to Intelligentsia Roaster’s success, the driving force behind everything the company strives to do and does do -- well, the secret, magical ingredient is out. Quality. As husband-and-wife co-owners Doug Zell and Emily Mange like to emphasize, no matter what plans they have for Intelligentsia, none of the other factors matter if the quality isn’t there.
In only a few short years, this coffee roaster has put its name on the map as one of Chicago’s top coffees (with a strong tea identification on the way). Intelligentsia not only has two cafes located in Chicago, but also has grown to have a multitude of wholesale customers, including Chicago restaurants such as Charlie Trotter’s and Blackbird (whose chef is a 2004 James Beard Award winner), the Manhattan-based Keens Steakhouse, as well as St. Louis’s The Crossing. Intelligentsia roasts are also used in coffeehouses across the country: Pittsburgh’s Grounds for Appeal, Detroit’s Café de Troi, Los Angeles’s Swork, Boston’s’ Diesel, and Cafe Artigiano, Vancouver’s award winning café, which often produces champion Baristas.
Intelligentsia Coffee, which derives its name from the European coffeehouses of yesteryear (before the days of coffee chain stores), when cafes were locations for people to gather for lively intellectual discussion, was founded in 1995 when Zell and Mange decided to take their marriage one step further and turn their complimentary work styles into a business. Zell had started his coffee career as a barista (in fact, most of Intelligentsia’s employees have been baristas at one time or another). He had worked at Pete’s Coffee in the early 90’s, and then went on to work at the now defunct Spinelli and then Tully’s. Before teaming up with Mange, Zell had tried his hand at being an entrepreneur when he opened a small juice and sweetened ice tea business with a childhood friend. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the idea was ahead of its time and didn’t work out. Enter Mange, who had worked at Whole Foods; the pair decided the natural progression for a business together was to go into coffee.
The couple decided to make their home (and business) base in Chicago, where they started with a small coffee roaster that roasted 40,000 pounds a year. “We thought we knew a lot about coffee,” Zell jokes, referring back to the beginnings of Intelligentsia. While their knowledge certainly has grown throughout the years of the business, it was obviously enough in place to bring their current amount of wholesale customers to around 700. The company presently has around 70 employees and Zell emphasizes again the barista beginnings of the company. “Almost everyone who works here has been a barista. You have to have a love of coffee first, then based on your skill set, more opportunities in the company are available,” he says.
|Roasting at Intelligentsia's headquarters
Intelligentsia’s coffee is roasted in small batches by trained artisan roasters. The company roasts on gas-fired, cast iron, vintage German Ideal Rapid Gothot roasters from the 1950’s, which they shipped in, believing the machines give the coffee a distinctive taste. Green coffee is stored on racks in the company’s warehouse, and includes shipments from countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Yemen, Sumatra and Tanzania, which arrive weekly. The company does private label roasting for such companies as Crate & Barrel, Fox & Obel (an upscale market in Chicago), and Frontera Foods, amongst others.
“Our growth has been organic,” says Zell. “We didn’t really envision this. We’ve always just strived for the best quality.”
In fact, Zell describes the company’s business motto as three simple steps: “quality, serendipity and strategy,” with a healthy dose of good luck. In just 10 short years, their business has grown to 1.25 million pounds a year.
The Power of Partnerships… and World Exclusives
If Intelligentsia puts their emphasis on quality, it’s for good reason. The company’s coffee buyer, Geoff Watts, spends over half his year traveling at source to ensure the quality in the consumer’s cup.
Watts came to Intelligentsia as a roaster at first, gradually moving into the buyer role. “There are very few things I’d rather do,” Watts says about working with coffee. Watts emphasizes that while many companies may pride themselves on their work from “source to cup,” they aren’t really putting in the time it takes to build strong relationships that everyone can benefit from. “Many companies’ ‘relationship coffees’ begin and end with the marketing,” says Watts. He says by a coffee company emphasizing attention on the social and economic realities of the farms and working together to better conditions, that is what helps create quality coffee.
|Top: Roasting on a 1950's German Ideal Rapid Gothot antique roaster. Bottom: The Intelligentsia team.
Intelligentsia has a line of coffees marketed as “Intelligentsia Wold Exclusives,” which are touted as the company’s direct result of the effort to craft a product with good taste and social responsibility. The company also has a line of organic and fair trade certified coffees.
“We are trying to produce the new model of specialty coffee,” says Watts. What this means is working with mainly the same people over and over, giving farmers an incentive to produce better and better quality. So far, it is working extraordinarily, as Intelligentsia’s coffee farmers have come part of the company’s family, not nameless faces.
Training, Training and more Training
Working at Intelligentsia is not for those who feel blasé about coffee. The company makes sure their employees know the basics through a program called “Bean Certification,” comprising memorization of drinks and the coffee lineup. All employees are also encouraged to go through various incentive levels, where they can always keep on building their knowledge to the next step, for example, from barista to management to training, and so on. Intelligentsia currently has five baristas who will be participating in the 2005 SCAA Latte Art competition. Intelligentsia takes their training seriously -- in fact, their director of training and knowledge placed first last year in the Great Lakes Barista Competition.
It will be the company’s 10-year anniversary this fall, so one of the immediate things to look for is a special anniversary blend. Intelligentsia hopes also to be able to have their tea brand grow to the same extent as their coffee. They currently offer over 25 flavors of tea under the name Intelligentsia Tea Traders. And tea is not some second place add on -- Intelligentsia takes their tea as seriously as their coffee, supporting organic farming and growers and importers who are environmentally and socially responsible. Other plans include potentially opening boutique stores in three or four markets. Zell says he isn’t going to bother obsessing over every little detail of the future of the company though. His work style is to hire “people who are good and let them do their job.” Judging by the sense of camaraderie amongst employees, it seems a given that whatever Intelligentsia takes on in the future will be successful.
For more information, go to www.intelligentsia.com.