think about) that all the time with food, too. It’s like, this biscuit sandwich could be $10 if we were downtown, but how often when we go out do I want to spend $10 on a breakfast sandwich? I don’t. I want to spend $6 to $8, and it better be amazing.
Where do you think the cutoff is between downtown and the sort of more residential, less swanky part of Massachusetts Street?
Benjamin: I don’t know. I think in most people’s minds, it’s somewhere between 11th and 12th (streets). I don’t think we’re necessarily getting hurt by being out here. I mean, yeah, we would probably see more passersby. It would be a different crowd, though. That’s why I tell people, I don’t ever want to leave this neighborhood. I love it. It’s good people and it’s more laid back, but we’ve still got high traffic.
Joni, you were a model before Alchemy, and I know Benjamin was a diesel mechanic, among other things, before getting into the coffee business. How do the skills from your old jobs apply here?
Joni: I traveled pretty constantly for years, modeling. The best thing I got out of that career was being around insanely different people of all different kinds of cultures. Plus all the castings — I’ve been on probably 5,000 castings or something insane like that. It takes a lot to surprise me or shock me, really, because I’ve seen the gamut of all kinds of stuff. And that’s great, though, when you’re dealing with people. I can talk to any person in any kind of situation. That’s why we have a big window into the bakery — people can come up and talk to me and I can make something particular for them. Some people have dietary issues, so I’ll ask them, “What works for you?” Next week, come back and I’ll have something for you.
Benjamin: I did about everything from retail to tree trimming to FedEx trucks to mechanic jobs to carpentry jobs to hardware stores. I mean, I’d worked in restaurants, but I didn’t have a whole lot of barista experience starting this, which sounds counterintuitive. What got me working for myself was tree trimming and doing concrete — doing my own contracting. That gave me enough of a business background.
You’ve got a pretty intricate setup here. How do you explain your process to skeptics or people who are mystified by it all?
Joni: We get those people pretty regularly, who are super uncomfortable and unfamiliar with our (operation), because we don’t have menus and we don’t have pricing on menus, which makes people uncomfortable because they’re used to that. Literally, if you just smile at somebody and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” then everything drops and they’re human, right there with you.
When the pour-over thing started here, nobody else was really doing it. And people were either really into it or really annoyed by it. It was polarizing. And now it’s just like old hat. People walk in and are like, “What beans do you have today?”
Do you have any predictions for the next big trends in the food or coffee world?
Joni: Everything’s a pendulum swing, right? So, it was like, mom and pop, then the '80s and '90s hit and everything went fast food and commercialized and computerized. And I feel like we’re at the height now of that swing back to community-based stuff, which is basically how I bake and how the coffee is, too. I love to do cupcakes and cookies and wedding cakes and pies and all these other things, but a simpler version. What I see happening on the food side of things, and I think it’s going to gain momentum, is that it’s going to keep that basic feel but it’s going to become about quality and not so much about the paragraph of what they did to it (the dish). So, it’s not going to be about 10 things in the sauce, but three things in the sauce, and that sauce is going to be really good.
You guys have two young kids at home. Have they gotten into coffee yet?
Joni: Oh, no. Not yet. They’re 5 and 6. They’re into the sweets, though.
Benjamin: They like to come around here and mess with the cups and fill up the bean jars occasionally, but we haven’t put them to work too much yet. A couple years, maybe.
In lieu of a 10th question, we're including a few of Farmer's and Alexander's favorite places to grab a bite around town. Cheers!
— Limestone Pizza, 814 Massachusetts St.
— Yokohama Sushi Japanese Restaurant, 811 New Hampshire St. and 1730 W. 23rd St.
— Wa Japanese Restaurant, 740 Massachusetts St.
— India Palace, 129 E. 10th St.
Previous installments of '10 Questions'
In this month's 10 Questions, 715 partner and manager Matt Hyde (the restaurant biz veteran also co-owns Ladybird Diner) shares insight into his pop-culture hobbies, fashion influences and days as a gravedigger in Iowa. So, not quite "Tales from the Crypt," but almost.
Here's a condensed and edited version (once again, we are playing fast and loose with what counts as a question and how many add up to 10) of that conversation.
You worked a lot of jobs before landing at 715 — roadie, gravedigger, stockboy, cashier, truck unloader, among others. Any stories you’d like to share?
I got to spend a week in the South with an opening band for Lynyrd Skynyrd. That was exciting. I did all the roadie stuff and tour managing stuff before there were cell phones, so we would use calling cards and maps. There was no GPS or anything like that, so we would get lost on a regular basis. Grave digging was a summer job working for the city of Iowa City at the Black Angel Cemetery….
That’s a hardcore name.
