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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Contraband Coffee's Nathan Wyss and Josh Magnani Discuss The Highs and Lows of Community Coffee Shop

Posted By on Sun, Dec 4, 2011 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge Contraband Coffee
  • Contraband Coffee

​In an effort to chart the ever-expanding specialty coffee scene in the Bay Area, we've been engaging a selection of local coffee personalities to pick their brains about why coffee and why now.  Today we talk with Nathan Wyss and Josh Magnani, the owners of Contraband Coffee in Polk Gulch.

When you two opened Contraband just under a year ago, the intention was to create a community coffee shop that served amazing coffee.  Why was this your goal?

Josh Magnani:  [Polk Gulch] is a residential neighborhood. Our bread and butter is the locals. No matter who you are, if you're the Blue Bottle Kiosk in Hayes Valley, it doesn't matter. The people going to your shop five times a week are the people living in the neighborhood. I want to strive to make folks who are coming to Contraband as a destination happy, but I'm well aware of who our bread and butter are. The people I want to keep happy are the neighbors. And that's always been important to me.

Nathan Wyss:  What we want to do is to serve excellent coffee that's accessible to everyone in an environment that anyone would be comfortable in.  In order to do this, we have to do things we'd rather not do -- grinding beans for people, offering wi-fi, offering sugar and a sugar substitute, and doing espresso and macchiatos to go when a customer requests it. It's hard to please everyone, but we try to without sacrificing quality. And I think most people in the area really like what we are doing.  

What have been some of the challenges with the combining of high end coffee and neighborhood hang-out spot?

NW: The biggest challenge is balancing quality, speed, and pricing, but I suppose that may be true for just about any business.  A lot of people in our neighborhood aren't used to paying $4-$6 for a cup of drip coffee, so we have to do a lot of work to find great quality beans that we can sell for lower prices while we educate our customers about coffee. We really don't want to be seen as snobby or too cool. And there are always going to be those folks who consider us snobs.  

Can you imagine a time when every neighborhood coffee shop in America is serving amazing coffee?

JM:  I hope so, but I don't actually think so. I mean, let's talk about the rest of the coffee: Peet's, Starbucks, Applebees -- you think they're going away?  I wish there was less stuff with high fructose corn syrup, but that's never going to happen. I don't think it'll ever be that exclusive.  I can't imagine a day when choice is being limited like that. All we can do is work towards educating the public. I just want our customers to think about what they're drinking. To not just enjoy it, but to think about why they enjoy it. To think about flavor profiles and nuances and to try different things.  

NW:  There is always going to be a market for a quick cup of cheap sludge that you dump a bunch of cream, sugar, and flavored corn syrup into, just like there's a market for preservative-laden pre-cooked beef patties, flash-heated and served through a drive-up window for $0.99. It's more challenging to get those people to feel comfortable in our space and with our products than it is to get the connoisseurs, who are already expecting what we are producing.

What drew you guys to open up Contraband now amid all these other roaster-retailers coming in to existence?

JM:  I've been making coffee for nearly 15 years now and it's has been an interesting time. Third wave, or whatever you want to call it, it's the best place coffee has ever been. Back in the day, I hated coffee shop culture. I hate to say it, but it was all AA people outside smoking cigarettes and drinking weak drip. We wanted to create a culture where people are chatting and being involved in this fun atmosphere and experiencing the most exciting time that's occurred in my lifetime.

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