Wherever you go for coffee in Kansas City, you’re likely to find Laura Clark. She’ll be ensconced by the window, with a cup of coffee slowly cooling at her elbow as she sketches, or she’ll be behind the counter, smiling and waiting for your order. Or she’ll be throwing down at a latte art competition, chatting with yet another coffee-friend. If any one person sums up the good aspects of local coffee culture, it might just be Laura, with her friendly smile and her determination to learn ever more about coffee.
Laura loves her coffee job as a barista trainer for two Kaldi’s Coffee locations in Kansas City. When she’s not working behind the bar, she creates fun, colorful illustrations, taking inspiration from artists like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. Lately she’s been creating personal gifts for her friends, like the fine-feathered phoenix she’s currently drawing for PT’s co-owner and new dad Jeff Taylor. As an artist and a barista, she is a happy contributor to the KC coffee scene, but Laura did not have it easy breaking into the industry.
Way back when in the hinterlands of the Kansas side of KC, hanging out in coffee shops with her Church youth group, Laura decided to open a coffeehouse. During high school she participated in a two-year James Beard-accredited culinary arts program, with an eye to include a quality food menu in her future store.
But coffee, while a beverage loved by many across the world, can be an exclusive culture. Laura applied at nearly every coffeehouse in Kansas City, showing up with her hopeful smile, but never got any traction. When a previous job in frozen yogurt finally gave her an opening with the first frozen yogurt/coffeeshop at national chain Scooters, she jumped on the opportunity. Finally, she was serving coffee. She fell in love.
Laura became a regular customer at Homer’s, one of the most iconic second-wave coffeehouses in Kansas City. When a friend who worked there quit, she joined the staff and launched into what she still views as a huge, coffee-centric family. “I still see the regulars—they ask how I’m doing, I ask about their grandkids . . .”
While at Homer’s, Laura competed in the 2013 Big Central Barista Competition for the first time, showing up with a whipped cream charger full of cream infused with Guatemala La Voz espresso from local roaster E.F. Hobbs, candied ginger, and cherries, topping the cream with sparkling water and an orange peel, her culinary education shining through. She didn’t place, but she did go to Melbourne. (See below.) The next year, competing for her new company, Kaldi’s, her drink was simpler but still ginger-centric (she credits her fascination with the spicy root to her mother’s Korean heritage). She reduced a simple syrup on stage with ginger, brown sugar, Madagascar vanilla, and dried figs. She pulled Panama Elida Estate espresso directly on the three grams of the reduction and offered the judges a cinnamon stick to stir the drink.
Back in 2013, Laura was humble enough to fill out every part of Natvia’s bingo card during the barista competition, when a lot of baristas didn’t bother. And she won big: an all expenses-paid trip to the World Barista Championship in Melbourne (where, coincidentally, she watched fellow Kansas Citian Pete Licata finesse his way to the WBC title). She still recalls the thrill when a stranger recognized her there by her Instagrammed shoes—white TOMS she had partially dyed in coffee and written “Melbourne”, and “Australia” across. Her irrepressible hope and joy made a place for her there in the swirl of world coffee people, and she floated home newly inspired in her coffee career.
It’s a unique place in the world that Laura is building, and she’s never shy about how she hopes to open her own coffeehouse someday. For now, she stays busy with coffee and art—menu boards for new KC shop Crows Coffee and for her Kaldi’s locations, a Caffeine Crawl poster collaboration with designer Jason Burton of The LAB, and gifts of art that make their way all over the states and bring joy wherever they land. Her simple philosophy, “everyone loves art,” applies to the cups of coffee she serves on a regular basis, the work of art she is laboring to create from her own life, and the art she takes increasing confidence in producing.
—Emily McIntyre is a beverage writer based in Portland.