Chicago’s Intelligentsia, a major representative of third wave coffee, celebrated their 21st birthday just this month. We joined them at their residency in La Marzocco’s cafe to chat about what they have learned along the journey.
Ray: I’m Ray.
Kandace: I’m Kandace.
Ray:Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week Intelligentsia …
Kandace: Founded …
Ray:By Doug Zell and Emily Mange in 1995 in Chicago.
Kandace: Making them 21.
Ray:We headed up to the La Marzocco cafe in Seattle and chatted with Marcus Boni. Right before their 21st anniversary party.
Marcus: I’m Marcus Boni, VP of retail at Intelligentsia Coffee. I have a good history inside of the company; I’ve had a relationship with them probably since 2001. Left for awhile, worked for SCAA, worked for Espresso Supply and another roaster. I’ve seen it through its major growth period and development and things like that.
Kandace: Marcus talked about going into neighborhoods, and creating a space that matches the neighborhood. Their coffee shops aren’t necessarily super branded with Intelligentsia. The bags in the shop end up being the strongest piece of branding.
Marcus: We’ve pushed some boundaries from a packaging process. Typically, you crafted your packaging so that it could certainly sit on the shelves in your retail store and give informative information about the coffee, about processing methods, elevation of where it was grown, how to brew, a little bit about the company, taking all of that. You’d put it onto a bag that could sit up well on a shelf, that could be used in multiple environments (whether it’s in your store, your grocery store) making all of that work, and then pushing it from a design perspective too.
I think that we’ve taken an approach to maybe pushing it a little more on how we want it to look, particularly in regard to Intelligentsia in our cafes and in our coffee bars, you don’t see a lot of branding. What our branding is, it exists in our coffee bags, and exists in the areas of where we put our coffee.
You want that to be as equal to the experience, or the brand experience that you’re trying to promote. The bags have come to where they can really sit up on their own. There’s no real kind of reinforcement that needs to come from the back that needs to push it forward or make sure that it can stand up. It has these edges on it where it can just kind of sit there by itself too.
There you can take it and apply that coffee, or apply that bag into multiple environments. Whether it is on your shelf, or like here, for example, where it’s right there by the POS station. It can sit there on its own. It can stand for itself and be the brand presence that you’re looking for without having to position it in a certain way.
Kandace: Sometimes they have these special coffees that come out, and they get to be a bit more playful with the bags.
Ray: They even apparently do tea.
Marcus: One thing’s that interesting is that we’ve intentionally taken our tea and our coffee into different brand directions. We’ve broken up kilogram tea, and really focused on … They’re different preparation methods, for sure, and there are different … We handle things very, very differently. The efforts in each process is much different.
Kandace: Every box is a different color pallette and so the flavors really stand out.
Kandace: Something that’s interesting about Intelligentsia is that they’ve been around for 21 years, right? Marcus was talking a bit about finding careers in coffee.
Marcus: I’ve had this kind of diverse experience in both connecting into the coffee industry. The Intelligentsia via Kaldi’s Coffee, which is one of the roasters I worked with in St. Louis, and then outside of the industry too.
Kandace: There are people at Intelligentsia, other places, that are having long careers in coffee, and it’s sort of that idea that a lot of times when a company is new, everyone’s starting at the barista level, and as you grow.
Marcus: How can I see my path with where I am today? Maybe that entry point is via a barista role. Or maybe that entry point is working in a production capacity in some type of roaster organization. Or maybe it’s in another business that isn’t quite considered specialty, but how do they make that kind of grow with inside of where they are today. You’re really showing them the important points in my life, and hopefully being able to give them a good sense of how they’re able to establish a career and really commit to organizations, and commit to development themselves, from a larger, diverse perspective. Not just always like this is my path as a barista. I go from barista, to a trainer of sorts, to wherever that might take you. Showing them the multiple disciplines and opportunities that exist inside of this world of specialty coffee.
Ray: Intelligentsia coffee roasters of Chicago, Illinois.
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Update: 2019 Refresh
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.