On the eve of their 25th year, Intelligentsia Coffee reworked their packaging. We chat with CEO James McLaughlin on this refresh and attempt to uncover the secret to their longevity.
Ray: I’m Ray.
Kandace: I’m Kandace.
Ray: Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week.
Ray: Chicago, Illinois.
Kandace: Now Ray, we covered intelligentsia back on Episode 33.
Kandace: Stop. Watch that episode and now you’re back.
Ray: Link in the profile. Pig in the blanket.
Kandace: Oh my God, that just made me hungry. Why are we talking to them again?
Ray: It just made you hungry?
Kandace: Pig in the blankets are this little sausage thing.
Ray: Yeah, I know.
Kandace: Intelligentsia is about to turn 25. Right Before that they did a major packaging redesign and since we like to talk about design, here we are.
Ray: Who are we talk to?
Kandace: That’s good question.
James: My name is James McLaughlin. I’m the CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee. Intelligentsia was founded in 1995 by Doug Zell and Emily Mange. Doug and Emily, before that had been living in California and Doug had actually been working at Peet’s Coffee in San Francisco.
Both Doug and Emily were from the Midwest. There really wasn’t anybody in the Midwest doing what Peet’s Coffee was doing in California? They started in Chicago and started with one cafe where they were roasting their own coffee, they were calling up importers and saying, “I need five bags of this or 10 bags of that.” And really focusing on just fresh roasted coffee.
A History in Farming
Kandace: We left James to tell us a little bit about how he got started at intelligentsia.
James: I ended up living around the corner from the Broadway location of Intelligentsia, which is actually the first Intelligentsia where Doug and Emily started roasting coffee out of the storefront. I knew Intelligentsia really well as a customer.
I had a little stint in Brazil where I was managing a coffee farm. My wife and I were living on a coffee farm in Northeastern Brazil on my wife’s family’s farm. It was a shade grown coffee farm in Northeastern Brazil, which isn’t the traditional coffee growing area in Brazil. It’s de facto organic and it’s just this paradise. We bought the cherries from the farmers and processed the coffee on our farm because we could control all the different quality points that were important. We created an incentive program for the farmers to deliver us cherries and we were going to pay you actually a premium to what the local buyer was paying for dried coffee.
So anyway, I ended up sending a cold letter to Intelligentsia when my wife and I moved back to the United States, just saying, “Here’s who I am. I think I can help you. Here’s what I’d love to do.” And one thing led to another and I got a job with Intelligentsia.
Ray: Let’s talk about the packaging.
James: We launched a whole new packaging. When we set out with the project, we wanted to create a separation between our single origin coffees and our core blends. And, I’m really happy with how it turned out.
In our old packaging, which was beautiful and I think well known, we would have a bag of our organic El Gallo Breakfast Blend sitting on the shelf next to our Finca Takesi Geisha from the world’s highest coffee farm and it would be in the exact same packaging. One would be $15 and the other one would be $45 and it didn’t create that visual cue to consumers that, “Hey, this is actually something different from this.”
We’ve basically created two different bags. One of the bags has our full Intelligentsia logo on it. We’ve got a white label and really the three things that pop when you look at the bag are the logo, the coffee label. And so those are the two things that kind of stand out when you’re looking at it.
Ray: Nice simple bags. I like how they sort of play with the Intelligentsia name and sort of logo lock up. I like the little diagram of instructions. It’s a nice touch.
James: For the single origin bag, we didn’t include the full logo, we just included the wings and the star. And a lot of the single origin coffees that we sell are going to be in our coffee bars. So you’re already in our shop, so you don’t necessarily need to be beaten over the head that this is Intelligentsia because we actually changed the label. It’s a red label with a darker burgundy text. And so the three things that really stand out when you’re stepping back is the name of the coffee, we have a little single origin word on it, and then the logo. And so, playing with colors and some very subtle design elements to create a different separation was definitely something I think we succeeded with.
Kandace: They simplified the identity a bit as well.
Ray: Mm-hmm. I like yours. It’s the black one with the gold.
