While the focus of their coffee business has changed, Jon and Andrea Allen haven’t changed how they do business.
The Allens founded Onyx Coffee Lab in 2012 and have four cafes in northwest Arkansas. The cafes used to play a larger role in Onyx’s success before the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 closed down social gatherings.
The Allens quickly adjusted. Onyx had a thriving wholesale business to go with its cafes, but with coffee lovers stuck at home, the company began to boost its e-commerce platform. The direct-to-consumer segment now makes up 60% of Onyx’s sales.
What hasn’t changed is the Allens’ devotion to sustainability and transparency. Their sustainability practices start on coffee farms in Central and South America, East Africa and numerous locales in between; continue to their roastery in Rogers; and wind up every bag of coffee delivered to customers nationwide.
“It has been a big pillar of our company since the beginning,” Jon Allen said. “It is more expensive, especially with our packaging.” While the company’s sustainability focus adds to the overhead, the Allens say they have no regrets. For example: Years ago, the company installed solar panels on the roof of its Rogers headquarters, a significant expense that is paying off by making Onyx’s roasting process carbon neutral.
Onyx has also partnered with TricorBraun of St. Louis to ship its products in biodegradable coffee bags. The bags are packaged in paper boxes made of recycled materials. The environmentally friendly packaging has doubled their shipping costs, Jon Allen said.
“We operate our entire facility off of solar, which was a huge cost at the beginning, but now it is paying itself off,” Jon Allen said. “There are a lot of intangibles when investing in sustainability. It’s not just trying to be green with our eyes glazed over. It’s good for our culture, and it helps with employee retention because people understand our goals.”
Down on the Farm
Biodegradable bags and paper mailing boxes are good for sustainability, but they do little to make up for the environmental costs of farming coffee beans. So the Allens work with farmers on sustainable practices to benefit the farms and their company.
Onyx’s niche is specialty coffees, and the company searches worldwide to find unique, quality beans for each flavor. Jon Allen said the company partners with about 800 coffee farmers worldwide, most of them in Colombia and Ethiopia. They want only the best beans available.
“Sustainable for producers also means sustainable income and sustainable income over time,” Andrea Allen said. “It goes hand in hand with quality. I have never seen a producer not doing all the things they can to produce really great coffee. I have never seen a producer accidentally produce great coffee.”
Coffee beans fill a bin after being roasted at Onyx Coffee in Rogers.
Jon Allen said best practices for coffee bean farming include better harvesting and drying techniques and using ceramic tiles in fermentation tanks. He said it’s also important for farmers to intercrop other plants with coffee to keep the soil fertile, or to plant around shade trees to reduce maintenance costs.
Jon Allen said that for smaller farmers he deals with, it is only fair that Onyx helps pay for the improvements. For example, Onyx will pay 70 cents more for a pound of coffee beans, up from the original $3 per pound, to help defray costs.
The most important thing is we have to put our money where our mouth is,” Jon Allen said. “If we are asking them to do projects, we need to pay for those projects upfront. If we are making suggestions, we need to incentivize those suggestions.”
Large industrial coffee farms may produce large crops, Jon Allen said, but the quality is worse.
“It depends on the country and the producers, but overall coffee is stripping a lot of resources,” Allen said. “You’re seeing anyone that is a monoculture, who is only growing coffee, especially in large mechanized farms you see in Brazil, their harvests are getting harder and harder and the quality is getting worse and worse even though the volume yields are pretty high.
“At the same time there is a resurgence in specialty growers who understand long-term sustainability cycles of intercropping their coffees. It pays off financially to be sustainable in the coffee market.”
See for Yourself
The Allens put all their coffee data on the Onyx website. Any visitor can see how much Onyx paid for the coffee, where it came from and how it was produced. Onyx’s website also has a fact sheet about its sustainability efforts.
Andrea Allen, who oversees operations at Onyx, is among the world’s top baristas. She won the 2021 national barista championship and finished second at the world competition, both put on by the Specialty Coffee Association of Irvine, California.
“It’s our responsibility to do everything we can to take care of the really great industry of specialty coffee and try to help make sure it continues for generations to come,” she said. “The industry is super great, and I love it. I think it is the greatest industry in the world. It needs to be improved and grown and changed. This is just one small way of trying to help it be better for everyone.”
Onyx served plenty of patrons inside its cafes before the pandemic, but social distancing forced the company to change how it interacted with customers.
“That pushed us to grow our business and be more mobile and be better business owners,” Andrea Allen said. “As it changed people’s coffee-drinking habits, our industry changed to suit those things. We weren’t shipping a ton of coffee directly to people’s homes before the pandemic, and that changed a ton.”
Jon Allen said the e-commerce growth has been a boon for the company. Most of the coffee Onyx sells is direct to customers or to wholesalers such as Whole Foods, with just 5% of Onyx coffee being bought at a cafe.
Onyx roasts up to 25,000 pounds of coffee beans a week, compared with 17,000 pounds before the pandemic.
“That’s pure e-commerce growth,” Jon Allen said. “Our e-commerce and subscription platforms have exploded since COVID and have maintained that level of growth. We have been really excited to enter this realm of direct to consumer.
“We have always had that option but it was never a focus of the company.”