As a coffee writer covering the southern part of the United States, where cafe cultures aren’t quite as well-known as our neighbors on the coasts, I find myself expending quite a few words to contextualize a coffee shop. Half of knowing a shop is understanding the place from which it sprouted, and much of what makes a shop truly interesting would be completely overlooked were its history erased. Thus, a brief primer is often necessary. The newest shop from Onyx Coffee Lab, however, requires no such context. Their new design-heavy Bentonville lab is the apropos-of-nothing sort of a place that makes you say, “I have no idea where the hell we are, but we sure aren’t Here.” “Here”, in this instance, just so happens to be Northwest Arkansas.
Brought to life by owners Jon and Andrea Allen, the beautiful coffee fever dream that is the new Onyx Coffee Lab is art at high volumes. Upon entering through the glass doors, there’s an immediate sensory overload of shapes and textures. The 360-degree edgeless bar—the shop’s centerpiece and truly a sight unto itself—is covered in one inch white hexagonal laminate and is cast against a backdrop of a three motif-ed wall—the first third comprised of hickory paneling, the second concrete with a neon sign proudly boasting a cursive “Onyx Coffee Lab”, and the third, a navy and mustard cubic pattern. Dark walnut slats of various sizes run up the adjacent walls and across the ceiling above the coffee bar, creating a natural frame for Onyx’s aesthetically intense introduction to Bentonville patrons.
This raucous hello imparts a sense of “otherness” to even the lackadaisical onlooker. This feeling is heightened further by Onyx’s glut of machines—enough to give pause to the most hardened of gear geeks—and their placement around the bar. Anything that can be moved under the counter has been, leaving hyper-clean, open workspaces at every point of service. The espresso bar is comprised of three Modbar espresso modules end-capped by two steam modules. And manual brew duties are split between four bright white Curtis Seraphim and two white Alpha Dominche Steampunks. Even the three white Acaia Pearl scales at the pour-over counter space have been inset for maxi-minimalism.
And all grinders—the only things that seemingly can’t be put below deck—have been moved to three white hexagonal laminate island bars around which the 360° counter revolves, with each node performing a specific function. Five white Nuova Simonelli Mythos One Clima Pros, four white Baratza Fortes, and one Mahlkönig EK 43 (white, of course) occupy the three islands, serving as the primary grinders for the Modbar, Seraphim, and Steampunk stations, respectively.
And with 11 hoppers in total, customers aren’t given a freedom of choice so much as a mandate. Sure, someone could go in and just order a drip coffee to go, but they would be missing the Bentonville lab at its best. Everything about the shop is designed to promote engagement, to gently nudge folks out of their coffee shop comfort zones and into a more experimental headspace. Branching out could mean getting a little less milk in that espresso drink or maybe seeing what those fancy brew coffee machines are all about or even trying something off of Onyx’s constantly changing signature drink menu. The most popular and visually stunning of which is the S’more Gibraltar: a gibraltar made with Ugandan chocolate, served in a chocolate and graham cracker-rimmed gibraltar, topped off with more graham cracker and a toasted vanilla bean marshmallow. Because why shouldn’t experimenting be fun too?
Onyx Bentonville is more coffee showroom than coffee shop, an exercise in grandeur, and it’s something Southern cafe cultures need more of. It’s often easy to sleepwalk through your morning coffee, to let the act of getting coffee become a thoughtless routine. Experiential shops like the new Onyx forcibly shake you from that malaise. And while high-minded cafes won’t necessarily turn casual coffee drinkers into hardcore specialty fanatics (and, in fact, might turn off some people by making coffee seem too “fancy”), they require all entrants to think about their beverage. How does it compare to what’s served at my favorite shop? Is it really worth all the foofaraw? Is there magic sprinkled in this? The answers to these questions will vary from person to person, but one thing is for sure—there’s no sleepwalking through Onyx’s Bentonville coffee lab.
Photos by James Whalen.