Jonathan Meadows was 18 when he started working at White Rock Coffee and fell in love with coffee culture. "A big piece of it was the culture of the coffee shop," says Meadows, who owns Cultivar Coffee, the Dallas-based roaster, with business partner Nathan Shelton. "You spend time with the same people day after day and eventually it starts to feel like home." He also loved the satisfaction of working with his hands and getting to see the direct result of his work. It was there that he also met Shelton.
Soon though, Meadows was looking to experience a different part of the country and get some roasting experience. He moved to Indiana and was quickly served a slice of humble pie (and a really good cup of coffee).
"I thought I was really good," he says, "but the people up there were making coffee unlike anything I had ever tasted and it totally blew my mind." Meadows began learning everything he could, from how to make latte art to roasting fundamentals.
During that time, he and Shelton also realized that there was a gaping hole in Dallas when it came to specialty coffee. Meadows decided to return and see if they could fill it. "Now that I employ 20-year-olds and I see their excitement and passion but also how much they frustrate me and I realize how difficult I must have been back then," Meadows says. "When I was younger I said a lot of things that I believed at the time, but if I had to do over again and had the perspective I have now, I would not have said."
Still, they had their doubts. "We started talking about starting a business but it seemed like such a pipe dream," he says. "Who would give us money when we were so young? But we went ahead and put some startup costs on paper so at least we would know how impossible our dream was." After doing the math they realized that starting a roasting company required less money upfront that the original dream of a coffee shop. To cut costs even further they rented roaster time from the now defunct Well Coffee. With the purchase of some beans, bags, and a homespun logo, Cultivar was on its way with only $1400 invested.
Because he is a barista at heart, Meadows has mixed emotions about roasting. "It's almost a meditative thing," he says. "You are there in this room with the beans alone and you are listening and using all your senses. On certain days that can be really wonderful and on other days it can feel like the loneliest job in the world." Because of this duality, Cultivar places a premium on customer interaction. Even head roaster Noe Lopez still makes time to be behind the bar serving customers.
Cultivar's roasting goal is a well-balanced cup with nice sweetness, acidity, and body. "We aren't roasting to create a fruit bomb or anything like that," he says. O"ur goal is to unlock the flavors that are already there. We want to create a cup that consumers want to drink again and again because at the end of the day that matters."
Don't mistake accessibility for a lack of attention though. Meadows and Shelton have meticulously thought about every detail, from roasting to barista training to the point of approaching an existential crisis about the role of the barista in specialty coffee.
"The reason we think people need to know the story of their coffee is because we think knowledge adds value to the supply chain," he says. "If people don't know that eight different processes happened to that coffee before they consumed it then there is this big disconnect between the customer and the cost. But how do we bring the story to people without forcing it on them? It is a subtle thing, but makes a big difference and right now I am wrestling with how to find a good balance between the two."
Though they are both only 26, Meadows and Shelton have co-owned a roasting company for five years and opened their first coffee shop, which shares a space with Good to Go Taco, over three years ago, giving them a unique perspective on the specialty coffee industry in Dallas. For Meadows, the exuberance of youth has given way to a more measured temperament.
"Things have come full circle for us in a lot of ways," he says. "Now I think if someone wants to drink a vanilla latte, what difference does it make? No, that isn't how I would drink it, but I probably appreciate coffee on a different level. When I drink my coffee black, I am more in tune with the whole chain. And I want that same experience for people I really do, but not at the expense of making them feel like an idiot. So if someone wants a vanilla latte then I'm going to make a vanilla latte and give them the same customer service as everyone else."
Meadows also took an origin trip last year, which helped give him further clarity on the importance of the connections throughout the entire supply chain, all the way from farmer to cup.
"Finding the best beans is really all about relationships, and being on the ground can help us open up new ones," he says. "It has made it hard to forget the overwhelming poverty and lack of infrastructure in coffee growing communities. The people I met and the communities I visited are very real to me. Even though direct trade isn't a certifiable thing, the continued relationship between us and the farmer creates transparency that you can't get with a fair trade sticker and we really value that as a company."
Cultivar continues to develop and grow as a company, having recently opened a second location as a shared space with Hypnotic Donuts in Denton. Next year will see their third location and first stand-alone shop open in Oak Cliff in Jim Lake's development on Jefferson Street.
"One of the really exciting things about coffee is that it is always changing," Meadows says. "We haven't been making espresso for hundreds of years so are always trying new ideas are still very much finding ourselves. The best moments happen when customers experiences a really good cup of coffee for the first time, and if you are lucky enough to be the barista that sees them taste what coffee can be, there is no other feeling like it."
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