(Devin Pedde, Nick Griffith and Ryan Willbur haul all the WRBC trophies back to Photo courtesy tonx.)

This past weekend, baristas from Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea took the top three spots in the Western Regional Barista Competition in Los Angeles, California. Entrants Ryan Willbur (third place), Devin Pedde (second place) and Nick Griffith (the new Western Regional champ) beat out competitors from the length of California, in an event itself sponsored by Intelligentsia.

This isn’t the first time, of course, that Intelli supercompetitors have cleaned up but good. The company boasts champion titles in two of the six United States Barista Competitions thus far (Matt Riddle in 2006, Kyle Glanville holding the current, 2008, title) and has excelled in numerous regional championships. (In 2008, Intelli baristas took first place titles in the Great Lakes (Mike Phillips) and Northeast (Amber Sather) and placed second (Glanville) in the Western region.)

In the tiny world specialty coffee has created for itself, Intelligentsia is the big kid in the room, perceived by some members of the community and/or internet motormouths as masters of a playing field that’s no longer level, at least at in the arena of barista competition. Can being a consistent winner actually harm community morale? Or does it help bring everybody’s game? And if it isn’t bringing everybody’s game…why not, and what’s missing? spoke to Intelligentsia founder Doug Zell about this unique position in the competition landscape.

What was the reaction to Intelligentsia sweeping the top three spots at a barista competition it sponsored?
I thought everybody seemed really gracious about it, from what I saw.

I think there is some sort of climate of people thinking “no other company is going to have the resources to train people the way Intelligentsia does.”
I dunno—define resources. I don’t see how what we have is different than the opportunities that other people have.

You think that the playing field is pretty level?
People have access to coffee, and they have time to practice. ‘Cos these guys certainly aren’t doing it on our dollar, they practice on their own time. I mean, we roast coffee, but if they have access to milk, and things like that, I think the effort really comes into the time they put into work on it.

To be perfectly honest, we started in the same place with a store and a roaster, and worked our way from there to here, and we invest in the stuff that we believe in. I feel like we invest heavily in what happens at source, getting the coffees right, we invest in our people, and I think that the whole barista movement is entirely worthwhile, and as such we support it, which I see as entirely consistent with our beliefs. So I can’t feel bad about it. We put our resources into things we value.

What do you think the role of barista competitions is in coffee culture? Community-building? Theatre? Showiness?
I do think there’s certainly community-building and I think what was really nice about this most recent event is there are a lot of good quality roasters out that way, who are stand-up folks who are working hard at it and I really enjoy that part.

In terms of what it does for the industry and the barista, people talk and talk and talk about what it is to be a barista but I do think that the public visibility and media attention we had brings light to how much more of a craft this is than how it was historically percieved. The place was filled, and to get calls from the New York Times, LA Times, LA Magazine, […—Ed.] all the online food press, is definitely bringing visibility to the craft that hasn’t happened in the way that we all may have liked to see in the past.

As an industry we may be groaning a little—”oh, one more year of barista competitions”—but I think the public is only now seeing what it is.

When there can be a chili cook-off or a steak contest or a macaroni and cheese contest on the Food Network and we still haven’t gotten coverage, I see how much longer we have to go.

But don’t you think such a disparity, even if it’s fair, might make people want to stop trying? And won’t that do a disservice to the community at large, or whatever the point of barista competition is?
Again, that’s sort of more of their issues than our issue. We’re investing in the stuff that we believe in. I don’t think that, if someone had the time and effort and had the coffee, that they couldn’t do very very well. I think that’s true of any contest, whether it’s basketball or rugby. You can talk about resources and I get that, but I think that desire trumps resources every time. There is something to say for talent and effort, and I think you’d be hard pressed to say that the most talented athletes in the world come from privleged backgrounds.

In many ways I think it’s a convenient excuse. I think that people that have the desire to do something make it happen.

I don’t feel remotely apologetic about building a business, having great people, as part of the business. I don’t feel like we should apologize for being successful. If we pay growers great prices, we have a nice company where people are well-compensated and we provide health insurance and 401K, and everything that everybody talks about wanting to provide…is that a bad thing?

Do you feel like people find it hard to compete against you, though? Isn’t having the WBC champion Stephen Morrissey come in to work with your baristas kind of like the rich kid with the private nanny? (Yes, I just called Stephen a nanny.)
I think that other companies that have been successful have been driven by the same thing. I think if you look at the success of companies like Ritual—I think they just put effort into it. I guess I don’t buy it. I would ask them to look inward and figure out how to put the pieces together. I think for somebody to compete, you’re not talking about some enormous investment. The people that do well are the people that practice and work on it. Are they competitive? Sure they are.

If we say hey we believe in the barista movement and what’s going on and what it brings to specialty coffee, and we do that, I mean, what else should we be investing in? Again, whether it’ s a great athlete or a great photographer, you figure out how to do it. You don’t say “oh god those guys at the New York Times have greater resources for equipment, so they take better photographs.”

Do I know that people say it? Sure I do. Should I feel bad about it? I don’t think so. I’m happy to heartily compete—that’s very American, isn’t it? I’d certainly be disingenuous to say I’m not competitive and we’re not competitive as people.

What I’d really love to see is a competitor from the US win the whole thing. So if that’s what we’re after, shouldn’t we be pushing the winner, whoever it is, to really be the best and have them challenged to win? It is a competition after all, or is it one of those sports where you want to make sure everybody touches the ball? To say we didn’t do well because the other guy was SO GOOD is not really the winning style.

