(Featured photo: Lance Asper.)Known for sun, fun, and rhythm, one thing Miami was not known for was specialty coffee. Until recently.
Since 2010, specialty coffee has spread across Miami. Through customer education and a focus on service and quality, a handful of pioneers have transformed the city’s coffee industry.
Jump-starting Miami’s specialty scene wasn’t the idea when Joel and Leticia Pollock dreamed of creating their own coffee company. Joel had worked in coffee in Portland, Oregon; Leticia had worked in Portland and her native Brazil. Together, they wanted to do coffee their way—they just didn’t know where. While vacationing in Miami, they saw their opportunity.
“The first thing we noticed when we came to Miami on vacation was that we wanted to go to a coffee shop and read the newspaper and there was no local coffee shop. None,” Leticia says. “There was no local, specialty roaster.”
The Pollocks were further motivated by coffee’s widespread popularity in the city: even without a specialty scene, coffee was king in Miami.
Cuban-style espresso drinks were most popular. Customer favorites include the Café Cubano, made from a shot of espresso whipped with a lot of sugar, the cortado (steamed milk and espresso), and the cortadito (espresso, sugar, and steamed or evaporated milk). Often made from pre-ground industrially roasted coffee, these drinks are also cheap.
“There was a lot of Cuban coffee,” Leticia says. “We noticed that people love coffee and that people drink coffee all of the time, but no one was doing coffee the way we were planning on doing it.”
In 2010, Joel and Leticia started Panther Coffee, the city’s first small-batch specialty coffee roaster, retailer, and wholesaler. The flagship café opened in the then-transitional and now artsy Wynwood neighborhood, and has become a meeting place for the creative community.
Stepping up the local game meant introducing a higher-quality product that was locally roasted and manually brewed. They tapped the producer relationships they had forged over the years and came up with a selection of single-origins, as well as two signature espresso blends. The East Coast blend is chocolate-forward and full-bodied, while the West Coast blend uses African coffees for more acidity and a sparkling, floral flavor.
Panther roasts on a vintage ten-kilo Probat Perfekt from the twenties. Their menu includes a variety of brew methods, including Chemex, french press, Kalita Wave, and BKON—even their own take on Cuban-style espresso drinks. “We stay true to what we came to the table with, but we added a cortado and a cortadito to the menu. It’s our version of what that would be. We don’t put sugar in the espresso,” Joel says.
Educating their customers about what they were doing differently was part of getting off the ground. “That’s true of any market. It’s not necessarily unique to Miami but we definitely had a little bit of education work to do. We do that on a daily basis. We make it about our coffee program, where we’re buying coffee, how we roast it, and how we prepare it. We do a lot of training in house,” Joel says.
Staying faithful to their core ideas but remaining flexible enough to understand their customers’ preferences have been the keys to Panther’s success. “It’s very important to respect your consumer,” Leticia says. “At first, we didn’t think we were going to have too many food items. We added empanadas and quiche and a few things that would cater to the palette of our customers. We created the East Coast and the West Coast blends for different palettes. It’s important not to be a snob about it.”
A three-time Good Food Award winner, Panther has locations in Miami Beach at Sunset Harbour and Coconut Grove. This year, they’ll open a new café and roastery headquarters in Little Haiti, and a café in the MiMo district.
ETERNITY COFFEE ROASTERS
About a month after Panther opened, Eternity Coffee Roasters debuted a downtown café, fueled only by a pour-over bar.
Co-owner Chris Johnson was planning to open his coffee company back home in the Bay Area when he had a revelation. “While I was living in Miami and working on the business plan, I kept going to Starbucks. I thought, ‘This is so ironic.’ I pieced together then that Miami was really devoid of some of the things that we’ve had in every other city that I’ve lived in. It just hadn’t been so blatant to me.”
Johnson had gained years of experience working with a coffee importer. For Eternity, he teamed up with co-owner Cristina Garces, whose family owns Finca La Eternidad in Antioquia and supplies the company’s Colombian beans. Eternity also sources from other producers across Latin America and Africa.
Johnson roasts in-store on a twenty-five-pound San Franciscan for clients that include the local French café MIAM and thirty Whole Foods stores across Florida. In the Eternity café, drinks are made on the custom steel pour-over bar Johnson designed to accommodate up to seven simultaneous Hario V60s.
Starting out, educating customers about how slow brewing works was critical. “I think there was a chance if we hadn’t done it well that people wouldn’t have come back,” Johnson says. “We had to execute with a high level of quality for the product, high level of quality for the service, and education for people who are like, ‘Whatever, just give me a cup of coffee.’”
