story by Josh Taylor Souza
special to The City Wire
SPRINGDALE — For Jon Allen, a morning cup of coffee is much more than a ritual, it is a way of life. He doesn't just drink the stuff. Allen studies it.
The Springdale native and his wife, Andrea, have spent the last four years building a reputation as the coffee guru of Northwest Arkansas. In certain circles Allen is considered the "expert of espresso," or the "bambino of cappuccino" due to his savvy business tactics and genuine love for the java.
In an economic era when even the most powerful coffee giants struggled with underperforming stores in Northwest Arkansas, Allen managed to expand.
In 2009, the Arsaga family sold the Allens two Arsaga's stores via licensing agreements that work somewhat like a franchise, according to Cindy Arsaga. A third store license was sold later to Allen for a Springdale location. The Arsaga family still operates several stores across the region aside from the ones operated by the Allens.
Last year Allen ventured into roasting his own coffee with opening of Anonymous Coffee Roasters and will open a third business (Onyx Coffee Laboratory) next month. Not bad for a guy who got his start as a part-time employee of Arsaga's just a handful of years ago.
"I started working at Arsaga's when I was playing music as my main occupation," said Allen. "I needed a job that was flexible with the hours and (my wife) already worked there, so it was a logical move. After a few years of working in a coffee house I fell in love with the close knit community aspect of it."
Allen said he was able to save some money from playing music and got a small loan that allowed the couple to buy into Arsaga's in 2009.
‘We felt like it was a solid business to put our money and time into," he added. "We still have a close relationship with the (Arsaga) family and because Andrea was a manager at the store before we bought it, the transition was very smooth. We already had a full staff and the only changes we made were adding a few new items to the food menu. The regular customers are the backbone of our industry so we wanted to do everything we could to keep the shop familiar."
Within three years of Allen purchasing the Arsaga's on Crossover and the store on Township, he had a game plan for taking his business to the next level.
TACKLING A GIANT
He realized, like any other mom and pop coffee shop owners, going head-to-head against giants like Starbucks wouldn't be easy.
"All of the owners around here face the same problem," said Allen. "You are trying to price competitively against the big guys like Starbucks, but your at a disadvantage because independent places have to buy everything from out of state and have it shipped in. From the beans to the cups and everything in between. It is hard to keep pace with the big time coffee shops when your having to outsource every single thing in your store."
A little more than a year ago Allen decided to open his own warehouse in Springdale (Anonymous Coffee Roasters), complete with a commercial size roaster and pallet loads of all the other coffee shop accessories needed to cut out the middle-man. It was a game changer for the entire Northwest Arkansas coffee scene.
Allen started with the idea of selling supplies to other local shop owners while also learning to master his own coffee blends.
"We love how things run at Arsaga's, but this was a chance for us to break some new ground," said Andrea Allen. "There is a tight knit community among the shop owners in this area and if one of us is doing well it speaks well of all of us."
In the first year alone Allen has saved close to $50,000 from the Anonymous venture.
“It’s great to see small businesses working together to lower their own operating costs. When small businesses work to raise the tide, their individual boats will rise,” said Bill Fox, business consultant with the Small Business Development and Technology Center at the University of Arkansas.
Though Arsaga's remained true to its old ways, Allen soon began selling his own blends to shops all over the area including T.H. Benton, James at the Mill, Theo's American Kitchen and the new Chancellor Hotel just to name a few.
Fox said Allen is following solid business principles of not trying to fix the things that aren’t broken, while also expanding into a niche market.
"After a couple years of running my own shop I started getting really interested in the chemistry behind making great coffee," said Allen. "I kind of became obsessed with gaining as much knowledge as I could. In other parts of the world coffee is treated much like wine. People want to know everything about the stuff in their mug. From how it grows to how it is roasted and brewed. It is a fascinating process once you throw yourself into it."
With his hands full from a daunting workload, Allen has handed the Arsaga's duties over to his wife Andrea. The couple is getting ready to launch their most inventive operation to date.
Onyx Coffee Laboratory will open to the public in late October at the current Springdale Arsaga's location. Onyx will be the first coffee house of its kind in Northwest Arkansas. It will offer special house blends of java and a menu complete with classic coffee house cuisine.
Modeled after shops in Europe and the Midwest, Onyx will host free weekly coffee tastings and classes on roasting and barista skills.
"We are really excited about (Onyx)," said Andrea Allen. "Our goal is to offer a unique experience that will raise the culture of coffee in the area. There really isn't anything like this around here."
The National Coffee Association says coffee labs are starting to pop up around the country in some form or fashion as more coffee drinkers become students of their favorite beverage.
Just weeks away from the opening of Allen's third coffee shop, the giant empire of Starbucks is set to open its newest NWA location on Martin Luther King Boulevard. One more cog in the mean bean machine that constantly finds itself at odds against Allen and his growing empire.
"There is a feeling among the small time owners that it is us against (them)," said Andrea Allen. "I think the reason we have had success competing against the big shops is because our community supports its local business and we offer a personal experience that the big chains can't compete with. I compare it to trying to open a Pizza Hut in Chicago. I think most of the people in Chicago would prefer a deep-dish Chicago style pizza. That is how I believe the people in this area feel about their coffee."
For more information on activities offered at Onyx, follow them on Facebook.
BY THE NUMBERS
400 million: The number of cups of coffee consumed by Americans each day.
7%: The annual growth rate for coffee shops worldwide.
No.1: Americans ranks first in coffee consumption worldwide.
$18 billion: The value of the U.S. coffee market.