It would seem as though a devoted college student with a full load of intense classes would be as certain in what his future held for him as just about anyone in the undergrad phase of their life can be.
Just a few years ago, Novel Coffee Roasters co-owner Kevin Betts fit that studious mold. As a barista working at popular North Richland Hills coffee shop Roots Coffeehouse in 2012, Betts was indeed a full-on coffee connoisseur, but his future held visions of attending college in West Texas, not sourcing coffee beans from Colombia and Ethiopia to roast for cafés and caffeine-aholics — until that changed rather dramatically.
“Working at the coffee shop, I wasn’t doing anything more than exploring my love of coffee,” Betts says. “But it didn’t take me long until I fell down the rabbit hole, learning more about coffee origins, processing and brewing methods."
Simply becoming a more knowledgeable and talented barista wasn’t enough to force Betts to swerve from what seemed like a well-laid path to adulthood. He could fit that pursuit into his study schedule without dreaming of a life outside of the medical realm. Before he ever roasted his first batch of green coffee beans, however, he sensed it might lead to a more engulfing sort of rabbit hole he might never emerge from.
“I had received a full ride to study pre-med at Texas Tech,” he says. “And even though I was committed to my schooling, I had friends telling me I should start roasting coffee since I was really into coffee. But I had already figured that if I did try it, I would love it and drop out of school so I could pursue roasting as a career, which is exactly what came to pass.”
These days, Novel Coffee Roasters is its own operation, consisting of a roasting facility in Northeast Dallas as well as a brick-and-mortar coffeehouse in Flower Mound. Not only can you sip a cup of Novel coffee locally in prime spots such as Civil Pour and Bolsa, but beans roasted by Novel have been ground and brewed in more than 60 different cafes in 20 states since Betts and his brother-in-law and co-owner Ryan Smith opened their plant in 2013.
A solid amount of serendipity not only joined the duo for business but furnished their operation with its first-ever customer. Around the time Betts was being pulled into the coffee realm and away from his studies, his boss at Roots was continually unhappy with the quality and consistency of the coffee beans she received from the shop’s then-current supplier.
Betts had been using a popcorn popper to roast coffee beans in his kitchen and had managed to become pretty decent at it, to the point friends and family wanted to buy bags of his coffee instead of from his place of employment.
As it happened, late in 2012, Betts discovered his brother-in-law Smith had also been nurturing a coffee roasting hobby. By then, Smith had been working in the coffee field longer than Betts, manning the coffee cart inside the Green Spot market in East Dallas for a few years at that point.
“Yeah, he had been using a popcorn popper to roast, too,” Betts says with a laugh. “We met a few times, roasted some together and felt like we had come up with something really incredible and were exploring flavors I hadn’t explored up until that point.”
With the brotherly partnership intact and a new, small roaster having replaced the popcorn popper purchased from Big Lots in place, Roots Coffeehouse became Novel Coffee Roasters’ first client, even as Betts stayed on as a barista.
The name of the company represents what Betts and Smith both see as coffee’s greater purpose.
“When we started, ‘novel’ meant two different things,” Betts says. “We were new, with a novel approach to coffee, and the second definition of ‘novel’ relates to storytelling, so our tagline is, ‘Every coffee has a story.’ Stories are a powerful vehicle for change. Rhetoric isn’t good for really changing people’s minds. It’s when you get to know people and understand their stories, you can empathize with them and maybe change your own perceptions. That’s happened to me so many times that I’m not the person I was as a teenager, or in my early 20s or even last year.”
Betts and Smith have made the stories of their coffee producing partners something to behold. Bags of Novel coffee beans now feature designs showcasing details about the farms and farmers responsible for that specific bean in an effort to create a connective thread extending from a bean’s international origin to the cafes and homes of Novel customers.
The focus on the people behind your cup of java extends to those helping carry the Novel banner here locally. Through their first five years together, Betts and Smith had purposely avoided undertaking any sort of brick-and-mortar coffee shop endeavor in order to best serve their wholesale clientele. But in 2018, Trio Craft Coffee in Flower Mound and Novel merged, with the shop taking on the Novel name. Betts and Smith retained full ownership of the roasting operation, while Trio owners Susan and Carlos Palacio remained owners of the retail establishment.
For Betts, the new partnership represented a chance for Novel to grow its brand, yes, but he was just as excited about simply creating more opportunities for more people. After all, seizing an unexpected opportunity is what led him to his own career in the coffee biz.
“The partnership with Susan and Carlos has given us all a chance to grow,” Betts says. “And to become something greater than the sum of our parts. We’re able to offer new career opportunities to the shop’s baristas and pursue shared goals.”
With the number of high-end and third wave coffee choices in North Texas on a rise, tastes and attitudes toward coffee among the populace evolve as well. Although Novel’s complex, darkly roasted Black Swan espresso may not be for everyone, Betts knows that everyone has a place in his world when it comes to how they take their beverage.
“I have some people in my family that will put cream and sugar in their coffee when we’re all together,” he says. “And they’ll say something like, ‘Oh, I bet it makes you mad when people do this,’ but it doesn’t. When I started drinking coffee, my drink was a triple venti non-fat caramel macchiato. The person who orders a latte with Splenda in it is every bit as important as the knowledgeable coffee lover who orders a pour over and wants to discuss coffee origins.”
Whether it’s the sleepy suburbs or alongside a buzzing city freeway, Betts doesn’t see location as any sort of determining factor as to how much someone can appreciate great coffee. As his company’s name implies, everyone’s story is different, and the job of a roaster or barista is to get to know that story.
“It’s about getting to know the person across the bar from you,” Betts says. “What does that person like and where are they on their own journey with coffee. There is no right or wrong destination on that journey. I got into this business to make people happy, and if you like what you’re drinking, then I’ve done my job well.”
Novel Coffee Roasters, 2650 Flower Mound Road, Flower Mound
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.