Meet Gabriel Navarro. With nearly a decade in the Toronto coffee scene under his belt (he’s formerly of Rooster Coffee House and Thor Espresso bar), Navarro was recruited three years ago by London-bred Soho House to help launch a pilot specialty coffee program in their North American venues.
For those who aren’t in on the secret, Soho House is a members club that caters to a community of creatives. Membership wait times are rumored to extend anywhere from two months to two years, but once admitted, members enjoy a carefully curated experience that includes an outstanding specialty coffee program—thanks in part to the work of Navarro.
Currently based in Toronto, Navarro’s currently billed as Soho House’s “Coffee Quality Control Manager for the East Coast of North America”—but given Soho House’s growing roster of restaurants, hotels, and meeting spaces, his role within the company has been dynamic. Sprudge caught up with Navarro to find out what life is like as part of the coffee team for Soho House, and which beans and machines are fueling North America’s creative elite.
How would you describe your typical day as part of the coffee QC team for Soho House?
It all depends which city I am in. I’ll give you two examples:
In Toronto, where I currently live, the first thing I do when I come in is try coffee from all three stations and if it is not dialed in properly I will dial in. Usually, I will jump into breakfast service for a little bit and if someone is new behind the bar, I will train them while helping on service. Then I’ll sit down and catch up on e-mails. I’ll review all e-mails per site, and give each site on the East Coast an hour to respond and to catch up. Afterwards, I’ll taste and adjust the coffee again on all floors.
Every week, I meet with De Mello Palheta, our coffee roaster in Toronto, to see if there have been any changes to the espresso blend we use and how it is pulling. I’ll review the House tonics and meet with staff to get some feedback from them. I’ll also ask for feedback from members—at the end of the day, they are the reason we are doing what we are doing! I have a weekly call with each of our lead baristas in Houses across North America, so pretty much every day I am in touch with one of them.
In Chicago, I try the drip coffee on all floors, and the espresso on all five machines—making sure it tastes great. I meet with the lead barista, run through his event sheet, and assess what stays on trainings and events and what doesn’t. I’ll also meet with Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters. They usually keep me updated on what is going on with all Houses, how the blend is, how orders are going, and what they suggest for drip coffee. We have their Frequency blend for drip coffee and Black Cat Analog on espresso.
From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. EST, I get calls from Los Angeles and or e-mails. So I will give the West Coast as much time as the East Coast. I am really fortunate to be working with Amy Finn, who is currently running the West Coast coffee program. Our team has gained a lot of experience through her and her trainings.
In a nutshell, that is how my day goes. It is hard to describe since every day runs differently depending on the site I am at.
What espresso and brewing equipment can we expect to find in Soho House? Is it the same across every House or do different Soho Houses brew differently?
The equipment is the same across all the Soho Houses. La Marzocco Linea PB two and three group. We use a Mythos One Nuova Simonelli grinder for regular espresso, Mazzer Super Jolly for decaf, and either a single or dual FETCO for drip coffee—depending on the site.
In Toronto, we work with an espresso blend from De Mello Palheta called Dancing Goats, use Anchored Coffee for drip, and also stock Keep it Cool Cold Brew. In our US Houses, we pull shots of Black Cat Analog and use Frequency for drip—two blends from Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea. Our Miami House carries Keep It Cool Cold Brew while all other Houses feature Pure Black cold brew from La Colombe Coffee Roasters.
What coffee roasters do you feature in Soho House’s North American locations and why?
On top of serving Intelligentsia and De Mello Palheta, we recently launched an initiative to showcase a variety of roasters in different Houses across North America including: Bows and Arrows (BC, Canada), Matchstick (BC, Canada), Anchored (Halifax, Canada), The Barn (Berlin, Germany), Caravan (London, UK), Origin (Cornwall, UK), Lofted (Brooklyn NY, US), SpyHouse (Minneapolis, US)
We feature all these coffees in Soho because… they are awesome. These companies like to go beyond the word specialty, they care about the quality of their roast, and we appreciate that they do.
What Soho Houses are in your territory?
Soho House Toronto, Soho House New York in the Meatpacking District, Ludlow House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Soho House Chicago, Soho Beach House Miami. I also oversee Soho House West Hollywood and Little Beach House Malibu with Amy’s help. Eventually, Amy will be in complete control of the West Coast.
Since you cover the entire East Coast and can’t be everywhere at once, what systems do you have in place to maintain quality across the houses?
We have lead baristas in all Houses who are in charge of training and reporting all anomalies and good things going on in their sites. In my first year of coffee QC, I traveled a lot across North America, not because I wanted to, but because we had no lead baristas anywhere. I was in charge of hiring baristas, teaching them about coffee, and training them to use the espresso machines and grinders. I had to train them how to make the coffee taste amazing, how to present it well, and how to prepare drinks so they arrive on time.
My current focus is on developing the coffee program to a different level. I create events for our staff, help with coffee and tea events for members, and can give one hundred percent of my attention to opening new sites.
What do you look for when hiring a barista to work at Soho House?
That he or she is passionate and eager to learn. We either look for experienced people or people who may not have a lot of experience but are passionate. Because of our training, we try to hire within the company—people that have been attending our Training Modules.
What most excites you about your job?
Getting to know and try different coffees, meeting people in the industry, and learning from them. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people I never imagined meeting when I was a barista. I love having long discussions about what the future of coffee will be.
What is the most frequently ordered coffee beverage by Soho House members?
Cappuccinos and drip coffee.
It is often the case that good restaurants have notoriously bad coffee. Being primarily restaurateurs, hoteliers, and in the business of hospitality, why is it important to Soho House to pay specific attention to coffee?
Soho House has always been known for their hospitality and food and beverage within the industry. We take pride in every single detail and we strive to have high-quality products throughout our Houses. We view coffee in high regard as it is an integral part of many people’s day. Starting off a busy morning with a great cup of coffee is a small detail that can make a great difference.
How many people are on Soho House’s coffee team?
In North America, 15 people.
How do you keep Soho House members engaged in the coffee program?
I will often walk around the properties and ask members how their coffee is. I will bring a Chemex or pour-over and brew in the middle of the room—usually in the morning—and I will share with anyone who is curious. If the room I am in is not very busy, I will break the ice by sharing whatever coffee I am testing; a new blend, featured coffee, etc.
If a guest comes in with a coffee, I will offer to switch it with ours. If they oblige, I will ask what it is, and make something similar using specialty coffee—adding a little bit of vanilla or some kind of seasonal syrup. Depending on what they are drinking I will convince them to go from a latte to a cappuccino to a cortado to a macchiato to finally taste the espresso.
What piece of advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in coffee?
Be patient and try lots of different coffees. It takes time to get anywhere, and coffee is not an exception. Pursue your passion.
Have you had to acquire any unusual or surprising skills to excel at your position?
Customer service, wine knowledge, and how to make great cocktails. I‘ve learned a lot from Christopher Hudnall, the North American Bar Manager at Soho House. He comes up with the craziest and most tasty drinks I’ve ever tried.
Your job requires a lot of travel. Are there a few essential items that you carry with you on the road?
Comfortable shoes, a black t-shirt, my shark fighter jet milk pitchers from Milkglider out of Taiwan, and a baseball hat. I always travel with these items regardless if I wear them or not.