Photography by Richard Lawrence
On my recent visit to Rogers, Arkansas, I sat down to enjoy a coffee (five coffees actually!) with Onyx owners Andrea and Jon Allen. While Jon was busy cupping upstairs, Andrea and I got a head start. Here’s what I learned.
Andrea and Jon Allen grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, and were high school sweethearts.
In college Andrea worked at the local coffee shop, Arsaga’s, in nearby Fayetteville. She started as a barista and eventually worked her way up to managing a couple of their shops—one in Fayetteville and one in Bentonville. In 2009 the owners were looking to slow down and simplify, so they sold the two shops to Andrea and Jon.
Jon, who is also a musician, traveled with his band and saw the coffee movements happening on the East and West Coasts. In 2010 he bought a roasting machine and began to experiment, though they knew nothing about roasting at the time. “We were fully on the side of retail,” Andrea says.
By 2012 the couple realized they could do their own thing, and push coffee in a new direction. They rebranded the shops, and Onyx Coffee Lab was born.
Andrea explains that Northwest Arkansas is one place, but each town is really different. “Springdale is for workers. Bentonville is Walmart land; it’s super curated in every way. Fayetteville is a college town. Rogers has always been a makers area, but now the older downtown is getting a new look. It’s been a great community for some time,” she says.
Andrea says Rogers has benefited greatly from Walmart and describes the company as “recession proof.” She likes that it brings new people to the area to work and to enjoy amenities like the hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails and Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “Being a local is less common,” explains Andrea.
The Allens decided in November 2015 to move Onyx’s headquarters to Rogers and join the community there. They purchased a large building that once served as storage for trains, and they opened their new headquarters in 2019.
“All of our things are in one place now,” explains Andrea. They house the green coffee, roast it and ship it, in addition to selling it by the cup. Best of all, everyone can see the entire process.
The space feels a bit like a food hall. In addition to the coffee operations, there’s Doughp (pronounced “dope”), a full bakery and kitchen that supplies the coffee shop and caters events; an event space called Dry Storage; and a speakeasy called The Foreman. The building also houses Yeyo’s, a Mexican restaurant owned by chef/farmer Rafael Rios; 11 apartments, one of which is available for rent through Airbnb; and Heirloom, an intimate, hidden, 20-seat, tasting-menu restaurant that serves a multi-course prefix dinner by reservation only three or four nights a week.
“We wanted it to be a place to showcase people who make things. We built it for customers and really enjoy the synergy here,” she says.
Andrea surmises that their customers are mostly young professionals who come to work and hold meetings. “This coffee shop is much more of a destination than the others. Customers are getting drinks and food and staying. Our other shops are 60 percent to-go orders compared to 10 percent here,” she says.
Once Jon finished cupping, he joined Andrea and me for a Q&A conversation.
Edible Memphis: Let’s get this out of the way. How much coffee do you drink each day?
Andrea: At least six to eight cups.
Jon: I’ve already cupped 40 today. Most days I’ve had 10 full cups of coffee by 2 p.m.
What, if anything, about Northwest Arkansas has contributed to your success? Are you affiliated with the Walton family in any way?
Andrea: We are the full owners. We’re staunchly non-investor. We want to be able to do what we want, and not all of our decisions make good business sense! We’re very lucky and grateful to be in this position.
I see you’ve placed in several barista competitions. What’s your secret?
Andrea: I approach the competitions as an opportunity to ask questions of the industry and present things I’m passionate about. For me and our company, it’s really important that we use the opportunities and privileges we’ve been given to be a different kind of voice in the industry.
Commodity production market trading is at historically low rates. Raw, green beans are selling under cost for many producers. More and various bigger players, like Nestle, are driving the market down. This profit-only-driven demand sinks bottom line for suppliers.
We’re really proud of our transparency model.
We publish all of our pricing data online so that anyone can see where we purchased our beans, who we bought them from, what we scored it at, what we paid, and who brought it to us. We’re the only company that does it in real time.
Why is coffee often so cheap?
Jon: A lot of reasons—consumer values, supply outweighs the demand, high yield, mechanized farming in Brazil, bad labor markets.
What can we do?
Jon: Buy expensive coffee—at least double digits.
A bag of coffee that sells for less than $10 is not ethical.
Why do coffee farmers continue to grow and lose money?
Jon: What else are they going to do? There are not a lot of options. For many it is a family business, and they are in perpetual debt. Farms in Ethiopia are smaller than the café, basically a backyard, but there are 10,000 of them. They can’t afford pesticide, so it doesn’t make sense to get certified organic. Fair trade is a great stepping stone, but not what I would call fair. We are only looking for high-quality coffee, and we pay what it’s worth.
Andrea: The average person doesn’t know coffee is a fruit or how it got here. It’s not like other things. You can’t easily visit the coffee farm. You have to trust the roasters and sellers. There is no real regulation.
Have you had any mentors in the coffee world help you along the way?
Andrea: A lot of people have helped us along the way. We’ve also learned from a few costly mistakes.
Jon: Coffee is like the Wild West, and sourcing specialty coffee is kind of insane. There’s no curriculum you can study in school. It’s very odd—there’s not a lot of education behind coffee purchasing. It’s very secretive.
Advice for someone wanting to make a living in the coffee industry?
Andrea: Get ready to work hard. “I’ll just buy a shop and collect a paycheck” is not how it works. It’s very hands-on, and the culture of the shop must be driven by the owner.
Cafés are the new yacht.
I’d advise someone to work in the service industry before jumping in as an owner.
I love that you’ve helped your employees become business owners. Can you give me an example?
Andrea: Kevin Frey opened Puritan in Fayetteville in 2017. He had an entrepreneurial spirit, so we taught him how to manage and gave him seed money. We’re not looking to have 50 shops, so we want to help others open their own shops.
Jon: It’s similar to how Intelligentsia and Stumptown operate. They are two grandfathers in the coffee shop world. I can name two dozen people who came from Intelligentsia off the top of my head. We’d like to model that.
Andrea: We are highly interested in growing the wholesale side of our business. Our retail locations serve as a base for that. We want to be in the downtown of all the little cities in Arkansas.
Stacey Greenberg is the editor in chief of Edible Memphis. You can follow her at @nancy_jew.
Richard Lawrence takes pictures in and around the city of Memphis and the Mid-South. @sundayinmemphis.