James: Every season we create a blend as we select the best coffees and we create kind of a super blend. So we created some different seasonal bags for those and they’re a little more fun. They’re different, they’re different colors, they pop. I think it’s for customers and for baristas. It’s kind of fun and exciting to see something new. We have such a rich story to tell and narrowing down what we want to include on the bag was probably the hardest part.
Kandace: So they started highlighting a little bit more about their relationship with producers such as how long they’ve been working with individual producers.
James: Why did we do that? There’s a lot of noise around labels now and Direct Trade — think Intelligentsia was probably one of the first companies that started using that label — has lost some of its meaning. I think of the way that Intelligentsia works with farmers is very different from other companies and yet both companies may use that same label. One thing that we felt was important to highlight to kind of create that separation for consumers was highlighting the length of the relationships. In many cases we’ve been working with the same farmer for 10 or 15 years and that’s a core tenant of the direct trade program at Intelligentsia.
Kandace: This is something that you’re to see more from third wave roaster who’ve been around for two decades.
James: I got a chance to visit our partners in Nicaragua. It’s the Canales family. They live in Pueblo Nuevo, Nicaragua. Intelligentsia has been working with them for 15 years. What that means is that each and every year we’re going down, we’re visiting with the Canales family, we’re providing feedback to them on the coffee that we purchased the previous year, bringing new ideas to them that we’re seeing in the other countries that we visit.
One example is the varietal concept. Bringing varietals to different farms and saying, “Hey, there’s this huge color scheme that you can paint with. Guys in your particular region are only using two or three colors. You can paint with all these different colors and create a much more beautiful picture.” Making sure that they are aware that varietals is one way that they can really improve their quality and create interesting lots. This year we’ll be releasing a Pacamara from the Canales family, which was something that we encourage them to try and they did to their credit and it’s a beautiful coffee.
All of us in consuming countries should be paying more for a delicious cup of coffee. The only way for us to continue to introduce new coffees and show people the complexity of this amazing, amazing beverage is if farmers are incented to continue to test new things. We get newer generation of young people in producing countries to go into farming. To do all that, we can’t continue to have an industry in crisis where people are abandoning coffee farms.
We’d love to somehow create a deeper connection between producing countries and consuming countries, bringing the magic of what we get as buyers to go down and visit farms at 2,400 meters in the Andes mountains somehow to capture that experience and take it back to the consumer on the first point, which is why you should pay more.
Intelligentsia occupies a rarified place in the coffee world, being considered a pioneering force in the quality-focused Third Wave coffee movement, while also being a relatively mature brand that’s quickly approaching a quarter century in business. – Daily Coffee News
Kandace: What do you think the secrets are to their longevity?
Ray: I don’t know. I think they’ve been taking some pills.
James: One of Intelligentsia’s sort of core values is this idea of curiosity and never stop learning. When you have that sort of embedded into your DNA from the get go, from the founders, I think that gives you a leg up on other companies. There’s just this curiosity of what else can we be doing with coffee? Also, I think having a very clear sort of North star, which is extraordinary coffee.
Each and every year that we go down, and we visit farmers, and we see new innovations, and we taste new coffees, it’s reinvigorating in a way because there’s something new and there’s something exciting happening. And then when we get the coffees here to the United States, we have to hold up our end of the bargain, which is making sure that those coffees, every time they go across the bar, are perfect, be part of the recipe of success.
Kandace: Okay. Is there anything else? Would you like to be on this episode?
Ray: No, that’s good. I’m good. I’m just going to sit here looking good while you do all the talking. Intelligentsia of Chicago, Illinois.
Kandace: Unpacking Coffee is produced by Needmore Designs and we make websites, and brands, and package for coffee rosters.
Ray: Intelligentsia of Chicago …
Ray: Illinois. Come on man.
Kandace: There’s only one of them.
Ray: Come on Ray.
Kandace: There’s only one Illinois.
Ray: There’s only one Kandace.
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Intelligentsia occupies a rarified place in the coffee world, being considered a pioneering force in the quality-focused Third Wave coffee movement, while also being a relatively mature brand that’s quickly approaching a quarter century in business.- Nick Brown, Daily Coffee News