For the last few months, the corner of 5th and Mateo in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles has been abuzz with activity as the WoodSmithe team puts the finishing touches on Handsome Coffee Roasters' flagship store. Handsome has made a splash in the specialty coffee world since they announced that Tyler Wells and Chris Owens would be teaming up with World Barista Champion Michael Phillips to launch the coffee company of their dreams.
With the space nearly ready to open its doors, the collaboration between the roasters and the builders—who also happen to be neighbors—seems like a natural one. Also in on the operation is Na Young Ma's Proof Bakery, whose pastries will be served alongside the coffee.
We met with Owens to see the space coming together and talk more about their process for sourcing and roasting. "Every roaster is going to color the coffee in some way," he says. "You bring your style to it. The dynamic, interesting, sweet, fruity coffees that we tend to buy are complimented by the roast style. I want to start thinking of it as a partnership between mother-nature and me as a roaster." Summing up their simple philosophy, Owens adds, "We source beans responsibly and sustainably. We are going to buy delicious coffees, prepare them well, and try not to mess that up. Really, that's it, I want to get people excited about coffee."
Handsome's Tyler Wells and WoodSmithe's Nathanael Balon also sat down with us to talk about the new ultimate custom-designed coffee bar.
The inevitable question, where did the name Handsome come from?
Wells: We went around and around about names for more than two months. Basically our whole aesthetic and philosophy is about way back when, when things were made by hand. Things were quality, a recall to the days of really cool equipment like sewing machines. I was thinking about old bread ovens because I like baking. One morning I was half asleep in bed and it hit me, Handsome Coffee. We are Handsome Coffee Roasters. I texted Chris: "Handsome Coffee Roasters?" He texted back "expletive... yes!" It was perfect. It's a little bit tongue and cheek, but as the aesthetic builds and as the brand gets bigger, you get it.
How did you find this location in the Arts District?
Wells: The Arts District was our first choice. Mike was still in Chicago but we had agreed to terms. Chris and I would drive around this neighborhood at least one day a week, but had a hard time finding anything. We met Carl from Creative Spaces. He asked us to describe our dream: Arts District, corner, bow truss, skylights, 3,500 square feet, clearspan, 220 power, three-phase. He called me at 10 o'clock that night and said we were going to see a space at nine in the morning. It was almost fate. When you get to the Arts District you start to understand the community down here. It is not as dense as some of the rest of Los Angeles, but quality-wise it is 100%. Every person down here is doing something awesome.
Nathanael, how does the Handsome Coffee fit into what you do at Woodsmithe?
Balon: I think it made sense on a number of levels. Primarily the local. We are local. This is my neighborhood. This is where I live. This is where I work. I have a built-in high value for new businesses and the types of businesses that are going to take the time to really create a great product and offer it here in my neighborhood. Right off the bat, I started to understand the level of quality coffee they were going to bring into the neighborhood. These guys had language for what they wanted to create. What we do is translate that language into form. We want to work with brands that have great stories and are interested in doing great work. The fact that they are doing it blocks away from our office and shop is just perfect.
How would you describe the WoodSmithe aesthetic?
Balon: I am always striving for simplicity and honesty in design and an exposure of as many of the elements as possible. Our aesthetic is typically pretty strong, fairly masculine with clean lines and simplistic forms. We purposely put as little as possible in the space to be able to expose as much of the process as we could. You can see green coffee in the back on the pallets in bags, and we put in a huge glass wall to showcase the roasting process. Then, you are staring at a finished product.
How did you design the area for the Probat roaster?
Balon: The Probat roaster is an amazing piece of machinery. Its simplistic, strong, and clean. It’s a beautiful machine. Our goal there was to take more of a museum or art gallery approach. Let this unit stand-alone in a clean space and just be beautiful.
The wall by the roaster is made from white subways tiles and along the hallway wood ones. What are those made from?
Balon: The wood subway tile is made from one of Handsome's core materials...aged Maple. We utilized Handsome's brand imagery through laser etching to overlay a wall-paper like pattern over the wood layout.
What's on the menu?
Wells: It reads like this: brewed coffee, espresso, espresso with milk. Three ounces, six ounces, 10 ounces. That's it. It's pretty straightforward because if you took a poll of the people who come in here and asked, "What do you think a cappuccino is?" everyone has a different idea. It will strip away the stigma and attitude that often comes with serving great coffee.
Are you going to frown at people who pull out a sugar packet?
Wells: No, but they will have to pull out their own sugar packet because we won't have any. It's not because we are anti-sugar. I have one hell of a sweet tooth, but I don't want sugar in my coffee. This coffee is fantastic and it does not need sugar. We have probably served about six or seven thousand cups of Handsome coffee at this point. Almost invariably people come back and say, "this does not even need sugar."
What do you say to the people who might ask, what's all the fuss? It's just a drink.
Wells: That's actually fine. Crappy coffee is just a drink. Chris' sentiment is if you want to opt in, then we'll nerd out with you. But if you just want a drink that is good, that's fine too, just come in to order a coffee without having to hear about every detail. On its base level it should be user friendly. That is the whole idea of the space. You come in you know exactly where to order. Someone is right there.
To learn more about how Handsome's flagship store came to be, check out this video of the building process.
Handsome Coffee Roasters
582 Mateo Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013