Standing in front of Las Vegas’ PublicUs on a gusty March day, looking out across a barren, trash-strewn lot, I found it difficult to believe that this was the cafe I’d heard so very much about. I’d followed my phone’s GPS from the Febreeze and vomit odors of my hotel on The Strip, on to a variety of sun-baked highways, and finally into the southeastern edge of Downtown Las Vegas, or rather, Old Vegas, a small area north of where the Mandalay Bays and Treasure Islands fade into something else.
This is an area that was once considered the heart of Las Vegas’ gambling culture, tossed to the wayside when the lure of development money dragged potential investors south to what is now known as The Strip. I passed abandoned hotel after abandoned hotel and I passed bleary-eyed men and women stumbling through the midday heat, finally arriving at an unassuming blue building sharing the block with a sketchy liquor store. This was it? This was the baby of Cole McBride, 2016 United States Barista Championships Western Conference Champion? This was the cafe Sprudge readers nominated as one of the best to open anywhere in the world in 2015?
This was PublicUs?
McBride would later tell me that he’s heard PublicUs described as an “oasis” for this part of Las Vegas, an air-conditioned space with its amber-lit “kitchen table” of food and warmly smiling baristas akin to a cool drink of water. And I have to agree. After getting over some initial neighborhood shock, PublicUs quickly and quietly proved itself to be one of the best, most considered cafes I’ve ever visited.
I think this is the best coffee bar in America right now. That this unpretentious little slice of coffee heaven could exist in Las Vegas is nothing short of surprising, and it should upend any preconceived notions you might harbor about where good coffee calls home in 2016.
Loosely translated from Greek, “publicus” means “for the people.” And this is how PublicUs co-owner Kimo Akiona has always dreamt of his desert coffee shop—as a way to give back to the community that had always been so good to him. Akiona, a soft-spoken, ambitious transplant from Hawaii-turned-gaming executive in Las Vegas, had traveled the world and seen the vast effect a great coffee shop could bring to an area. The communal cafes of Australia, specifically Melbourne’s booming scene, with their sprawling tables of food paired with brilliant coffee and a thriving social atmosphere had left an impression on Akiona. He’d returned wanting nothing more than to provide a similar experience for Las Vegas’ almost non-existent coffee culture.
Looking for a roaster in 2013, Akiona had made contact with Velton Ross of Seattle’s Velton’s Coffee Roasting Company and when the conversation turned towards help purchasing equipment, Ross had pointed Akiona towards Cole McBride, then a coffee consultant and Visions Espresso employee. “Originally, I was helping to sell him all of his equipment,“ McBride tells me, but as Akiona and McBride kept talking, it became clear that Akiona was trying to do something above and beyond. There was real potential for this project in a place that McBride saw “as one of the most genuine places to open a cafe in America.” In 2013 he packed up, moved to Vegas and became a full-time employee. Two years later, PublicUs opened in Downtown Vegas.
Throwing open the doors of PublicUs in Las Vegas hasn’t been an easy task. When Akiona, McBride, and their third partner—industrial designer Travis Landice—decided to take the plunge, the coffee culture in Las Vegas was limited to drive-in Starbucks, convenience coffee that let people stay in their air-conditioned cars in the melting heat of Las Vegas summers. During the buildout phase, health inspectors would balk at the idea of installing a pitcher rinser or at not having a sneeze guard around the espresso machine, pointing at cookie-cutter floor plans of Panera Breads and Starbucks as examples of what PublicUs should be aiming towards.
Instead, Landice, a Northern California industrial designer who designs under the Agent Mindfull banner, went the other direction, designing everything in the space—from the concrete tiles that cover the bar, to the sliding doors on the bathrooms, to the relief map of the world on the wall—and, from the ground up, creating a space unique to the vision of its founders. He pushes past what residents of Las Vegas had come to expect from a town whose sole identity seemed to be formed by the transient wants of a tourist-based economy. As Landice says, “This city doesn’t respect the creativity of a business, they’re looking to see what everyone else has and as soon as you deviate from that it gets tough.” But to PublicUs, the design is as important as the food or the coffee or the smiling barista that greats you when you walk in. “Design is important because it affects people’s psyche,” Akiona tells me, noting that it’s part of every aspect of what they do.
If PublicUs were merely pushing the envelope in the still-nascent Vegas coffee scene, well, it would be a sight to see. PublicUs goes far beyond that though: it pushes the boundaries of what you might think of as a “specialty coffee shop.” And it’s all so delicious.
PublicUs isn’t a place with a stripped-down menu of six coffee drinks and a few platters of pastries, crammed into a closet-sized room. McBride never wanted PublicUs to be that shop. “I’ve never understood the whole stripped-down menu thing,” McBride says, “because to me, it’s like we’re trying to force something on the guest that only a few people will understand.” Instead, PublicUs offers a wide menu of both beautifully prepared classic coffee beverages as well as a list of specialty drinks prepared with a microscopic attention to detail. “I’ve always thought of coffee as an ingredient,” McBride tells me, referring to his specialty drinks, “and every other ingredient needs to be just as good as it.”
