Shannon Neffendorf's entry into coffee roasting came out of selfish necessity. His job with Blockbuster (remember that) required work trips to Milan several times a year, and he soon found himself meeting with friends for cappuccino in the morning and taking a break for an espresso in the afternoon.
"I was really impressed with the commitment to excellence," he says. "Everywhere you went it seemed like baristas were very dedicated to their craft." Frustrated he couldn't to find that experience back in Dallas, he began roasting at home, on his front porch with a popcorn popper.
Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters was born several years later, when friends began throwing money at Neffendorf in exchange for some home-roasted coffee. In January 2009, Crooked Tree Coffeehouse became his first wholesale client, and Neffendorf quit his job at Blockbuster to go into roasting full-time.
Since then, he's expanded his wholesale business to include coffee shops like Wild Detectives and Fourteen Eighteen Coffeehouse, stores like Whole Foods and Urban Acres, and porch delivery to certain zip codes in Oak Cliff. Last year Neffendorf also opened his first and only brick and mortar location, Davis Street Espresso.
While a lot has changed from those days on the porch, little has changed about Neffendorf's style and approach to coffee. In everything he does, Neffendorf says, he works to stay connected to the end drinker's experience with his coffee.
"There is this saying about 'the curse of knowledge,'" he says. "The more you learn about your craft, the more disconnected you become from the people who consume your product on a daily basis but don't have the same experience that you as the craftsman does. So I try always to be aware of that people aren't always coming from the same place I am. My goal is to pursue the what is best for the coffee and at the same time staying in touch with the people I am serving."
Neffendorf believes what's best for the coffee is a light footprint on the part of the roaster and barista. "There is a lot of work and effort that goes into a coffee all the way through and I want people to taste the work of the farmer, the roaster, and the barista," he says. "But I think that is most evident in the cup when we stay out of the way and let the product speak for itself. Basically our roasting philosophy is to buy really good coffee and then not screw it up. We believe roasting coffee is secondary to sourcing quality coffee. Because it doesn't matter what we do in the roasting if we don't start off with a really great product."
Direct trade and farm trips have long been a priority for OCCR.
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"My family tries to source a lot of the food we eat, from growing it ourselves to buying milk and meat from people we know," he says. "Those relationships are important to us because there is value in their connection to the land. Coffee is different though because you can't source it locally, so I see OCCR as filling that gap. I can go to El Salvador and bring back information and a human connection in edition to the coffee."
Neffendorf also appreciates not being compelled to obsessively check the commodities market for price fluxuation. With direct trade, he and the farmer agree on a price for the year and are unaffected by market swings. Over the years, OCCR has expanded and strengthened long-term relationships with farms all over Central America. Neffendorf loves that these sustained relationships give farms an opportunity improve infrastructure and bean quality year after year. Expect to see an increasing number of direct trade partnerships from Africa as Neffendorf has recently set his sights on developing more relationships in countries like Ethiopia and Kenya.
Having the roastery and coffee shop under the same roof has opened up new opportunities for OCCR to connect with customers on multiple levels. "Having educated customers is important, so we do cuppings and client trainings and things like that," he says. "But really the need for education is a byproduct of the industrialized food system. We have an education gap because the relationships with the people that grow and make our food broke down. So our primary goal isn't education, it is to reconnect people and establish trust. I want people to know and trust that what I have on my shelf is done the right way."
At just over a year old, Davis Street Espresso enjoys a loyal following of neighborhood regulars. "It has always been really important for us to identify with a community of people and to shoot for something that is long lasting and transcends the latest trend. Sometimes I am surprised that the idea we had for the shop is actually working. I thought we would get more pushback with no wifi but people have really embraced the fact that we are trying to do something a little different on the café side."