Memory is a tricky thing; it makes prisoners of us all. Sprudge readers may remember the LA restaurant Sqirl as being the original home of G&B Coffee, that much-lauded partnership of Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski now running several successful cafes across the Los Angeles area. When G&B split with Sqirl back in 2013, we followed the story closely, eventually awarding the duo a Sprudgie Award for their efforts at Grand Central Market and Go Get Em Tiger.
But their departure from Sqirl set another story into motion. Coffee service at Sqirl didn’t cease to exist when G&B departed; in fact, the high expectations for coffee in the space have been met, expanded upon, and perhaps even exceeded in the years since, as Sqirl founder Jessica Koslow and her capable staff have developed a quality-focused and accessible coffee program with a soul all its own.
In that same time, Sqirl has grown into one of the most highly regarded restaurants in Los Angeles—no small feat for such a tiny space off the beaten track in Virgil Village. You won’t find white tablecloths here; indeed, you may be required to share your table. But the daily changing menu at Sqirl amounts to a kind of platonic ideal for what a cool restaurant in LA should be in 2015: busy, fresh, hyper-seasonal, challenging but familiar, as though attuned to one’s most aspirational comfort zone. The best version of you eats breakfast at Sqirl like twice a week, and your life is better for it.
Each day the line for Sqirl snakes out onto the sidewalk and around the corner, sometimes even up the hill away from Virgil Ave. Popularity begets critical acceptance (or is it the other way around?), and applause for Sqirl has rolled in from all corners, from the Alice Waters Hit List to plaudits from the LA Times, LA Weekly, Bon Appetit, and The New York Times. Even friggin’ GOOP loves Sqirl; Koslow and Co. may as well retire now.
Actually it’s quite the opposite. Later this year, Sqirl will open a hotly anticipated take-out extension cleverly titled Sqirl Away, located directly adjacent to the original Sqirl location. Early reports predicted a summer opening, but Koslow shares with us in our wide-ranging interview below that Sqirl Away will open in December 2015, and will have a heavy emphasis on coffee service.
Origin story aside, in 2015, Sqirl is that rarest of things: a restaurant with a killer coffee program and passionate staff. We sat down with Jessica Koslow and her coffee director, Jeison Bianco, to talk about the thought and intent behind Sqirl’s coffee offerings, plans for their future Sqirl Away space, and the topsy-turvy world of success in modern Los Angeles.
Let’s start by asking about the regularly appearing line outside of Sqirl—how is that line managed? Does someone direct it?
Jeison Bianco: The way we do it is to manage the space inside. Sqirl is small and we don’t want it to get too hectic. So we have our runners—a hospitality position—and they allow people to come inside but they navigate that line and gauge how many people are coming in and out. And while that’s happening, you know, they’re answering questions, stuff about the drinks and foods, and they’re knowledgable. The runners all have a little cheat sheet prepared by the chefs and they read over that, and then they can answer questions throughout the line. [Customers] also have paper menus; we have one large menu inside, and the menu is online as well, but having a menu for people to read in their hands while outside is huge.
Jessica Koslow: The menus only started 3 weeks ago. When we started back in the G&B days, we were able to have paper menus, but since then, our menu has evolved and varied so greatly that it’s been a challenge to have a paper menu. Our menu literally changes everyday. The paper menus give an idea of the staples, but even now, we have evolved some of the staples and now the paper menu is a little off. The real menu is inside and online! It’s been great to see that customers can adapt to a restaurant with an evolving menu. That’s life, we progress and so does the menu…
How many staff do you have total now? How many of those are baristas?
Jeison Bianco: Now we have about 32 staff members total. We have just hired 2 new baristas, which makes for about six different baristas that we rotate.
Jessica Koslow: What I think is interesting about the baristas here is that they’re not only required to execute great drinks and provide quality customer service, they also must care about the entire experience, what the chefs are doing, what is in a dish, and what makes it interesting and delicious.
Jessica, before you opened in 2012 with G&B, were you coffee focused?
