Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jason Burton taps into a pour economy in his new beverage-geek palace

The Lab is a coffee lover's paradise.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 14, 2011 at 9:30 AM

(From left): Jason Burton, Julie Levitt, and Kim Lovelady are ready to bring the public to the Lab.
  • (From left): Jason Burton, Julie Levitt, and Kim Lovelady are ready to bring the public to the Lab.
Kansas City’s newest spot to get a cup of coffee isn’t really a coffee shop. In spite of its name, it isn’t exactly a culinary school or a test kitchen, either. The Lab (3185 Terrace Street) is likely to be all of those things at once. The beverage marketing firm wants to turn its office into a community hub with pour-over coffee service and Soda Vie from a tap starting this week.

“It’s a big beverage-geeky palace,” founder Jason Burton says.

Burton moved his two-year-old company into the building on Terrace Street in October, after forming a new partnership with About the Coffee, a coffee-services company owned by Marty and Tooti Roe that has a mechanical repair shop in back — you’re as likely to see a Volkswagen Beetle in the process of being restored as you are a coffee roaster — and clients in three states.

The two companies are planning collaborations on a series of classes, expected to start in January, using what Burton calls the “toy shop for coffee geeks,” a room off the main entrance. The key piece of equipment in the toy shop — the space resembles a coffee-fied version of a DIY lab — is a gleaming La Marzocco espresso machine. But baristas and coffee nuts will be drawn to the prototype cups and gadgets on display from About the Coffee.

“We’re lucky enough to have a community that can come together and share a love of coffee,” employee Kim Lovelady says.

The Lab, formerly known as Lab 5702, should be familiar to survivors of the Caffeine Crawl, a guided tour of a dozen coffee shops in Kansas City this past September. Lovelady, a former barista who has judged the World Barista Championships, is in charge of future Caffeine Crawl events. She plans to hold events next year in Atlanta; Phoenix; New Orleans; and Vancouver, B.C.
“Some people say they don’t like coffee,” Lovelady says. “They just haven’t had a coffee that’s right for them.”

Julie Levitt, the office’s third employee, found out about the Lab while attending the local Caffeine Crawl. She’s involved with the daily operation of the company’s social-media campaigns and plans to help lead classes this spring. She sees her hiring as a natural extension of the company’s approach to marketing.

“The Lab doesn’t really find people,” Levitt says. “People find them.”

The Lab’s fourth employee, Naomi Havlen, lives in Aspen, Colorado, and works on the Riverbench Vineyard and Winery account, one of the Lab’s four major clients.

“We’re a beverage-hybrid marketing company,” Burton says. “We are one of the very few consumer-friendly marketing companies out there. We don’t want to be snooty or pretentious. We’re very Midwest that way.”

The dominant feature in the new office is the coffee bar. With its rotating Soda Vie tap and selection of local coffees (E.F. Hobbs and Oddly Correct among them), it sits waiting for those who walk through the unmarked front door. In a room behind the bar is a cupping table that rotates like a jumbo Lazy Susan. Burton envisions people there designing custom brews or sampling craft coffee.

The shop’s aesthetic is like that of the Crossroads District’s Hammerpress shop — some industrial-design elements softened by the compact space’s inherent intimacy. As at Hammerpress, there’s a small, smartly chosen array of curios. Milk crates have been fastened to the one wall of the lobby to hold displays of the Lab’s burgeoning retail line: the doo-zie, a leather wrap for wine and spirit bottles; a set of birch drink coasters featuring cocktail recipes from craft bartenders around the country; and a sampler pack of Kansas City coffee featuring beans from E.F. Hobbs, Oddly Correct and Benetti’s. There’s also a collection of thrift-store drinking glasses selected by Burton, who admits that he tired of breaking expensive, boutique glasses.

“Everything here is reclaimed or reused, except for that,” Burton says, pointing to a metallic magazine holder hanging on the wall by the front door. “That I’ve had for at least 10 years.”

The new shop is very much a reflection of Burton’s own experiences in Kansas City. He left his job as a marketer for the Roasterie in 2007 to take a position with Houlihan’s as a brand manager. He worked in the specialty-concepts branch, which includes the Bristol and J. Gilbert’s. When he was laid off in 2009, Burton launched his beverage consultancy out of his home (the numbers in his address put the 5702 in Lab 5702) and focused on package design and social-media branding.

Right now, the Lab may have a higher profile outside the city limits than it does locally. Previous clients include PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. (of Topeka) and Two Leaves and a Bud Tea Co. (of Basalt, Colorado). In town, Burton recently collaborated with chocolatier Christopher Elbow on drink recipes for Snow & Co., the craft frozen-cocktail bar that opened last month in the Crossroads.

“I like that we’re taking Kansas City out to other places.” Burton says. ”And I’d rather that Boulevard just be our good friends down the street.”

To that end, he imagines the hometown brewery cracking open a test beer in a pop-up bar at the Lab. Beer, wine and spirits figure into the tastings that Burton wants to put on in the new space, but immediate plans for the Lab are educational: classes on brewing methods and the history of coffee, and one-on-one training in the art of pulling a proper shot of espresso. Burton also notes that Marty Roe has agreed to teach workshops on welding and how to customize beverage equipment, using his machine shop in the back.

The walk-in coffee hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday, though both Lovelady and Burton encourage frequent looks at the Lab’s Facebook page (facebook.com/lab5702) for updates.

“This is not revenue,” Burton says. “This is a community.”

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