All of PublicUs’ syrups are made in house so the drink can be exactly what McBride wants it to be. Take the London Fog for example: not commonly thought as an exercise in coffee as a culinary delight, PublicUs’ version starts with an organic Earl Grey tea to which they add a house made bergamot oil, cold-pressed ginger, and a touch of organic, unrefined sugar. McBride personally tasted 20 different sugars to find the one that paired the best. It is the best London Fog that I have ever had.
It may seem excessive, but the intense focus on the making and pairing of ingredients translates directly to the flavor of the drink. It’s a gustatory ode to the treacly foam of the traditional drink, but PublicUs’ version is like a subtle journey of flavor, with each individual ingredient impressing upon your tastebuds in a fine-tuned flavor whirlpool. As McBride says, “It’s about building a drink from start to finish so [our customers will] have a better experience. We’re not just drink makers, we’re more on par with mixologists, and it puts more trust in our hands.”
You won’t find a condiment bar at PublicUs—not because McBride doesn’t believe in taking the option of sweet drinks away from his customers, but rather because, he wants to be in control of that process. As McBride puts it, “If you went into a bar, and asked for a classic old-fashioned and the one you got was too dry, the bartender wouldn’t point you towards the condiment bar; they’d remake it.” McBride firmly believes that to elevate the craft of specialty coffee, the condiment bar has to go. “It makes it a better, more educational experience for everyone involved,” he says. When a customer comes into PublicUs looking for a drink on the sweeter side, PublicUs staff—trained from the ground up by McBride himself—engage in a conversation to figure out what level of sweetness the customer is looking for and then translate that into the PublicUs system of “one sugar” or “two sugars.”
One sugar is PublicUs’ version of a semi-sweet drink, two sugars an even sweeter drink, and so on. “We make a drink from start to finish,” McBride tells me, “and after we’ve made that perfect drink for them, we teach them how to order it so they get exactly what they want. We’re trying to make our customers the drink they want, and the drink we want to make them.”
There is no layer of service, food prep, or drink research that McBride and his team haven’t pored over to ensure that it adds to the experience of those visiting. Their food—a seasonal spread that sprawls out across a long wooden “kitchen table”, sort of an elegant hipster variation on the traditional buffet—is aimed at offering quality while suited towards sharing and social interaction. McBride wants the food to be both accessible and interesting, prone to inspiring free thinking and free conversation. “It’s a social experience,” he says, “and all of that feeds into how you feel about the coffee.”
PublicUs’ coffee is purchased in “tiny” amounts by McBride from Cafe Imports, then roasted in Seattle by Velton Ross and sold directly back to PublicUs. “We’re very likely a pain in the ass,” McBride says, but because of the long relationships he’s cultivated with both Cafe Imports and Velton Ross, he’s able to get exactly the coffee he wants, roasted exactly the way he needs. “People will switch roasters at the drop of the hat,” he says, as a point of differentiation. “I work with one roaster and we get really good coffee.”
When it comes to hiring, McBride strays from stacking his staff with experienced coffee industry folk. Instead, he chooses to draw people in who are looking to learn the full experience of operating a coffee shop/cafe—serving, prepare ingredients, and eventually make their extensive list of coffee drinks—with McBride referring to it as more of a mentorship. McBride’s aim being to create the best staff possible, but also to give untrained people a full set of cafe-running skills. “We train from the ground up,” he tells me. “We want our staff to care about delivering a great drink and a great experience, not just obsessing over dropping a nine-tier tulip in your beverage.”
Though McBride and his partners were one of the first to test the decidedly empty waters of Las Vegas’ specialty coffee scene, they’re excited to see some growth. Hell, they want more. As Akiona says, “We need corporate competition. We need an Intelligentsia or a Stumptown to push everything forward.” And all of them believe that eventually, this will happen. “There are a lot of people here,” Akiona tells me, “who are doing something they could do anywhere else in the world, and they’re choosing to live here and stay here and be a part of this community. People want this to be more, they want it to be a more urban, more livable city.”
For the moment, though, PublicUs will continue to soldier forward, the flag-bearer for a coffee scene that is slowly but surely growing. And they do so with a fairly simple philosophy: “We don’t have this crazy big manual,” Cole McBride tells me. “It’s pretty simple—we’re going to be nice to you, we’re going to know our products, and we’re going to create a space you’re going to have fun in.” As much as it feels like PublicUs is redefining norms, they’re doing so by returning to the very core values of customer experience that specialty coffee, at times, seems to have strayed away from.
PublicUs strives to offer a casual, attentive experience aimed at bringing people together to enjoy high-quality beverages suited towards their tastes, but with no sacrifice of ingredients or integrity of vision. It’s returning to the roots of what made the cafe experience so popular in the first place, but under the microscopic focus of McBride and Akiona and Landice, it is a beautiful reimagining, one that finds the customer needs front and center.
Cole McBride says it best: “There’s nothing gimmicky about this place. Nothing is done here unless it’s for the people.” I think it’s reason enough to book yourself a visit to Las Vegas, beyond the gambling and overpriced faux-luxury. PublicUs is a destination coffee shop. Those who consider themselves astute drinkers of specialty coffee need to experience it, and soon.