Even in this age of peak coffee nerdiness (barista championships, coffee omakase services) the actual stuff remains, to many of us, a drink of utility. As gas is to the car, so is coffee to the body. The taste? It doesn’t matter much. I personally prefer it sort of dark and fruity — I think? — but I also tend to dose it so thoroughly with cream and sugar that its original flavor gets buried.
I am surprised when my flavor agnosticism and milky preferences do not repel Tony Konecny (aka Tonx) — the co-founder of Yes Plz, a new Los Angeles-based coffee-delivery startup that sends its subscribers, on a weekly or semi-weekly schedule, a blend of whole-bean coffee accompanied by a newsprint zine of culture and the arts.
Konecny has been front and center since coffee got all “third wave”: He was a barista at Seattle’s Victrola Coffee, where he eventually ascended to head roaster. In 2006, he was a key architect of Intelligentsia’s Los Angeles debut. In 2011, he unfurled the banner of Tonx Coffee — a wholesale and home-delivery endeavor that was his first stab at corporate independence. It was acquired by Blue Bottle a mere three years later. By all counts, he should be an unrelenting snob.
But on a recent afternoon at Dinosaur Coffee in Sunset Junction, Konecny and his partner, Sumi Ali (a coffee wunderkind who opened the cafe Condesa in Atlanta while still a teenager, then worked at Intelligentsia and G&B in L.A. and roasted at Tonx), were refreshingly fed-up with the exclusive upper echelons of the industry they’ve spent so much time in.
“Coffee connoisseurship ends up being a lot of gear and technique fetishism,” Konecny said — the “craft-aesthetics, authentic Brooklyn-Portland, leather-apron” approach. “It outlines the message to the consumer that maybe [they] don’t appreciate this the way the experts do.”
Yes Plz aspires to navigate between the Charybdis of coffee snobbery on one side and the Scylla of office-kitchen swill on the other. “If it’s delicious, it’s delicious,” Konecny said.
After launching with a market-testing Kickstarter campaign, Yes Plz makes only one coffee, which it calls the Mix. A weekly subscription costs $14 per 8.8-ounce bag including shipping. The competition in the coffee-by-mail business comes from familiar names: Stumptown’s 8-ounce offering, delivered every other week, starts at $16; Blue Bottle charges $15 for a 12-ounce bag of its blended mix plus shipping.
“There are some well-run subscription programs at some of the more sophisticated roasters,” he said, “but it still ends up being far from their primary focus. Most third-wave roasters are centered around making beverages in their coffee bars or doing sales and support for growing their wholesale channels. Selling beans direct-to-consumer is usually a very small part of the pie, if it gets any attention at all.”
As commerce of all stripes, from buying actual goods to consuming entertainment, shifts to bespoke, customizable models, it seems a no-brainer to Konecny to make coffee — a daily staple for 64% of Americans, according to a March study reported by Reuters — a clickable item. “Most junkies of most drugs stay pretty on top of not running out of their fix if they can help it, so it’s not like we’re splitting the atom here,” he said.
Yes Plz’s offering changes from week to week in a process that Ali takes great pleasure in. “We don’t believe there’s a single coffee in the world that can’t be made better by combining it with other great coffees,” he said. So how different will Yes Plz’s coffee mixes taste, say, two months from now compared with how they taste in these early days? “I hope that they’re very different,” says Ali.
On week two of its service, the Mix was an amalgam of four coffees hailing from Guatemala, Mexico, Uganda and Colombia, a blend that Ali described as punchy, fruity and sweet. Even to a coffee novice’s palate, those adjectives were evident when the Mix was prepared using both the pour-over and the French-press method.
Konecny declined to say how many customers Yes Plz has, noting it’s unclear how many of the company’s Kickstarter backers will stick around. He is modest about the future of the business but allows for a caffeine-fueled what-if scenario.
“When Tonx Coffee was sold to Blue Bottle we had around 7,500 subscribers,” he recalled. “If we got close to that, we’d be pretty happy and could keep the lights on.”
There’s another part of their business that feels particularly au courant: Yes Plz is among the swelling ranks of non-content-focused companies that produce content.
Each weekly coffee delivery arrives in an indie-cute cardboard box, the beans tucked inside the folds of the Weekly, a newsprint zine edited by former Flaunt editor Amy Marie Slocum. The first few issues feature interviews with artists including Miami-born and L.A.-based collective FriendsWithYou and musicians such as the Filipina American bilingual rapper Ruby Ibarra. The Weekly’s third issue focused on America’s prison system.
Other brand organs, such as the self-titled magazine from Airbnb and the Buzz, a new zine from Rudy’s Barbershop, are essentially ads for their companies’ products and services. But the Weekly has a broader purview: It’s general interest but with a millennial, urbane slant. Konecny sees it as an evolution of the one-page newsletter he used to include with Tonx Coffee shipments.
“I want to tell stories that, if we were a traditional or an online publication, we wouldn’t be able to tell,” Slocum said.