It was the Oakland City Cemetery, but there was this big statue of a black angel (on the grounds)….that’s what they called it. That’s where the high school kids went to get high — you know, at the Black Angel Cemetery. Most of the time, it was just doing landscaping, mowing and all that. It was an old cemetery, so there were a lot of trees, and they’d use a backhoe to dig a lot of graves, but some of them we had to do by hand if they were in a weird spot or the backhoe could only go so far and we’d have to finish it up. Then, we’d get down on top of the caskets after they’d go in to put sand around. It was a real process. There were really bad rains that summer, and because it was an old cemetery, sometimes we’d have to walk around and look for bones that had washed up in some of the spots and then repair those and, you know….
Wait, so, um, I’m curious here. How did you know where…?
Well, places that saw more erosion, in the hillier spots. Because they didn’t bury at the same protocols back in the 1800s that they do today, and so they didn’t have the same type of casket materials and the same depth and all that. And then sometimes, if graves from long ago hadn’t been well-marked, they’d be digging a grave and they’d have to redirect where they’re digging.
Was this before or after you got into food?
I’ve worked in restaurants on and off since I was 15 or 16. I worked dorm food service, I did dishwashing, I did everything. Almost 30 years now. When I was digging graves during the day, I worked as a dishwasher and pizza cook at night.
What was your first job in the restaurant industry?
I worked as a busboy at a pancake place in suburban Chicago when I was really young, but I spilled coffee on somebody and the waitresses were really mean to me, so I quit pretty quickly.
I recently learned that you’re the guy behind all those celebrity birthday shoutouts on 715’s social media accounts. (Bar manager Katrina Weiss also handles a sizable chunk, Hyde points out.) How do you guys go about curating the birthdays?
We just try to find somebody interesting and not too offensive. I really have an affinity for pro wrestling names, so it’s always fun to find pro wrestlers. And for whatever reason, on this website that we look at — you know, we just Google birthdays — it seems to be mostly…they curate it in a way that seems to be mostly Asian pop stars, pro wrestlers and obscure historical figures. We just make (expletive) up. I mean, they’re accurate birthdays, but we want it to be fun. We try to mix it up. Not just movie stars and TV people but more obscure people, just to make it fun.
Whose birthday is it today?
I don’t know. I haven’t looked yet. I usually look after lunch when we’re getting ready to work on happy hour and dinner. So, yesterday it was Frankie Valli. I’m not sure who we’ll pick today. It’s always last-minute. We never plan ahead, you know? (It turned out to be Spanish motorcycle racer Jorge Lorenzo.)
Last week, you tweeted a birthday shoutout to Ace Frehley (former lead guitarist of KISS), and he actually “liked” the tweet….
Yeah, that was a big deal. We’ve also had Thomas Lennon (from Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!”). We’ve had Ron Jeremy, the adult-film star. He shares a birthday with Mitt Romney, so we made a salute to two great Americans. Ron Jeremy favorited that one. Who else? I think Jenny Lewis and St. Vincent, who’ve been here (to 715) before.
Back in 2009, you were featured in a Style Scout column in which you cited your fashion influences as Kid Rock, Anderson Cooper and Billy Mays. That’s a pretty eclectic mix — care to elaborate?
Oh, did I? I honestly have no recollection, because that must have been right after we opened the restaurant and I think I must have been pretty sleep-deprived. I remember seeing the picture but I don’t remember getting the picture taken. That sounds about right, though. Probably less Kid Rock, more Anderson Cooper. Well, Anderson Cooper in his casual (wear)….he can get overly dressy.
So, you’ve become a little more refined — a little less Kid Rock — over the years?
I would say so. As I’ve gotten older, for sure.
Billy Mays isn’t in the mix anymore?
No. He kind of crashed and burned toward the end there. His enthusiasm was contagious, though.
So, you were drawn more to the personality and less to the sartorial choices?
In the first two installments of this feature, we asked the subjects for their favorite places to eat in Lawrence. We didn't ask Hyde this time around, but he offered up a few favorites anyway:
- Taco Zone, 13 E. Eighth St.
- Leeway Franks, 935 Iowa St.
- Hank Charcuterie, 1900 Massachusetts St.
- Rudy's Pizzeria, 704 Massachusetts St.
- Ladybird Diner, 721 Massachusetts St. ("of course")
- WheatFields Bakery and Cafe, 904 Vermont St. (the croissants are his "ultimate favorite in this town," Hyde once told us)
- Limestone Pizza, 814 Massachusetts St.
- Little Saigon Cafe, 1524 West 23rd St.
- Checkers Foods, 2300 Louisiana St. ("best grocery-store fried chicken and ribs in town, by far")