Interview with Tony Konecny, Coffee Mastermind behind LA’s Tonx.org

Tony_shark

Tonx.org is an L.A. based coffee purveyor that brings carefully sourced and roasted beans to your door every other week. You can try a free trial of their service here. Founder Tony Konecny has been active in the coffee world for some time now and helped ignite LA’s current movement towards better and better quality coffee. We wanted to find out more about Tonx, coffee in LA, and of course his favorite taco spot…

What’s your favorite taco spot?

Tacos Leo truck on Venice at LaBrea is a favorite. Guisado’s in Echo Park of course.

 

What is the biggest misconception about coffee?

Can I only pick one? Seriously, there are so many legacy misconceptions and new ones appearing every day.

I’d say the biggest misconception about coffee is that it’s expensive. It can feel expensive when you’re standing in a slow line in front of some prohibition-era cosplaying barista and shelling out 5 bucks for a cup – but even with that kind of a price premium, it is still almost a bargain.

For comparison, a pint of craft microbrew at a typical bar will set you back more than a great cappuccino or brewed coffee, even though the margins on that beer are much better and it requires less skill to pull a tap than to pull a decent espresso. But craft beer doesn’t suffer from quite the same perception of being an upscale, pricey luxury and it dodged a lot of unnecessary pretense as it became more mainstream.

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When you make your own coffee at home, even the finest coffees become pretty cheap. We are buying and roasting some of the finest coffees available and our per-cup cost for our customers is barely 80 cents a pop. Much cheaper than most sodas, red bull, gas station coffee – and a hell of a lot cheaper than those popular k-cups and nespresso pods.

And we spend a lot of time fighting the misconception that you have to be a trained barista with expensive gear to make a good cup. Not remotely true. It is all about starting with really great, fresh roasted beans.

 

Is there a downside to the trend of better and better coffee?

I think its a very good trend, especially for the livelihoods of coffee farmers in the developing world. There is a downside to the trendiness of it, though. A lot of people jump into the coffee industry without a enough discernment about the product, hide it behind a lot of window dressing or misplaced enthusiasm, and find that the actual business of running a coffeebar is much tougher than it looks. Good coffee is still hard to come by, but it is definitely getting better in a lot of places.

 

Who are the pioneers in the better coffee movement and who inspired you to get into the coffee business?

 I was inspired to get into coffee after serving time in corporate jobs that I lacked any passion for and by the economy going to shit after 9/11. I thought getting a job at a coffee shop would be like a semi-vacation or a way to put my adulthood on pause… but  instead stumbled into a whole world and an accidental career that I really love.

 

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At the time I started there didn’t seem to be that much of a cohesive movement yet. But there was a generation of us all trying to sort out what was going on and we were finding each other online and trying to dust off the maps. The more we dug into coffee, the more it seemed like there was just a ton of untapped potential.

There were small but very friendly rivalries at that point and everyone was trying to impress each other a bit (and not always doing enough to impress customers or the public who still remain a largely skeptical of this whole obsessive coffee thing). Later I took inspiration from people like Intelligentsia’s pioneering green coffee buyer Geoff Watts, Stumptown’s founder Duane Sorenson, various punks and philosophers of the trade who shared similar ethos. (If this were a hip hop record and not an interview, I’d feel compelled to give more shoutouts.)

 

What is tonx.org and how is it different from traditional coffee stores?

The biggest difference is our focus on the home user. The coffee companies that I and much of my team came out of were pushing the envelope on great coffee but still running very traditional businesses focused on serving large wholesale customers. It always felt like home users of the beans weren’t getting the best possible product, weren’t getting great service, and were being told (implicitly or explicitly) by the barista community that brewing a good cup of coffee is rocket science, better left to the pros. We like to call bullshit on that.

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Photo by Ryan Brown

With Tonx we are trying to push the envelope on the green coffee sourcing side (our green buyer Ryan Brown is aces and we’ve been all over Africa and Latin America this year), really nail the roasting side, and improve the customer service side – delivering people a coffee experience we think is hard to match. We don’t cut corners. So far it has been working out and we keep making big upgrades on all fronts. I am blessed to have probably the best team in coffee. It feels like we’re staging an insurrection.

Most of all, we listen to and really love our customers. There is something sort of sacred about being invited into someone’s daily ritual and we never take it for granted.

 

How would you characterize the “coffee scene” in Los Angeles, and how is that representative (or not) of the trends in the larger coffee world? Favorite place(s) to drink coffee in LA?

I’ve been ducking journalists since we launched who’ve wanted to lump us into some emerging “LA Coffee Scene”. I’m wary of the concept. New York City enjoyed a lot of hype around its coffee scene – largely on the strength of one very enthusiastic NYTimes writer – and only some of the shops that were getting press were actually putting out good product compared to benchmark shops in, say, Portland or San Francisco. It adds some unsettling legitimacy to the notion that the emperor has no clothes on a lot of this third-wave coffee, barista culture hype – which I think sets us back.

 

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That said, LA is doing pretty well. My old colleague Kyle Glanville (who I worked with opening the first Intelligentsia in Silver Lake) has two shops of his own now (with another Intelli alum Charles Babinski) G&B at Grand Central Market downtown and Go Get ‘Em Tiger in Larchmont. My friends at Handsome in the Arts District have a great crew. Intelli’s coffeebars here roll gangbusters. Places like Cognoscenti (Culver CIty), Proof Bakery (Atwater), Cafe Dulce (Little Tokyo), Hart and The Hunter (West Hollywood)… all reliable for getting a good drink. A lot has happened in a few short years here. People seem eager to open up new shops all the time, but I think very few of them ever do enough volume to pay and keep a well trained staff and deliver a consistently good product. Coffeebars are deceptively hard, good locations are hard to come by, and getting the doors open as a food business in this town is still much harder than it ought to be.

Internationally, a lot of the coffee world pays attention to LA. I think Angeleños are more open to new ideas and there is a creative spirit here that expresses itself in the culinary scene. It seems like you can get away with something sort of “high concept” here without as much eye-rolling and people will embrace it.

 

Do you have a lucky number?

If I do, it hasn’t revealed itself to me yet.

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Comments (2) to “Interview with Tony Konecny, Coffee Mastermind behind LA’s Tonx.org”

  1. the sock puppet is a winner. can’t afford this stuff, but it sure is fascinating.

  2. There are definitely a ton of misconceptions about coffee, and it being too expensive is likely the biggest one. Yeah, buying a pound of great beans from a great roaster is more expensive than, say, Folgers. But compared to a lot of other things that we shell out for every single day, coffee is still amazingly affordable. It’s a battle I fight every day.