At the 2015 SCAA event, we tasked Sprudge contributor Emily McIntyre with a series of interviews, highlighting coffee professionals from across the United States making their own subtle marks on the nation’s coffee culture. This week, we’ll be bringing you a new interview every day, each one a snapshot of the men and women behind American specialty coffee.
Jon Cates, Broadway Cafe and Roasting Company, Kansas City, Missouri
For a high school gift, Jon Cates’ dad took him to Europe, where they drank coffee in cafes in multiple countries. Coming back to Kansas City, Cates realized he was craving cappuccinos and espresso. “I’d go to this Italian restaurant and be like, ‘Hey, can I just hang out here and order a cappuccino?’ They kind of didn’t understand, but they’d be like, OK, and I’d just read, and think about things, and drink coffee.” That was in the early ’90s, and it wasn’t long before he started working as a barista and eventually landed a job at the iconic Westport neighborhood coffee shop Broadway Cafe.
“When I became partners with Sarah (Honan, Broadway’s other owner), we started roasting in the back of the cafe, just for ourselves, but in a few weeks we started selling wholesale. All our accounts are just our friends who like our coffee and trust our judgment on what it should taste like.” Now the company has separated the cafe and roasting company by a few doors, and Cates’ role has shifted from daily roasting to the overall tasks of running a business. “I come in, check the money, walk around, then I get out there into the real work of roasting samples, cupping coffees we’ve roasted that week, making phone calls.”
Cates’ coffee philosophy is simple: “I buy green coffee I think tastes really good, then we try to reach the perfect point for each coffee. When we started roasting, people would just roast all the coffees the same, really dark, but even then it was important to me to try and figure out each coffee. Everything is manual, no computers…it’s all about the nose. I guess you could say the punk rock ethic I had from playing music expanded into coffee. We’re just doing our own thing, doing it the way we want to and not really caring what other people think, because ultimately we make our coffee taste the way we like and we serve it to our customers. We’ve been pretty successful with that.”
Starting in the late ’90s in coffee, Cates has anchored the rise of the specialty coffee culture in Kansas City, and one of his favorite parts of it is the connectivity the internet brings. “It was hard to find good coffee back then. You couldn’t just go to a small coffee roaster for a pound of coffee, you had to order it from places, before the internet. Now, I can keep in touch with my friends in Central America—if I have a question on the coffee, I can hold a sec and get an immediate response. In fact, I’m slowly building the connections to make the trip on my motorcycle through Central and South America. So far, I can get to Colombia.”