Case Study: The Coffee Studio

Miguel and Lee Corrina Cano have a background in product design, strategy and sustainability, and an intense love for all things simple and delicious. After discovering the world of high-quality specialty coffee, it wasn't long before the couple came up with their own plan to fill a niche for accessible, hand-crafted coffees in an authentic, warm-modern environment. The Coffee Studio has been serving locally roasted Intelligentsia Coffee in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago since 2007. With a strong Swedish heritage, a diverse demographic including a thriving gay and lesbian community, and a recognized appreciation for locally-owned, independent businesses (including quite a few design-oriented lifestyle and home stores), Andersonville is a perfect neighborhood for a shop that welcomes and caters to both coffee aficionados and quality-loving novices alike.

What equipment do you use and why?

For espresso and espresso-based drinks we adore our Synesso Cyncra. We've been using this machine since we opened in 2007 and we still love it today for the same reasons... pressure stability, temperature stability and control, plus it's simplicity. And it's beautiful, of course, in an understated way... which suits us, I think. Our primary grinder is a 3-phase (Mazzer) Robur, which I can't imagine living without for it's speed and grind uniformity, and we have two Super-Jolly's which we use for decaf, alternative espressos, and backup.

For "ready-to-go" brewed coffee, we rely on our Fetco (Extractor-series) for batch-brewing during the mornings and afternoons. We always also offer around 3-4 Single Origins (and Decaf) by the cup. We've offered brewed coffee by the cup since we opened in 2007... first brewing with Eva Solo Café Solo's, and now with Hario v60's. We also cold-brew coffee all year round, and we've been selling our cold-crew concentrate by the liter for a few years now with great success.

Give us an overview of your menu - batch or manual, sizes etc

We have always aimed to find the "middle way" in what we do and how we share our love for great coffee with our customers, including the presentation of our menu. I think we're definitely not the most dogmatic of third wave shops out there... but we do care immensely about the quality of everything we serve. We just don't think our job is to "school" people on what good coffee is, or to dictate what they should or shouldn't want. Rather, we try to accommodate variations in people's coffee "experiences" and find them a drink that, ultimately, will make them happy. So for coffee aficionados, we're thrilled to serve a lovingly crafted straight shot, or cappuccino, or Single Origin pourover, but if someone comes in and wants a 20oz batch-brewed coffee "to go", we don't have any problem with that, and we're going to make them a damn good cup of coffee, too.

We totally appreciate that people who might otherwise get coffee at a chain store might come in to see what we have and try something from us. We think that's awesome, actually. But we feel it's unrealistic and maybe unkind to think that people who are used to tasting/drinking less-than-amazing coffee (and whom may have become accustomed to drinking coffee extra milky or with a lot of syrups or flavors to make it palatable) are going to all of a sudden be comfortable with, and enjoy the strong flavor/experience of coffee, no matter high quality it is. Bitterness is a naturally-occurring (and wonderful) part of the flavor profile of coffee (and beer, whiskey, etc.), but for people who aren't accustomed to it, it can be overwhelming and unpleasant. Adding sweetness reduces the perception of bitterness, and whether it's through adding lactose (milk) or sucrose (sugar), we can balance out the perception of flavors in a drink so the bitterness is not as dominant. Of course, most of us who love coffee appreciate that bitterness, but we don't have a problem here "taking the edge off" for folks, which we see as different than "covering" the taste of the coffee with tons of sugar or competing/unrelated flavors. In fact, one of my favorite drinks on our menu is what we call our "Dolce Latte", which is simply a two-shot latte (12 or 16oz) with just a touch of our house-made cane sugar syrup... a very accessible drink, and a good entry point for someone used to drinking more heavily flavored lattes. Ultimately though, if we're going to add anything to our drinks, it has to be as good as our coffee... so from day one we developed our own recipes and we make our our own vanilla syrup, chocolate sauce and caramel. If we're gonna make a drink, it has to be delicious, and if it has coffee... the coffee has to shine.

We've also always loved the sort of pub-like feel that happens in the shop here when it's full of people and energy during the day, so it seemed like a natural extension to get our liquor license, which we've had for about a year now. We've been selling primarily craft beers and wines, but we're in the process now of developing a coffee and tea based cocktail menu to debut soon, which we're very excited about.

How do you you ensure quality execution behind the bar? Any specific training techniques?

We sometimes say that making great coffee "isn't rocket science"... and I think it's not really that hard if your fundamentals are in place. For us, the real issue is about mindfulness... frankly, just paying attention to getting those fundamentals right each and every day. Just like in "real life", staying present and mindful is actually pretty hard because there are so many distractions.... so many things to do, so many needs tugging on us. So we work pretty hard on just making sure that as baristas we're really paying attention. We have a saying here... "when on bar... be on bar", which is basically our little zen way of saying to be present. Of course, you can multitask or chat while you're making a drink, but what we're trying to do here is craft something amazing, and that means paying attention to all the feedback that there is, whether it's how the espresso grounds are clumping or how the streaming espresso is flowing,or blonding, or changing... it's all useful information there for us, if we're open to it.