In addition to doing regular public cuppings, Johnson says baristas engage customers in daily teaching opportunities. “It’s an ongoing process of educating customers. We explain while we’re preparing their drink; we’ll explain what happens during the grinding process. We smell the fragrance and evaluate the fragrance at that moment versus the cupping notes that we have on the blackboard,” Johnson says. “We’re explaining the whole process over and over again.”
Eternity keeps things fresh by experimenting with new flavors, such as the nitro cold-brew infused with pomegranate. “We also do a Toxic Tonic, which is tonic water and espresso. We’re in a tropical climate so the market is looking for some cold drinks,” Johnson says.
The city’s palate continues to evolve. “Miami is in a renaissance right now,” Johnson says. “For everything from specialty coffee, to restaurants that are doing elevated cuisine, to craft beer, to art. It’s going to continue to grow.”
Camila Ramos’s All Day opened in May 2016. Located in the Park West neighborhood, it’s a coffee bar and restaurant with a menu showcasing farm-fresh eggs.
All Day’s drink-ordering system helps customers hone in on exactly what they want. Baristas walk customers through a series of questions to determine whether they prefer espresso, manual brew, drip coffee, a milk pairing, or another offering. Additional questions help select the size of the drink and preferred texture—microfoam isn’t a mandate.
“We see it as a flowchart. It’s not like we say, here’s every single option you can order. That would be overwhelming. We guide customers,” Ramos says.
Being in an international city, Ramos finds that customers have varying ideas about how drinks such as a cappuccino or a latte should be prepared based on their own experiences. She wants to get it right.
For the ordering system to work baristas have to be highly trained, explains Ramos, who formerly worked as a barista, educator, and manager with Panther Coffee. “[Our] system allows us to really find out what somebody is looking for and what their preferences are in flavor and texture, and also it allows us to have a conversation with the customer,” Ramos says. “We’re asking, ‘what are you really looking for and how can we make this special for you?’”
Drinks are prepared on the custom five-group La Marzocco Strada (a two-group EP and three-group EE), which gets plenty of use. “Miami is a city that is very espresso heavy. In most other specialty coffee shops in the US your main concern is how are we going to make this many pour-overs. We’re able to make our pour-overs because we don’t really get orders for them that often,” Ramos says.
Seasonal features include cold-brew mixed with rosemary limeade, and the Royal Tea, a cascara-based milk tea. Customers can also order a cupping flight, consisting of three samples from the multi-roaster program, which includes Ruby Coffee Roasters, Toby’s Estate, Kuma Coffee, and local roaster Per’La.
PER’LA SPECIALTY ROASTERS
In a city without a strong culture of customer service, Per’La seeks to be the exception. Paul Massard, a certified Q grader, and Chris Nolte are the managing partners of Per’La Specialty Roasters. Massard gained experience as a green coffee buyer and as the director of operations for two coffee farms in Hawaii. Nolte’s background is in business development and branding. Friends since attending the University of Miami, Massard and Nolte used their diverse skills to form the roastery in 2015.
Per’La roasts on a fifteen-kilo Loring Falcon in South Miami’s Bird Road Art District. They create custom blends and offer highly ranked single-origin coffees to clients that include boutique hotels, restaurants, and coffee shops that prioritize creative cuisine.
“Helping the city grow from a culinary aspect is something that we place the focus on,” Nolte says.
Per’La’s owners want to be exemplars for customer service, which they say the city lacks. “Our customers are often surprised about how present we are on accounts, but it’s really important to us to have a coffee partnership,” Nolte says.
They also offer training to their wholesale clients. They provide barista training sessions for all interested staff, as often as necessary, and encourage clients to come to the roastery to check out the operation and learn about their process.
Education is critical for both growing their business and moving the specialty scene forward. “As we continue the education and teach companies what great coffee is, they’re going to go out and share that with their friends. If that spreads like a web we hopefully will have our pool of specialty coffee drinkers growing, which will then elevate the coffee level in general in Miami,” Massard says.
Over the past seven years, specialty coffee has taken root in Miami. Small specialty roasters continue to open; Alaska Coffee has been in Miami for several years, and Blue Bottle announced plans to open two shops this year.
Panther’s Joel Pollock says he’s not surprised by the continued growth. “It’s almost cliché to say, but I think that what we’ll have is a coffee market of more and more specialty coffee drinkers because once you start drinking higher-quality coffee it’s really hard to go back to anything else. It becomes a very basic part of people’s daily routines.”
—Willona M. Sloan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.