A Reliance on the Regulars – Feature on Jones Coffee

Originally a final piece for Literary Journalism 20, an introductory literary journalism class taught by Vanessa Garcia in the fall of 2012

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The first thing that one should notice about Jones Coffee Roasters, located in Pasadena, CA, is the “old school” country music idly playing inside the shop. It is not placed so as to interrupt one’s conversation or another’s order being requested. It’s not ferociously quiet either. It lends a hand to an initial impression of the place, which is that it is a coffee shop to think in, to find inspiration in, whether it be from sources outside Jones or by the people that inhabit it. This country music simply serves as a consistent but not overbearing soundtrack to accompany these thoughts.

The counter is not placed off to the right or the front of the shop, but rather directly in the center of it all, an island in the mess of tables and chairs around the store. It is the artist/architect’s place of focus, to playfully phrase it, “where the magic happens!” The barista, one who brews, steams and serves coffee beverages, is casually dressed like any other guest who would sit in Jones: she’s dawned on a simple black blouse and light grey jeans, hair slapped together into a ponytail. Aside from these pieces, she’s wearing a small green apron. Her attire suggests that she is just like the guests at Jones, but the apron affirms otherwise.

To the right of the bar is a giant mural, a small white cartoon lamb centered. Placed on its head sits a crown with the letters “J.C.” Someone directly associated with the store must have painted this him/herself. Surrounding the guests, buried in their laptops and books, are 50s drive-in signs, lit up with neon phrases and housewives holding their cups of coffee as if these cups were their trophies, the caffeine evident in their smiles. To the back are the whole beans roasting in plain view, on display for those curious about the process. Jones becomes not only a coffee shop but also a roasting warehouse at this point!

On the portable paper menu is an “Aztec Mocha,” an espresso beverage characterized by steamed milk, cinnamon and chocolate, dressed in an orange ceramic cup. It is topped with a unique heart design. Price: $3.75. The Aztec mocha has a strong taste of smoke, chocolate and cinnamon, grasping even the most refined taste buds.

To the left of the coffee bar is a room that could double as a 1950s house’s living room, filled with newspapers nestled atop gold-lined luggage that identify as “tables” to rest coffee and books on, along with many couches (The place has a lack of regular wooden chairs. Instead, there seems to be a surplus of sofas and kitchen tables.). Framed to the wall is a certificate that reads, “Pasadena Weekly’s Best Coffee 2012.” Any guest sitting in Jones can most certainly agree with Pasadena Weekly’s decision to crown Jones as the best coffee around. Just how exactly did Jones come to receive this award, though? Is it the amazing coffee, the comfortable aesthetics? It has to be a combination of both, truly, but the owner points out that there’s not a panel of judges that decide why and who exactly. Rather, it is the citizens of Pasadena who vote this. In this case, it is the promising regulars that reign Jones in at Number One.

Now that you’ve formed a mental image of Jones and their coffee, you should know where that cup of brewed coffee, a liquid, sitting on one of their many kitchen tabletops, comes from. It starts out not even as a bean, but as a seed at first, grown in lush, shaded beds of other seeds. This seed then sprouts to a cherry (hence that very subtle bittersweet-ness you get when you take your first sip), later dried and fermented, processed and sorted. It then gets sent off to the coffee roasters, the big shots of the trade, who truly characterize the flavors of coffee that we know better than the “cherry seed-like” stage that it starts out as. The roasting process, also known as pyrolysis, is a process entirely dependent upon heat. The beans that get sent over to roasters are heated at temperatures up to 550 degrees Fahrenheit, taken out of the roasting machine when it reaches a temperature of 400 degrees and that typical deep brown hue that we recognize as a coffee bean. This heating process in the roasting machine is what truly brings out the natural aromas and flavors that are present in the cherries. These beans are then grinded and finally brewed, ready to be poured into that ceramic cup of yours that gives you the energy you need to start your day.

Zoom out from your mental image of the cup of coffee and picture Mireya Asturia-Jones, the owner of Jones Coffee Roasters. She usually doesn’t work on Saturdays, but in this case she is present to assist in the day’s event, a book signing by David Wambaugh, who is a local Los Angeles-born-and-raised author of memoir, “The Last Call.” This small woman is about 5’1 in height, with dark, tan skin and whisps of silver in her hair. She has bright, open hazel eyes and a colorful Christmas sweater, despite the fact that it is about 80 degrees inside the store. Coffee has really been a part of Mireya’s whole life. She was actually born and raised on a coffee farm in Guatemala, one of the top exporters of coffee in the world. Whether she wanted it or not, a future in coffee seems to have been an un-escapable fate for her, simply because she was surrounded by it so often. Mireya is so involved with coffee that her efforts in its quality go beyond Jones, as she is a council member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a group that looks to improve the betterment of the specialty coffee industry through their eager members. Out of this, the Barista Guild of America and the Southeast Regional Barista Competition were invented, both of which consist of some of the highest quality baristas in America. With this in mind, it is concluded that Mireya looks to not only improve the quality of her own coffee but also the coffee throughout America.

