Interview with Intelligentsia’s Marcus Boni
On the day of Intelligentsia’s 21st birthday, we sat down with VP of Sales Marcus Boni to wax nostalgic on their incredible history, packaging evolution, coffee careers, and more.
Marcus has seen it all; started as a barista in the early days of Intelligentsia, moved to SCAA and then Kaldi’s Coffee, then returned to Intelligentsia. Somewhere in there, he also found time to grace the cover of Barista Magazine and host a few opening ceremonies.
Friends at SCAA aptly note he is “a terrific performer, singer, risk-taker and collaborator” as well as “one of the most charismatic, energetic and creative performers in our industry.” Chatting with Marcus was one of those sweet pleasures that could have gone on all day.*
TELLS US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL JOURNEY IN COFFEE BEFORE WE JUMP INTO INTELLIGENTSIA
Marcus: I have a good history inside of the company; I’ve had a relationship with Intelligentsia since 2001. Left for a while, worked for SCAA, worked for Espresso Supply, Bonavita, and in other roasters.
I started as a barista on their very first store, up on Broadway in Chicago. Really starting with the company. I had recently moved to Chicago with my now husband and had just spent some great time there. Really fell in love with Intelligentsia. Established a great relationship with our founders: Doug Zell, Emily Mange, and Geoff Watts. Kind of grew up with the company from that point.
That’s when they approached me. As the business was growing, they needed a business manager to help with accounting function—really pivoting them for some more growth.
I took on the head of retail after Doug Zell and I had a few conversations about where they’re going and how many stores they were looking to add in the different markets that they were going into. From there, business manager to (I think about 9 months later) going into their head of retail. That was end of 2002, maybe early 2003.
At that point, we had just opened up our second location in Chicago. Doug then signed a location, our Millennium Parks store, right after that. So, that’s location three.
In the middle of building out the Millennium Parks store, Doug had come across a great space in Los Angeles. A really great location, too. It was really quick. “Let’s position ourselves.” Not a lot figured out, but “we’re going to go full-bore into this because we realize that there’s such good opportunity.”
That’s when Kyle Glanville came on board and really helped. Between Kyle and myself, got the Silver Lake location up and going. Kyle was instrumental in identifying what the new service model could be in that location, too. Really taking that store to opening.
Then, I left for a bit. I went to work for the Specialty Coffee Association for four years and have recently been asked to come back—which is great—to head up the retail channel again. [Focusing on] not only where we’re at today, with how the company has grown over that period of time, but also then where we position ourselves in the future.
WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT AT BLOOM? WHERE DO YOU SEE YOUR PATH IN COFFEE?
Marcus: Where do I see my path? The conversation is geared towards baristas and 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. How do they make that grow within sight of where they are today?
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. The larger, diverse perspective. Not just always: “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.
HOW DO YOU BUILD CULTURE INSIDE OF COFFEE?
Marcus: It’s what makes it unique. Really, when you look at these organizations that, for the most part are deemed successful or are viewed as successful, what they know is that they know coffee and they build upon that.
We’re going to start with this understanding of: we know coffee well. In a lot of cases, I also think success comes from knowing we know what a great experience feels like for our customers, whether that’s wholesale or retail. When they build upon that and they develop people and promote people from within that have that core foundation of great coffee—we’re going to treat people nicely and we’re going to care about what we’re doing—I think that’s what builds the culture inside of your company.
You have to like working with people, first of all. It’s all about the team. It really is. And, it’s all about execution. You have to make sure that, at the root of what we’re doing, we’re serving people. We are wanting to take something that we can craft and create and then bring that to folks that are interested in it. And, we’re meeting them with wherever they are.
When I look at who’s responsible for that, it comes down to quality execution. And, it comes down to wanting to create an experience—and to craft an experience—that’s exciting for customers to receive. We want to meet them where they are today. Those companies that I feel that execute well understand that. They’re not presenting something that couldn’t be widely accepted by the larger community that you serve.
When you start with identifying those individuals on your team that really care about customers and get to know customers—our stores, for example, they have a great opportunity where we see our customers more than they see their family in some cases. Five days a week, seven days a week, things like that. When we treat that with the special regard that it needs—and when my team identifies that and can really speak into that and create relationships that withstand that—I think it makes it special.
