From Start To Finish
Life happens around a cup of coffee. Pouring your first cup to get your day started, catching up with old friends at your favorite shop, late night brews to keep you awake for the midnight showing of Harry Potter, er, your favorite movie. I have experienced so many life moments in a coffee shop, spanning the spectrum from the joys of new friendship to sharing hard times with loved ones and so many things in between. That hot little brew has the power to bring people together.
Elemental Coffee in Midtown Oklahoma City is the picture of community that coffee fosters. In the short time that I spent with the Elemental partners Stephen, Chris and Laura, it was obvious that they knew their patrons on a level that surpassed the “hi, thanks for stopping in” mentality and moved into that “thanks for living life with us” realm. They started Elemental Coffee wanting to share a good thing with others, which is why they purchased their tomato red Probat Roaster to foster each cup of coffee they offer from the green, raw bean to roasted to a fragrant, steaming brewed cup of joe.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with Stephen, Chris and Laura learning about the early stages of Elemental, and time with Chief Roaster Rachel Apple watching the roasting process. Rachel lives, breathes and loves coffee—enough to show her love in tattoo form. She happily gave me a background of a coffee plant on her forearm and then grabbed a scoop of green beans to show how the coffee goes from an unroasted green bean to the brown coffee beans that we are accustomed to. It was fascinating to see how much science goes into the process, how they electronically track each roast so they can offer consistency in their product, and how the perfect temperature can bring out different notes in a coffee bean. As their name suggests, they have their roasts down to its most intentional form.
Names: Stephen Michalik, Partner, Chris Holliday, Partner, Laura & Laurent Massenat, Partners, Rachel Apple, Chief Roaster
Business Name: Elemental Coffee
What area of town is your shop in?
We are located at the corner of Hudson & 8th in the heart of Midtown.
Tell us what made you decide to open Elemental:
Our desire to bring the world's best coffees to Oklahoma City and catalyze the growth of coffee culture and education.
How did you choose your name?
We wanted our name to reflect our commitment to showcasing coffee in its purest form—excellent coffee at its most elemental.
Tell us a little background on your business, where your inspiration came from, and what made you decide to take the plunge and open Elemental:
As food culture was developing in Oklahoma City, the need for a great locally roasted coffee was evident. We knew we weren't the only ones ordering from out-of-state roasters or ordering greens to roast at home. The investment was minimal, we had warehouse space to use on West Main Street, and the work was part-time to begin with. It was easy to jump in with that first step, and we knew we would open a cafe when the time was right.
What is your most popular bean?
Vaquero, currently a Brazilian, appeals to the more traditional coffee drinker, looking for the lower notes a cowboy seeks. Our current Purusha is from Ethiopia and brings vanilla, strawberry jam and baking spices that a more sophisticated drinker might enjoy in the cup. For the big adventurer, Yippee IA is always exciting and out of the ordinary- ,currently from DR Congo.
What does a typical day at the shop look like?
We put in a lot of hours both on the floor and behind the scenes. Whether it be serving the guests, making drinks, roasting coffee, or cooking, we are always researching to better educate ourselves and our guests. We also love taking breaks throughout the day to hang out with our customers, who become friends and make our job so much fun.
Tell us about your food & business theory:
We focus on quality in everything we do, which is why it took a few years to transition from roasting only, to also operating the cafe, and finally, adding a full kitchen with breakfast, lunch, and brunch. We provide sustainable, high quality, health conscious food that is sourced as locally and ethically as possible. Our menu offers something for everyone with vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous items that are creative and out of the ordinary. We also focus on making our guests feel welcome and at ease when ordering coffees and foods that may push them outside their comfort zone.
One of the things that I think really makes you great is that you roast the coffee you serve. What made you decide to roast your own instead of sourcing it out?
We have always thought of the cafe as a playground for the roaster—a place to innovate, educate, and bring the best coffees the world has to offer, freshly roasted, to Oklahoma City. We cup, on average, 90 coffees for each one that makes the roaster and we truly love every bean that comes through our door.
On coffee packages, I see descriptions of different flavor notes that can be found but often are lost on me. Do you have suggestions on how we can teach our taste buds to be more in tune with identifying them?