Jessica Koslow: I knew that in order to open a cafe, I needed to consider the drink element just as much as the food. Since my mind and work live in the kitchen, I wanted to work with someone who was really focused on the coffee side. And with Kyle & Charles there, it was so great, because I could do what I needed to do, keep the kitchen interesting, and they did what they did.
Right now you’re serving coffees from Heart, Ruby, and Parlour Coffee. Why these three roasters?
Jeison Bianco: We have a very unique relationship with Ruby. Jared Linzmeier, he picks out two distinct ranges of coffees for us—based on what is tasting the best that week. Our previous coffee buyer, Colleen King, worked out a way for him to choose an approachable, friendly coffee for our weekend crowd, something more traditional and balanced as opposed to ones with high acidity and citrus notes—it’s something for people who like their coffee with milk. [Linzmeier] also sends coffee that’s really interesting and unique, which we tend to serve during the week. Lots of Kenyas, brighter coffees that work really nicely on espresso. Sqirl does not work with espresso roasts or dark roasts, but we do look for single-origin coffees that are versatile.
We work similarly with Heart and Parlor, finding a mix of crisp & balanced coffees that can be enjoyed and not overpower weekend brunch. But during the week, we get a lot of industry people here and it’s important for us to be challenged as well as they.
So with the roasters, I’m in constant contact with them, comparing coffees, looking at the acidity on this one vs that one. We rotate coffees pretty frequently, without singling anyone out. Sometimes it’s other roasters too, like George Howell Coffee for example—we love them as well, they’re consistent and great. Ritual Coffee too, they’re just up north. We get their coffee the next day.
We’re also making our own cold brew. We don’t let any coffee go to waste, and use everything we have in-house. After a certain period, we pull it from the bar. We do a 22-hour cold brew, not the whole 24; the taste is richer and substantially bolder.
Jessica, you recently cooked a guest dinner at Ava Gene’s in Portland. In your travels, what places are inspiring to you?
Jessica Koslow: I think Walrus & The Carpenter in Seattle does incredible job. Estela in New York too, they’re using Parlor. I think Marlow & Sons is great as well. They’re using George Howell on bar. I’m just shocked there’s not a line around the corner—their bar game is good!
But maybe they’ve been open too long for it to still be cool?
Jessica Koslow: That’s so interesting to me though, I want to champion places that can show refinement after being there for years. There’s this hunger of always experiencing the new, but…as a food (and drink) person, the hot new isn’t what i’m going for. I’m going for what’s relevant always….that commitment to excellence over the years.
We’re sitting in the new location of Sqirl Away, your forthcoming new space adjacent to Sqirl. Tell us about what this place will be.
Jessica Koslow: It’s basically SQIRL to-go. In order to give it some sort of reference, have you been to Gjusta yet? It’s the compact mini-me version of Gjusta, but very much Sqirl in its food and identity. [the interview pauses for Koslow to high-five a departing contractor]
The question for us is, “How do we make food in the SQIRL vibe even more quick service to-go?” The line, as you noted, is long at Sqirl. I just finished a to-go order for 15 people. How do we accomplish that efficiently at Sqirl? Will Sqirl Away be the resolution? Our style at SQIRL is 100% made to order, even though it is done quickly. With our food being vibrant and fresh, it’s a busy place, creating the need for a take-away option.
One interesting thing about this new concept is, the coffee bar will run the entire length. It’ll allow for quite an extensive program on the drinks side of things. From our standpoint, it will extend our relationship with coffee, but also, lots of other things…we’ve played with fermented whey punches, sarsaparilla, “purple drank,” you name it.
For such a busy place, you’re offering an unexpectedly playful beverage menu. How do you manage that with pace?
Jeison Bianco: Well Sqirl is a restaurant, so we have time. The egg white drink we’re offering right now, a Vietnamese coffee with egg whites, called a Lait n’ Egg, well, we have a prep crew and they’re amazing. They prep components for us that we have created measured recipes for. They make a mixture of egg whites and condensed milk the night before, and we weigh that out with cold brew concentrate and then it’s ready to go.