Of course, we also try to taste our coffees or shots a lot, because as baristas we need to be able to taste, articulate and make constant adjustments to the variables that are in our control. We also try to taste a lot together, so we can calibrate our palates and learn how to articulate our experiences in useful ways. In addition to tastings on the floor, we usually also have a more formal coffee tasting once a week... but I have to admit that sometimes we fall off the wagon and then it takes us a little while to get back on. It's just not that easy to find the time and manage the schedule for it... we're a small team and are open everyday of the week from 6:30am until 9pm. In terms of maintaining quality, we also generally place a huge emphasis on drink and process consistency, meaning we really want everyone's drinks to not just be delicious, but to be similarly delicious! And then finally, we also spend a lot of time and energy on equipment cleaning and maintenance, something that can really make a huge difference in drink quality.

How long have you worked with Intelligentsia?

We've used Intelligentsia Coffees since we opened, over six years ago. I sometimes tell people that we initially chose to work with Intelligentsia despite their being here in Chicago with us... not because of it. Before we opened, we thought people might think we were just using Intelligentsia Coffees by default, as the biggest quality roaster here in Chicago, but as anyone who knows us personally can tell you... we don't do anything by default (we usually like to over-think everything to death!). I guess we thought we should do something more "unique", to set ourselves apart... but I'm glad we eventually came to our senses and let the coffee speak for itself.

Why do you value about your partnership with Intelligentsia?

We've always been pretty blown away by the Direct Trade program, especially the knowledge sharing initiatives that help farmers improve their coffees literally at the beginning of the process. The whole thing just always seemed like the right way to do it, and it helps us feel like we're the last leg of an important and sustainable process.

But the absolute number one reason we love working with Intelligentsia is simply the quality of the coffees. We are proud to say that the coffees we sell and serve at The Coffee Studio are literally the best of the best. And it gives us no excuse... it's on us to make sure the drinks that come from those beans are just as good. It's an amazing motivator to make sure we're staying on our game.

How did you approach the design of your space?

As designers, we looked at it like any disciplined project... doing research, a lot of brainstorming, and finally creating the actual plan. Naturally the feel of the space is driven by our own personal taste, which we sometimes call "warm-modern"... minimalism warmed up with organic materials like exposed brick and wood. We hoped to create feelings of comfort and calm, with a lot of low horizontals and minimal visual clutter, and yet signal the quality with high-integrity materials like granite and glass. And then in terms of layout, we not only placed a lot of emphasis on flow, ergonomics and efficiency, but we really wanted the location for the "bar" and the espresso machine to be a visual centerpiece highlighting the barista working on his/her craft.

How do you promote the different coffees you sell, both by the cup and wholebean?

We have a pretty prominent whole bean coffee display, right by the front door of our shop, as folks come in, and then we have a large chalkboard where we post info on all the currently available whole bean coffees. We're also proud to offer a pretty wide selection of Single-Origin coffees (in addition to blends). I think we probably have the widest selection of Intelligentsia's Single Origins available here in Chicago (besides the Intelligentsia stores themselves), and we also try to encourage folks to try them by offering a small discount on them (whereas there is no discount on blends). We also like to highlight a "barista pick"... to encourage dialogue, and to give people a place to start if they're feeling overwhelmed. As a part of our drink menu, we have a hanging chalkboard board where we list all of the day's coffees available by the cup.

Whats on the horizon for Coffee Studio?

We're sort of perfectionists, so there are always a million things that we are working on improving or evolving. We're also working on figuring our what "work-life balance" means for us, as we think about our growth plans. The Coffee Studio was our first "baby", but we now also have a three year old son, Max. So it feels like there's just never enough time to get to everything we want to do. We want to make sure we're building a sustainable, enjoyable business, and not stretching ourselves too thin. And we want to make sure we're still having fun. Right now, we're actively trying to figure out how to tell our "story" better and think more about marketing. There's a lot of new activity in the specialty coffee industry here in Chicago (which is great!), but we want to make sure that what we've doing here for years doesn't get drowned out by the "new" in all the media/noise, especially since we're not really the most extroverted people, or shop. I think we tend to just keep our heads down and do our thing... making great coffee, making people happy, and trying to do it a little better every day. For now, we're pretty focused on that.

Coffee was first discovered in western Ethiopia before 1000 AD. Ethiopians consumed the cherry’s fruit or made tea from the pulp for several hundred years before brewing a beverage from the roasted seeds.