It is a good practice to begin tasting intentionally. For example, take a bite of a strawberry and think about the sweetness, acidity, and aroma— what makes it taste like a strawberry? The more you think about and are aware of what you are tasting in food and drink, the more you will be able to recognize those notes in coffee, but also in wine, beer, and whisky.
What role does community involvement play in your business plan?
Community involvement is our mode of operation, rather than our business plan. It is who we are. People with relationships and a space to help people connect. We have always made donations to support local efforts in health, education, and physical activity, and participated in local events and demos, but our greatest strength is the relationships we have built. Through our co-founding and continued work on H & 8th Night Market and our relationship with DNA Racing, we are gearing up for the nationally sanctioned ProAm Classic next year that will combine three days of bike racing in three downtown districts, with the annual H & 8th, and more events to be announced for June 3-5, 2016.
What is the most rewarding part of your business?
The guests who walk in the door, the quality we offer them, and the connections they make to each other. Our space was intentionally designed to encourage people to talk to each other and to meet new friends at the bar or at the European style tables. As Tracy Zeeck likes to say, we have become the town square of Oklahoma City. It's a place where you can meet graphic designers, artists, state representatives, non-profit leaders, developers, event planners, and creatives of all types. That extends to our staff, whose talent ranges from visual arts to photography to recipe creation—our art curator and graphic designer, Aaron Morvan, was a barista in the shop before he went out on his own. We have as much creativity behind the bar as walks in the front door.
Coffee shops seem like a hub for community life. Could you share a story with us about the most fun/exciting or weird thing that has ever happened in the shop?
For me the most exciting things are the connections made that give birth to new projects. Take a youth mentoring program, a professional cycling team, a Community Advisory Board chair, a bike-share program and mix them all together. You get a for-credit character class that pairs students with mentors, teaches repair and maintenance, teaches safety and group riding, and changes the lives of students through the freedom and independence of owning their own bike. An idea from Baltimore that came to life in Oklahoma City through the network of Elemental regulars. Stay tuned as this program expands and enters the public art arena!
Where do you hope to see Elemental in 5 years?
Elemental will have opened a second location, and why not, a third, with the same quality in coffee and food. We would like an opportunity to serve our current customers and reach a new audience to continue pushing the foodie culture in OKC. Because we often serve visitors to our city, we expect continued growth of the wholesale roasting as well.
Since you opened your doors you have watched Midtown change quite a bit. What new opportunities has this presented, and on the flip side, what challenges has it presented?
Through the efforts of thoughtful developers like Midtown Renaissance, the decision of St. Anthony's to keep its location and invest in the district, the continued work of the Midtown Association, and events like H & 8th Night Market and Six Degrees of Bacon, we have become a destination for visitors to the city as well as those who live in the metro. We only see it as an opportunity to continue elevating the coffee culture in Oklahoma City.
What aspects of Oklahoma City do you think are the best and/or hardest having a restaurant?
Being a part of the food culture, the tight-knit community that does food in OKC, and the network of Keep It Local businesses is rewarding. We value the relationships we have with local farmers and friends who are sources for local fare: urban teahouse, Prairie Thunder, Kize, and Big Sky bakery to name a few. It is challenging in any city to keep up with staffing, training, evolving the menu and the day-to-day. Food service is hard work.
In what ways do you wish to see Oklahoma City grow, and which aspects do you hope never change?
We have undergone an amazing renaissance through years of reinvestment in the core and attracting corporations to locate here. Now, it's time for Oklahoma City to turn its attention to the people who live here and invest in quality of life—education, health, connectivity and culture. Small businesses and districts have a culture of helping each other out, cheering each other on, and that is unique to OKC. Let's not grow to be Dallas or Austin, let's improve and continue investing in ourselves.
Quote from Chief Roaster Rachel Apple:
“There really is no ceiling to how much science and precision can go into every step of the process from the tiniest of coffee plants in coffee growing regions of the world to the perfect extraction right before you drink a cup. It’s staggering how many people across so many countries are involved before you ever enjoy your first cup of coffee in the morning. To get to be a part of that chain of production is really special to me—I do my best to honor all of the work done before the giant bags of green beans ever even get to me…to roast them well and help train our staff to make the best cup possible.”