Food & Drink

Kansas City’s Not-So-Average Joe

Kansas City’s coffee has made a major upgrade thanks to a dedicated caffeine community

Story by Kelsey Cipolla  |  Photos by Paul Andrews and David Allison

Local coffee lovers have long known what the rest of the country has only recently discovered: Kansas City makes killer coffee. If the success of now big-name companies like The Roasterie and Parisi didn’t have you convinced, the joe being served at KC’s new independently owned coffee shops is sure to wipe away any lingering doubts. Get a taste of the spots caffeinating the city and making it a national drinking destination.

Waldo’s Second Best Coffee is one of several new shops elevating KC’s coffee scene. Photo by David Allison.

Better Brewing

Westport’s Oddly Correct doesn’t offer breakfast sandwiches or smoothies, and patrons accustomed to adding cream and sugar to their morning cup will be in for a surprise—they aren’t offered at the shop, which has attracted a devoted local following and national acclaim from food and drink titles such as Epicurious and Imbibe.

“We like to think of ourselves as curators,” says roaster Michael Schroeder. “The best museums in the world don’t have all the art in the world. They’re curated. If it was all the art that existed, it would be a warehouse. We want to create an experience that’s focused around the coffee first and foremost.”

Photo by Paul Andrews

That approach isn’t beloved by everybody, but Schroeder says that many people are beginning to see coffee as an ingredient with an integrity that shouldn’t be compromised, similar to the wine, craft beer or food carefully prepared at other KC establishments.

“Kansas City is a foodie city. It’s a city to be tasted,” he says. “I think the coffee world in Kansas City is catching up to that.”

One thing is for sure: Kansas City coffee culture has come along way in the last twenty years, led by bean baron Danny O’Neill’s 1993 launch of The Roasterie. The company has since become one of Midwest’s premiere roasters, expanding to open cafes in Brookside, Town Center Crossing and its roasting facility and working to push the boundaries to satisfy beverage lovers’ increasingly evolved palates through collaborations with local restaurants for coffee dinners.

“People know a lot more about coffee right now than they did back in the day,” says bean rover Eli Rami. “Nobody talks about coffee as just a cup of coffee anymore.”

Thanks to the owners’ short attention spans and constant curiosity, new coffees rotate in weekly at Oddly Correct. And while you won’t find many items that have become fixtures on coffee shop menus, you will find locally made goodies like Hana’s Donuts doughnuts. Photos by David Allison.

And most people are paying much more attention to where their coffee comes from and how it’s brewed, says PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. co-founder Fred Polzin.

Started in 1993, the Topeka-based company has experienced the evolution of KC’s coffee culture firsthand. PT’s, which had previously operated stores in Overland Park, returned to the metro this spring when it took over the Crossroads Coffeehouse, specializing in direct trade coffee and espresso and allowing customers to choose how their coffee is brewed, whether it’s via French press or the pour-over or Chemex methods preferred by a growing number of baristas, who do more than just make coffee—they create an experience.

In Pete Licata’s case, they can also help set Kansas City coffee apart. Licata made international headlines when he beat out competitors from across the globe to take home the World Barista Championship. Now working as Parisi Artisan Coffee’s quality assurance manager, Licata sources, roasts and tastes samples of the company’s coffee, available at stores and restaurants throughout the city and served at the cafés in Park Place and Union Station, where espresso flavorings are infused onsite and even the marshmallows are homemade.

For his latest project at Parisi, Licata is developing a new line of coffees conditioned in barrels used to age wine and spirits, a far cry from the coffee being brewed when the champ first started in the industry.

“The Roasterie and PT’s were the main specialty roasters around that I knew of, and cafés were mostly Starbucks imitations,” Licata says. “We seem to have gained a number of people who want to push the boundaries.”

That spirit of creativity is celebrated at Caffeine Crawl, an annual event developed and organized by KC-based beverage-centric marketing and creative firm The LAB that takes beverage lovers on bike or bus tours of the city’s best local shops for samples and presentations from staff.

Direct trade coffee is a top prioroty for PT’s Coffee Roasting Company, which returned to KC this spring with a new shop at the Crossroads. Photo by David Allison.

The number of participants and interested shops led The LAB to create the first spring crawl in KC, which includes stops at The Filling Station, Crows Coffee, Shang Tea, Little Freshie, Quay Coffee and Christopher Elbow on Saturday, May 31, followed by visits to Second Best Coffee, One More Cup, t. Loft, Thou Mayest, Mud Pie Vegan Bakery and Coffeehouse and The Roasterie on Sunday, June 1.

Since launching in 2011, the Crawls have expanded to cities from coast to coast, but KC still stands out, says The LAB’s Emily McIntyre.

“Kansas City is one of the most sophisticated, underrated coffee cities in the country.”

The New Coffee Crew

While the city’s established names have helped Kansas City’s coffee community create a name for itself, a score of new, high-quality coffee businesses are setting up shop, offering up carefully sourced java and local flare to coffee connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike.

Coffees from roasters across the country are represented at Second Best, where the focus is on espresso. Drinks get a boost from the shop’s state-of-the-art Slayer espresso machine, a bit of modern technolgy in a space that feels nostalgic thanks to touches like a school cafeteria-style menu. Photo by David Allison.

Cory Stipp, co-owner of River Market’s Quay Coffee, says the community was primed for the next stage of coffee when he opened Quay in 2011. For him, that meant creating a space that was comfortable and inviting, full of exposed brick walls and warm wood, making an effort to build relationships with customers and serving pour-over coffee without the side of judgment offered at some shops.

“We were on the edge of this wave, and it’s just continued to grow,” he says. “People are excited about entrepreneurship and doing their own thing. Kansas City is doing a fantastic job of embracing those people.”

And despite all the coffee shops that call Kansas City home, there’s still room for companies to learn, flourish and find their niche, Stipp adds.

Take Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters, which has evolved over the last few years from a popcorn roaster in founders Bo Nelson and Bill Holzhueter’s garage to a full roasting facility and the company’s first retail space, a store in the Crossroads set to open in May.

Designed by Utilitarian Workshop, the welcoming Crossroads shop features reclaimed barn wood, locally sourced milks, homemade and syrups, Google Fiber Internet and access to a sky deck that will overlook Crossroads concerts thanks to a partnership with the 419 Crossroads Event Space.

Although the focus is on serving coffee, the location’s potential to bring people together is what really excites Nelson.

“Coffee shops were the original social network,” he says. “Coffee’s just a facilitator, it’s just a conduit. It has the potential to create these beautiful moments.”

The Roasterie made a name for itself roasting beans before expanding to its three current café locations. Photos by Paul Andrews.

It also offers shops the chance to help other small, local businesses shine. Thou Mayest will allow local producers to promote their products, and when fellow newcomer Crows Coffee opens this month in Midtown, it will be serving up java from locally based Messenger Coffee Co., mochas made with Christopher Elbow chocolate, Le Monde Bakery pastries and Chelsea’s Bakehaus cookies and star bars.

At Waldo’s Second Best Coffee, burritos filled with meat from the Local Pig are on the menu, along with vegetarian options and JIFFY Mix muffins, a touch of nostalgia reflected throughout the modestly named espresso-centric slow bar. If that doesn’t sound quite like standard coffeehouse fare, that’s because Second Best, like many of KC’s coffee spots, is striving to avoid complacency and bring something new to the table.

“If I had the perfect cup of coffee today or the perfect shot of espresso, there wouldn’t be any motivation to come in tomorrow,” says owner Nathan Anderson. “We’re constantly trying to tweak things and improve and learn. If there’s any way possible, tomorrow’s coffee should be better than today’s.”