What you’re getting at is that the real advantages Intelligentsia maybe has are in the culture within the company that nurtures the competitive spirit.
I really feel like if people had the desire, they could put the pieces together. Any competitor that has done well has always figured out a way to put it together.

I believe if you have the desire, you can. We got here honestly by hook or crook, starting with a very small amount of seed money, but then it’s been done like business with bank debt and all that stuff, all those other things that businesses do. I don’t think that Apple creates great products without the desire to create great products, nor does Patagonia or any other brand of that ilk. I think it’s fascinating to watch.

I think in the long run, being in the competitions, and how we’ve participated—and it’s my hope that if we do well, we’re gracious about it, i don’t think we gloat, i think we’re sort of pro about it—if the belief is that we’re doing this to further build our brand, our name, of course! But on a general level our commitment is really to growing the whole thing. I think it’s infuriating, really, that we all talk about moving the barista along and making their role more meaningful etc, and then you’ve got people that pay baristas minimum wage, no benefits, etc. You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth then. Our desire, in many of our stores, is working. People are getting paid really well, getting good tips, they’ve got good benefits, etc.

Let’s get this whole thing where being a professional barista actually can be a job vocation, where a barista doesn’t have to have six roommates in order to survive. Guys are blowing their brains out to try to pay their bills, and it’s tough if you’re a barista. And suddenly you’re 30 years old and wondering “Now what do I do?”

So let’s actually get working on what we’re talking about instead of just talking about it. If we show up and it makes people feel “I have to bring my best game”, well, I can live with that. Intelligentsia has grown to a place where it’s not just me who is able to do stuff, we get to provide growth opportunities for other people too. There are actually people here who own houses and have families and stuff, and I’m not ashamed of that.

We’re really just fooling all of ourselves unless we do something to positively affect this.

(, based in a city where her barista friends often have two or three, if not six, roommates—hey, Chimay is expensive!—tends to find the last part hard to argue with…)

And, in closing, the Specialty Coffee Association of America‘s take on the LA sweep?

“Doug wins lots of regional titles and places lots of competitors, because he invests in the success of his baristas,” said Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the SCAA.

“Is it OK for Tiger Woods to be the greatest golfer who ever lived? Should Steve Earle stop writing songs because he is a threat to Billy Joel?”


See you at the GLRBC, Intelli.

5 Responses to “twitchy interview no. 5: doug zell”

  1. Nick Cho

    GREAT interview, and great stuff from DZ!

    My only disagreement is that barista competitions aren’t like basketball or rugby… you don’t go toe-to-toe with anyone directly.

    Whoever scores the most points (against the scoresheets) on the day-of, wins the competition. It’s sort of more like golf.

    Or bowling.

  2. Zell speaks « WRBC 2009

    […] east coast friend Liz Clayton talks with Doug Zell about Team Intelligentsia’s juggernaut status in the barista competition world. Among the […]

  3. deaton

    Interesting read indeed!

    Just thought that I would point something out about our loved nanny Mr Stephen Morrissey.

    Your Question,

    “Do you feel like people find it hard to compete against you, though? Isn’t having the WBC champion Stephen Morrissey come in to work with your baristas kind of like the rich kid with the private nanny?”

    This is not the first time that Morrissey has worked for Intelligentsia, actually Morrissey’s relationship started way back in 06/07 when he took his girlfriend Jenny to Chi-town for New Years Eve and he introduced himself to DZ.

    He then went on to work for Intelligentsia and helped Kyle Glanville train the baristas at the Silver Lake store for three months. He also helped the LA barista team (unpaid) for last years USBC where Kyle won.

    He has been to LA to visit little old me and his friends here on more then one occasion just for laughs! I feel at times that I actually owe my job at Intelligentsia to Stephen as it was he who introduced me to Doug and Kyle in Jan 07.

    Stephen has been travelling the globe in search of coffee long before he won the Worlds so I don’t think its unreasonable to other baristas that Stephen and Intelligentsia would want to keep some sort of relationship, be it working or comradeship.

    Stephen, if asked would help almost anyone out there if they invited him over, go on, try it, give the nanny a call, there is plenty of that Irish man to go around, you just have to take the initiative.

  4. Melanie

    Hey, Liz.
    Fantastic interview by you AND Doug. Great questions, great answers, and some real meat…err…content to read and think about. You asked the questions people talk about,Liz, and Doug, your answers are candid and meaningful. Thank you both. One of the best reads about competitions I have had in a long time.
    Congrats Doug on the WRBC and all you are doing for specialty coffee.

  5. The Onocoffee

    Gotta agree with Melanie above, nice work and great questions.

    Intelligentsia has a long history of producing quality barista champions who underscore their abilities with a remarkable amount of self-restraint, respect and humility.

    After building a company of his own vision, I don’t think Doug Zell has anything to be apologetic for. Intelligentsia has emerged as a front-runner in the specialty coffee scene and as such is able to afford resources and talent that smaller companies are unable.

    One thing I think needs to be considered is that while the playing field itself (i.e. the competition) is “level”, a company that is able to provide resources for their baristas has a competitive advantage. Separate training facilities means that a competitor can practice after their shift, as opposed to waiting until their shop has closed for the evening. This can easily translate into starting your practice time at 6pm instead of 10pm or later.

    Doug is right that its’ the mettle of the competitor that makes the difference. A competitor can only utilize and take advantage of the resources offered. The desire to compete and do well must come from within.

    Unlike others, I don’t begrudge Intelligentsia’s ability to afford the resources for its’ competitors. To liken it to sports, do we begrudge the New York Yankees because they can consistently field a team of champions?

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