Jessica Koslow: I am a snacky person. I don’t like to eat full meals, I like to nibble on a snack, and part of that snacking bubbles over into what we do here. Sqirl is about towing the line between refined classic flavors, making something perfectly, but also just having fun, and not letting people dictate what is cool.
Doing a sweetened drink, is that not pro? Well, we’re doing it because people want it, and sometimes there’s references that we, too, find we want. The Lait n’ Egg (an upgraded version of the Vietnamese ice coffee) is a not-so secret vice for me. If there are sweetened drinks, they might as well be natural and thoughtfully done and produced, correct?
Coffees are presented for sale on your retail wall right next to your signature jams. Is that a matter of convenience, or is it a statement?
Jessica Koslow: Well, having it on the counter is in part understanding that we, humans, are prone to the impulse buy. But the other point is saying…these coffees were chosen by Jeison for a reason, and the fruits I make the jams out of at Sqirl are chosen carefully as well—whether it’s Aleco Chigounis on the back end picking up beans for Parlor, or me choosing olallieberries from a farmer we work with, it’s all lies in decisions that make Sqirl…Sqirl.
Jeison Bianco: Tasting notes from the roasters are something I like to look at with the jams we have. Every coffee we serve seems to have a note that can line up with the jams Jessica makes.
Why do you think Sqirl sees such a dramatic weekend/weekday difference?
Jeison Bianco: Sqirl, the way I’ve grown to know it, has this little following in the neighborhood, which is a very diverse place. Locals love this place as their go-to coffee shop and they come here pretty often. However, on weekends, because of all the write-ups and publicity we’ve gotten, it can be a little daunting. It can be crazy. The locals stay away on the weekend and we get folks who just…from a coffee perspective, they are not ready for “sour.” For example, a latte with Kenyan coffee doesn’t taste the way they want it to taste. They’ll ask for another shot, you know? So we began to understand that it’s a different kind of clientele on the weekends.
It feels like it should be the opposite? Like the weekend would be more destination-seekers with open minds and palates.
Jeison Binaco: We get a wide range of people coming to check us out. We get people who come up from San Diego who had to stop for brunch—and that’s awesome. It happens all the time and it’s an honor. We’re lucky in LA that we have a pretty good coffee culture over here—it’s on the up and up—and if you want good coffee, you’ve got a selection of places to go. People who live in LA know that; their palates are advanced and if they’re into coffee, they have really good coffee to choose from. But if you’re visiting family from Fresno…they don’t have it quite the same up there. We want to be inclusive and have something for everybody. When we started out, we didn’t have half the sweet drinks on the menu…but people love them. If you want something sweet and decadent—it’s like comfort food. We want to do it well. If you want a nice sweet coffee drink, we will make the best one we can.
Jeison, what was your role in the Sqirl coffee transition?
Jeison Bianco: I started back in May of 2012, but I was just a barista. I’ve been here ever since. The day G&B left and SQIRL coffee opened, it was one day to another, and I was here pretty much when that opened. It was me.
For the first year, we would get calls and questions about G&B, but less and less after that, and we don’t really get inquiries about that anymore. We’re much more established now, and G&B’s downtown location and Go Get Em Tiger have blown up, so they themselves have established their own identity. It’s 2 very different concepts, those shops, and I’m impressed that they are able to do something very different from anyone else. It’s lucky for them that they get to play around like that—they also have quite a bit of space. For Sqirl, we’re so busy and so tight-quartered, experimentation has occurred more slowly, and not just with coffee (also tea and non-alcoholic drinks). Once SQIRL Away is open, we’ll have so much more space to play around.
Do you have a timeline for Sqirl Away?
Jessica Koslow: Permitting in LA is such a challenge. I hear about how easy it is in Portland…here it’s hard to get plans through plan check, especially if you’re small and don’t have a big backer or investor. I just got my permits approved. This coming week we’re signing the contract. It’ll be about 3 months of construction, so I should be open by December. It is terrifying but it’s been a long time coming.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.