Northwest Arkansas’s Onyx Coffee Lab doesn’t operate in half measures. Anything they do, they do fully. When they compete at the US Coffee Championships, they are after the big trophies; to date, they have two national titles and too many finals appearances to count (across all five competitions), including a staggering total of five from the 2019 season alone. When they open a new cafe—as with their Bentonville lab a few years back, featured here on Sprudge—it exists somewhere in the realm between fantastical and extravagant.
So when it was announced that Onyx would be opening a new headquarters, the question was not if they would try to clear the high bar they set for themselves, but how. What sort of wonders would they employ? Would there be Willy Wonka-esque tubes overhead shooting coffee around all nimbly bimbly? What about slides? Will they have those, y’know, just because? Their answer to how to out-Onyx themselves is The 1907, a three-story, 30,000-square-foot cafe/roasting lab/headquarters/shared space in downtown Rogers, where owners Andrea and Jon Allen—along with a few of their fellow NWA maker friends—house a variety of ventures both in- and outside of coffee. And yes, there are Willy Wonka coffee tubes; only one slide though.
The 110-year-old building that now houses The 1907—named in reference to the year it was built—was originally a Rogers Wholesale Grocer before becoming a Dollar Saver variety store in the ‘70s; faded whispers of that past life still appear scribbled across a green backdrop at the top of the historic structure’s red-brick exterior. When the Dollar Saver shuttered in 2015, Onyx jumped on the opportunity to develop a space to “showcase all the [post-origin] aspects of the coffee industry… under one roof, from roasting, cupping, baristas, bakers, coffee baggers, etc,” as Jon Allen describes. Three-plus years later, that dream has come to fruition.
Along with other ventures backed by the Allens—including The Foreman, an upstairs cocktail bar run by former Onyx Head of R&D Brendon Glidden, and Doughp (pronounced “dope”), the French-inspired pastry shop churning out buttery deliciousness for all Onyx locations—The 1907 is also home to Heirloom, a 20-person, seasonally-inspired prix fixe restaurant by chef/co-owner Jason Paul as well as the soon-to-open new outpost for Yeyo’s, a mezcaleria and taqueria from chef/farmer Rafael Rios.
At the center of all this, both conceptually and literally, is coffee. The progressive standalone coffee station is the unmissable nucleus of the entire building. Adorned in slatted light wood and white marble, the floating coffee bar keeps things clean and minimalist with Modbar espresso, steam wand, and pour-over modules. A Mahlkönig EK43S and two Nuova Simonelli Mythos II grinders have all been moved to custom insets in the back bar, along with all batch brew from the 3Temp system.
Aesthetically thoughtful as the bar is, the coolest feature is around the corner, at the finishing station. There, the most tenured Onyx barista acts as expeditor, QCing and finishing all drinks to ensure quality. With a single Modbar steam module, the final touches are added to each drink, including any sugar requested by the customer and even gently steamed cream to match the temperature of the beverage.
Continuing the innovation, one new feature to the Onyx menu is nitro. Not simply just a nitro cold brew or some such single beverage, Onyx offers customers the option to nitrogenate any drink on the spot (using the same system from Dylan Siemens’ Finals run at the 2019 US Barista Championship).
Continuing to draw inspiration from the restaurant world, the roasting facility behind the coffee bar is completely open concept at every step of the process (sans green coffee storage). Everything from sample roasting to bagging is on full display, even the daily QC cuppings, though these are normally performed in the open-air upstairs walkways sitting above the coffee bar.
And the roasting operation puts on a bit of a show for any interested onlooker. After a batch of coffee is dropped from the brand new, custom-painted Diedrich CR-70 roaster—one of the staggering six roasters in the facility that includes two Stonghold S7 Pro sample roasters and two S9 roasters dedicated solely to cold brew profiles—the beans are transported via the aforementioned Willy Wonka tubes to Onyx’s other new toy, the Sōvda Pearl Mini color sorter. Using high-speed imaging, the Sōvda uses puffs of air to kick out any beans that don’t meet the defined parameters. Jon Allen states that for Onyx, there’s a loss of roughly two percent of the total roast, resulting in a much cleaner cup. The kicked out beans are then collected and donated to area shelters, halfway homes, and soup kitchens (and not used to make cold brew, as I half-jokingly asked).
For Onyx, the open concept through line is done to promote transparency, and not just for transparency’s sake; the purpose, according to Jon, is as much for the customer as it is for themselves. “The intent is to show the level of detail, work, and talent that goes into running a roastery/cafe operation,” Allen tells me. “It’s been really good for the public to see and appreciate what we all do every day and I think good for our own staff culture to respect each others’ jobs and find camaraderie across the supply chain.”
What is not seen but is as important to the guest experience, both in Onyx cafes and those of their wholesale partners, takes place out of plain sight, downstairs (or down the wooden slide if you’re feeling brave) in the training lab. In contrast to the clean-yet-cozy feel above, the training lab is dominated by stark whites. Enclosed in glass and very much looking like you would be required to wear a cleanroom suit to enter, the training lab is chockfull of all manner of espresso machines and grinders—all in white of course—to make sure they are able to train wholesale partners who come through on the machine combination they’ll be using back home. According to Siemens, Onyx’s Head of Training, everything is modular. The machine configurations can be moved to imitate—and if need be, suggest changes to—the physical layout of the home shops as well. It’s but another small but thoughtful detail in a 30,000-square-foot space full of them.
The 1907 is an encapsulation of who Onyx Coffee Lab is in 2019. Yes, there’s flash, a bit of a “why the hell not?” attitude that allows some of their more grandiose tendencies to play out in technicolor. Onyx’s flair for the dramatic is nothing new, mind you; this is the same company that shot the moon with their Bentonville build-out, the company that before that up and painted their portion of the strip mall façade, where their Fayetteville cafe is, in all black. But beneath it all—quite literally in the case of The 1907—there is a commitment to quality, to making sure the style is backed by substance.
In the seven years since Onyx began their takeover of the Northwest Arkansas coffee scene, their relationship to the customer has undergone a seismic shift, from reactive to proactive. Where they were once the coffee shop with the drive-thru window to cater to the expectations of the clientele, they have become a brand that is constantly challenging—if not outright demanding—their guests to think about what they are drinking in ways they perhaps hadn’t previously. That mandate started in the coffee space with their Bentonville lab and continues today with The 1907, where it has expanded to include other food and beverage spheres. They are in no uncertain terms tastemakers, forward thinkers in Northwest Arkansas and the national coffee community at large.
And yet they still operate that same (largely unchanged) Fayetteville cafe. The evolution of Onyx is not one of outgrowth but of expansion, both geographically and thematically. It’s drive-thru windows and it’s Willy Wonka tubes, S’mores Gibraltars and finishing bars. It’s coffee—and cocktails and pastries and so on—for where you are and where you want to be.
Disclosure: Onyx Coffee is an advertising partner on Sprudge Media Network.