Mireya’s company started out as a roaster in 1993, meaning that Jones Coffee only distributed roasted beans to other coffee shops, restaurants and retailers, who would then grind and serve them to their own customers. Jones still does this, but as of five years ago Mireya opened their warehouse to brew the coffee as well. Looking once again at their surroundings, a large portion of the aspects of the shop is clearly characteristic of warehouses. Concrete floors, large machinery in the back, and the front entrance revealing a metal garage door-type opening at the top of it.

Later, Mireya walks over to a separate station in the warehouse/coffee shop to explain just how her beans are specially assembled. A workshop-type lesson ensues, as she is ready to describe the nitty gritty of what the logistics of coffee truly are. “There are three roasts of coffee,” she lectures, “Italian, French and Vienna.” This does not necessarily mean that these roasts are from these locations, but that they simply label coffee as light, medium and dark. She points out each color, noting the differences in the richness. Mireya then continues to characterize her two main blends, the “Madison” and the “Chuck,” both of which she named after her granddaughter and son; he also works alongside her in the company. It is these personal touches that really create the uniqueness of Jones. She explains how the Madison is a blend of light and medium beans, the Chuck a mix of medium and dark, all the while green and red paper garlands hang above. The simplicity of them would make you think that her granddaughter made them, but she matter-of-factly states that it was actually one of the baristas that constructed it. This barista, along with the other baristas who work at Jones, created a majority of the décor that is strung above the store, some made of papers and others consisting of bright string lights. It’s quirky and draws attention away from the coffee lecture due to its eccentricity.

When asked why she thinks that people voted her shop as the best coffee in Pasadena, Mireya smiles without hesitation and affirms, “they really like the ‘mom and pop’-[type] setting and the neighborhood aspect we have in our store. They’re really just plain comfortable.” This neighborhood aspect must hint to the fact that very many people inside the store seem to know one another and the baristas working. It really is one large community at Jones.

Mireya’s answer, of course, addresses the regulars that are milling about Jones as if it was their own house too. These regulars seem to be the key to Jones’s success, the chiefly reasoning in Pasadena Weekly’s Best Coffee Awards’ decision. One of these regulars is Daniel, who is sitting at a table outside of Jones. He is wearing a turquoise beanie, hunched over a mess of pencil-drenched markings on a few pieces of paper in front of him. His dark brown hair is everywhere; it’s evident he doesn’t shave often. His black plastic frame glasses are positioned carefully upon his nose. He seems like the perfect example of a typical art student, as he is an industrial design major at the Pasadena Art Center—South. With his led pencil, he is doodling spheres and rectangular boxes in a small Moleskin notebook. Daniel tells me he is from Ventura and moved to Pasadena a few years ago for the Pasadena Art Center specifically. Along with industrial design, he finds interest in the interior facade of a structure, its environmental design, and a side fascination with transportation.

He sheepishly admits to only drinking a refillable iced coffee here. However, it does not stop him from deeming himself as a proud regular at the coffee shop. As Daniel adjusts the turquoise beanie that’s practically falling off his head, he claims that his friend Shaun suggested Jones to him a couple years ago, and that he likes to drop by a couple of times a week and order his usual ice coffee, doodling even more as he sips, unwinds and finds inspiration. Some of his inspiration most likely draws from the home décor hanging about the store, a cornucopia of sketchable shapes and sizes.

What he enjoys about the place, however, is its “vibe,” as he words it simply. The baristas recognize him, it’s walking distance from the Pasadena Art Center. It’s an easier, quiet place to work in compared to Intelligentsia, a coffee shop that rivals all the independent coffee shops in Pasadena combined. He truly values the atmosphere that Jones creates. It’s a place to facilitate his art and his thinking. The coffee is only an aide in this process.

