Drink Insider: Jon Allen of Onyx Coffee

Ever wonder what makes some of Arkansas’ food personalities tick? Food Insider takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week it’s Jon Allen, owner and operator of ONYX Coffee Lab.
First off, how did Onyx gain its roots?
We had this company called Anonymous Coffee Roasters – it’s still around today. That’s really where we cut our teeth learning the in’s and out’s of coffee and the industry. … I was doing private label roasting and a lot of consulting. … Coca Cola hired us to develop a specialty coffee blend for a small, boutique roastery, and wanted a really good coffee blend. That was our plan, doing jobs like that.
I got to the point where we would develop these things that we thought were phenomenal, and our clients would answer us and essentially say, “This is awesome, this is exactly what we need, and now we need to take it and we need the price point to be cut in half.” And I kept getting so frustrated.
Why the Springdale location?
We had bought a couple of Arsaga’s cafés we were running out of, more of a financial thing than anything else. … At a certain point I kept thinking, “We’re helping all these people find these really nice coffees, and they’re cutting them and blending them to a bad product and we should just be buying them ourselves.”
But we didn’t really have the capital, so we took a year of planning what Onyx was going to be, and then we rebranded the Springdale Arsaga’s that we built to Onyx. We moved our smaller roaster in there, changed the menu and the coffee. We figured if it works in Springdale it will work in the rest of the state.
Where did the decision come for Onyx to push into more experimental things?
Personally I’ve always been into culinary stuff in general, and I like the movement in coffee of taking a serious approach – whether it’s plating or design or the quality of ingredients or what we’re doing with those ingredients. I mean, it’s kind of a generic speech, which I guess all chefs would say, but it’s fighting this uphill battle of what coffee is supposed to be. … We just look at coffee as a culinary item.

You guys seemed to grow around the same time the craft cocktail movement hit Arkansas. Do you think that has helped your mission?
Totally. Even in high-end specialty coffee, growth has been real slow around the Midwest. I think the craft movement in general helps a lot, because at the end of the day you still have people willing to pay a certain amount for your product. Plus, they are willing to wait a little bit and not have that fast food mentality.
We hear you guys take your barista training seriously. Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s a six-month training process for baristas. … Onyx has really changed how we do things. I think in having really good baristas we create a place that’s safe for people who come in and decide they want to have a career in coffee. … We have about 10 classes we’ll start people with – lectures on farming, logistics of coffee, milk chemistry, extraction period – things like that. Once they pass knowledge courses they’ll move up.
Has the training lead into any new coffee shops springing up?
The people are so passionate. It allows them to do something more, and actually, we highly encourage people to open their own roastery, open their own shops. Puritan Coffee was the first one to do it – they’re in Fayetteville. In fact we support our people opening their own coffee shops so much we are usually willing to provide some of the initial investment for them to get started and help with sourcing and purchasing equipment.
What’s been one of the biggest challenges since starting this venture?
I feel like we’ve had to work really, really hard to get national recognition. I think Arkansas has a really interesting stigma – well the Midwest and the South in general, especially for craft coffee, which has grown mostly in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, at least in the US. We’ve got a lot of push-back from different competitions, the Good Food Awards has been really great for us – because it’s one of the largest high-end roasting competitions, and we’ve won two years in a row. It’s a really interesting dynamic – the first year we got so much hate from a lot of publications. The second year we got so much praise from the same people. It was a little bit annoying to be honest.

Is there a city in the Midwest or South that you think has craft coffee figured out?
Kansas City probably has the best coffee scene in the country. They have a lot to admire in their coffee scene and I think it’s just phenomenal. That’s just a coffee scene that works together … they have raised the floor in specialty coffee which I think is the most important thing.
Do you have any future plans?
We do for sure, something very big, but we are not quite ready to say yet.
Anything in the works for Little Rock?
We think about it often. The biggest problem is that we invest so much in that training period that it would be hard to train them in NWA then send them down to Little Rock, or maintain the same level of training in two locations. We are actively encouraging any of our baristas who have a desire to start their own place to look at markets like Little Rock that has a strong desire for our coffee. It will not be an Onyx branded coffee house, but it would bring our passion and style to Little Rock. There are also several coffee houses and restaurants around central Arkansas that use our beans, so you can get Onyx Coffee.

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