Then, once you have that relationship founded, they’re willing to go so far with you in it. Whether it’s trying new and interesting coffees, or really pushing the boundaries on messaging on “this is what we’ve paid for this coffee based off of the quality and the value that’s there,” or whether it’s this long-term farming relationship that we’ve had and has really grown over this period of time based off of what the farmer is committing into it. We have, in turn, paid more for this coffee and are asking you, customer, to pay more because it’s so special and so quality. And, we think you’re going to realize that in the experience.
Customers are willing to go so far with you on that. It all starts with the relationship that you have founded. Of course, when you have the team together that realizes that, that’s my role. I really view myself as someone that supports my team in that quest.
The great thing is that you really start to see diverse experiences. Whether that is curated for a specific type of brand experience that a coffee company may want you to have, you may also have some retail experiences that are created for the communities that they serve. Rather than bringing in a shop and putting it into, taking your brand and inserting it into a neighborhood, you really embrace the neighborhood that you’re there to serve. You identify that this is a great space for us, and we think that this is a community that we can be very respectful to who they are, their diversity within inside of that community too.
LA MARZOCCO CAFE RESIDENCY
When you start to come in and have this expectation that “I don’t know what I’m going to walk into at this point, because all of these different types of specialty coffee companies are presenting something that is uniquely theirs.” Whether it goes down those different paths or something totally unique, I think that’s what’s great about this La Marzocco residency program is that Seattle has this awesome opportunity to experience something every month on a new level.
They’re training their customers to be open to that and really getting them open to the experience of “this wasn’t what I had yesterday.” Even things down to “I’m not ordering my coffee at the same spot I was yesterday.” Or, “I can’t have the same drink that I had yesterday.” That’s a pretty unique experience. They’re bringing it here and bringing something together that is what is represented in specialty coffee today: diversity, uniqueness, nothing quite the same (but delivered with great service, too).
HOW HAS COFFEE AND IT’S RETAIL SPACED EVOLVED IN THE 21 YEARS INTELLIGENTSIA HAS BEEN INVOLVED IN THE INDUSTRY?
Marcus: I think you could break that down into a few different noticeable things.
With the focus on bringing out specific and nuanced flavors in a cup of coffee, how that comes about now has changed significantly. In the past, it may have been just larger batch sizes that, although batch coffee can be very delicious, you couldn’t always dial into a certain tasting note or a certain profile that you’d be looking for.
Whereas, today, we spend—in Intelligentsia stores specifically—we spend a great amount of time dialing in every morning (whether it’s espresso or brewed coffee) to make sure that what we’re experiencing is exactly the flavor notes that are coming across. That might change day to day. To be able to have that kind of control on the execution on the extraction process, it requires some focus. That’s been a significant change in our industry, to be able to say: “We’re going to dial in this coffee to this point where we feel great about what we’re saying is what you’re going to experience with it, too.”
That wasn’t always the case in the past. You had: “The grinder should always be at this setting and we should always just extract a espresso to this time frame using this much coffee.” We’ve gotten so much further into water quality and specific grind sizes, being able to make slight adjustments in those scenarios so the coffee that’s performing that day…the resting process of the coffee…all of that has been identified and part of the equation now so that, if we’re looking for something that says “this coffee is super sweet with a great chocolaty body base and some fruit notes,” we’d better be able to deliver on that. Especially when we’re asking customers to pay a pretty large premium to achieve that result.
HOW HAS PACKAGING EVOLVED OVER TIME AND WHAT IS INTELLIGENTSIA DOING NOW?
Marcus: We’ve pushed some boundaries from packaging and processing. 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 and putting 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, whether it’s your grocery store—making all of that work, and then pushing it from a design perspective too.
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. It exists in the areas where we put our coffee. You want that to be as equal to the experience, to the brand experience that you’re trying to promote. 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 look for, without having to position it in a certain way too.
Special thanks to Marcus Boni and the Intelligentsia team for letting us crash their celebration day and to La Marzocco for opening their space for our clunky interview set-up. Want to hear more from Marcus and the Intelligentsia story? Check out our episode on Unpacking Intelligentsia.