Another regular inside Jones is chatting up the barista and laughing. After he orders, he is animatedly speaking with yet another group of customers. The woman in this group recognizes him as the track and field coach of her daughter at South Pasadena High School, and they are in an extremely in-depth conversation about her daughter’s academic pursuits. After speaking with this woman, he is nestled in a nook of the coffee shop in a comfy armchair, a book in hand. It is a history book about the French Revolution. His name is Eric Suh and he has been a recent regular to Jones for about a year now. Eric is wearing a trucker cap backwards, cargo shorts and a light blue plaid collared shirt, ultimate casual wear. He has jet-black hair that reaches just the ends of his chin. He also has a small, square-set jaw and light brown, almond eyes that seem to light up when he talks. He’s overall an amiable and excited man.

Eric and his friend were on the way to a road trip up Northern California when they made a stop at Jones for his first time. He’s not sure as to whether there was one specific element of Jones that made him love it so much, but he did start to come regularly after, close to three or four times a week on the way to work at South Pasadena High School. His regular drink is actually one that he and the other baristas concocted together, a “mocha macchiato,” which is an espresso shot melted with chocolate together and topped off with milk foam. Like Daniel, Eric also enjoys the “vibe” that Jones creates, as well as its openness. He finds peace in the quiet atmosphere here and the random mix of people he encounters, different from the trendy “hipsters” he has run into at Intelligentsia.

Intelligentsia is the coffee shop in Pasadena that seems to rival all of the independent coffee shops in Pasadena combined, known for its trendy, modern setting and pretentious baristas. The store is decorated with lights encased by mason jars and portraits of dead poets, speakers dripping with hip hop music. Other shops fear its presence, as they are aware of its appeal to a more modern crowd.

The problem with Intelligentsia and other independent coffee shops is actually characteristic of a problem between many other coffee shops in the area. As soon as a hip, new shop has plans to open, independent coffee relies evermore on their regulars and stubbornness to stick to “what they are good at.” Zona Rosa Caffe, a Dia De Los Muertos themed coffee shop in the Playhouse District of Pasadena, is currently debating whether or not to move location, knowing that Urth Caffe is to open right around the corner from them soon! It’s an ongoing, common problem: indie versus corporate. Eric has clearly chosen the indie side, praising Jones for its random mix of people who aren’t as “hip” as the regulars found in corporate coffee shops.

He will admit that Intelligentsia’s coffee is slightly better in quality, but that it is the personal aspects of Jones that keeps him coming back for his regular morning coffee. The vibe at Jones is different, he claims, for its emphasis on keeping in touch with the local scene around it. It is then affirmed that the atmosphere here clearly has a larger influence than the coffee in the combination of what makes Jones great. Others have also taken notice to the difference made in personal touches too. Patrick Comisky comments on the recent, intricate changes in Los Angeles County’s coffee in his article, “Coffee in L.A.: Above and beyond a Cup of Joe,” stating, “That level of attention is what separates the new cafe from the rote Starbucks experience. Gone are the hot plates, the glass pots, the industrial cauldrons… As such, the new cafe is a slow cafe. But for your patience, you’ll be rewarded with a more fussed-over cup of coffee than you ever thought possible.” Eric definitely is willing to wait for this cup of coffee.

Along with this fussed over coffee, Jones Coffee takes their connection to the local scene to a new level. Aside from hosting book signings, Jones Coffee also hosts a variety of events like art nights showcasing local art, live music from local musicians, and a weekly visit from Pasadena’s most popular food trucks, drawing in all different arrays of Pasadena citizens who share a common love for what their city has to offer. Jones truly tries to promote the scene that it has the pleasure of being located in. They are also the proud sponsors of regular workshops on how to brew coffee, titles ranging from “Intro to Home Brewing,” a workshop on how to properly grind one’s beans and brew them at home, to “From Seed to Cup.” This class gets down to the basics of coffee growing; the description reads:

“In this workshop we cover the basics: everything from seed to cup! Learn a little about the history of this great beverage, including where it grows, how it is processed, what happens during roasting and how that affects the taste, regional flavor profiles, and more. Then we wrap up with a coffee tasting!”

Mireya and her son Chuck, along with a few other baristas, teach these classes themselves. These events and workshops all further prove that Mireya and Jones Coffee truly do look to better the coffee community from the whole of America through the SCAA to, more importantly in their regulars’ case, in the local community of Pasadena as well.

Recounting these personal touches and comfortable atmosphere, one can completely and unequivocally agree with the regulars that it is the best coffee shop in Pasadena. It is this home grown atmosphere that allows Jones to reign as number one coffee shop in Pasadena Weekly, voted by their regulars of the place. Its care into its guests as well as the community around it makes it clear that the regulars of Jones as well as Mireya and her family understand the importance of the “mom and pop shop” when it comes to their morning coffee and inspiration. It is for this reason that Jones can rely on their regulars to keep them running, growing and more importantly, energizing their community.

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