The high end coffee business in Los Angeles is dominated by a few major players, and they all know each other by name. Less than a year ago, Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski came out of left field to level the service side of things with pop-up shops that sold hard-to-find single origin beans roasted to perfection and then weighed out and brewed to order. They had been running G&B Coffee out of SQIRL until last month, when they opened a G&B Coffee stand inside downtown's Grand Central Market. Late last month, they opened a second shop, Go Get 'Em Tiger, on Larchmont. Recently, we decided to catch up with the two, over a cup of their finest.
How did you get into the coffee business?
C: I've been in the coffee business for 8 years. I got in because I was a cook in New York at a cafe on the Upper East Side, and I thought it would be easier to get a job as a barista. I knew that I didn't want to cook for a living and I thought it would be really easy to make coffee instead. But the reality is that it's really hard. Customer service is challenging. The reason I stuck around coffee, was because it grabbed me. It pulled my attention in. Eventually, I moved from New York to Chicago and started working for Intelligentsia, and worked my way up to the trainer position, which I was then able to move out to L.A. to do the training for Venice and Silver Lake.
K: I got into the coffee business for necessity, for money. I dropped out of high school and my mom made me get a job before she kicked me out of the house. In the 90s, in Carmel (where I grew up) working at coffee shops (or Jamba Juice), was what kids could do. My sister lived in Seattle at the time. And I would go visit her and I saw coffee that I hadn't seen before, the milk was so fine, and there was so much pageantry, and refinement. I fell in love with Seattle, and decided to move there to study acting. So then, to make money, I got a job at a place called Espresso Victrola—the owner wrote a book about espresso production, and tried to debunk some of the mythologies surrounding coffee. I started pestering people in the shop about why coffee reacted in different ways for different people. People sort of got annoyed with me, but I was learning. Then, the company started roasting, Tony (who now runs TONX coffee) and I, we banded together and took control, to sort of take control of the quality side of the business. Not long after that, there was a world barista championship in Seattle. And people started flocking to Espresso Victrola and we were sort of recognized for what we were doing. Suddenly, Tony and I became well known in this tiny universe. Shortly thereafter we were both canned, basically for the reason that the owners felt that their business was getting away from them. This was a day before the next World Barista Conference. So, I called my dad, asked him to buy me a ticket to the conference. Doug Zell (Intelligentsia) was there, at the entrance to the conference, basically right there when I arrived, and said he heard what happened (that I had lost my job) and said, you should come to L.A. and help us open the new shops.
You two met at Intelligentsia. How did you decide to go off on your own?
K: This was barely a year ago... I made up my mind that I wanted to leave. And Charles had as well. And even though I think Charles wanted to take psychedelics in the desert, I asked him if he was interested in doing something with me. And here we are.
Intelli deserves a lot of credit because they were the only ones that weren't cynical about L.A. About coming to L.A. Because everyone thinks LA is full of air-headed, vapid people without taste and Intelli had 100% belief in L.A. and I feel like theydeserve major credit for that.
How did you come up with the names: G&B and Go Get 'Em Tiger?
C: It was about being able to trademark something. No one trademarks phrases or sentences, so that's Go Get 'Em Tiger. It is embracing the idea that coffee starts people off on their day on a positive note. You come here in the morning and then you're going to go off and do something awesome. We like it because it's a complete thought and a complete sentiment. It's not loaded with subtext, it's aspirational in a pure way. Sincere. It's a pretty awesome phrase that's fallen out of the lexicon of general use.
K: It's about making people happy, taking care of them, be a center point. With the way that we've oriented the bar and the way we're using the space and the style of service that we provide. We've opened the door for this to be a community pub. A place where you can see your neighbors and discuss topics of the day. Most coffee bars have fallen into this place of being full of people but it's dead silent. It's eerie. That's not what we're looking for with this. It's the coffee shop as facilitator. The space itself and the people working in it are making it happen. Having face time and conversations, people are meeting each other over some mutual interaction with the baristas. We want to have two regular customers talking to each other, and having each other connecting as often as possible. You can't have those things unless you have the type of environment that encourages that.
What's the difference between G&B and Go Get 'Em Tiger?
K: When we conceived of G&B we conceived of it as a diner operation, we wanted food and coffee together. in the market, it's kind of like that, in the middle of a giant culinary place. It will emerge as a destination for great niche product. So it made sense to do G&B there. We won't do a lot of G&B shops, it's capped at 2 or 3. and if we open another G&B it will be with a full kitchen. G&B is looser with milkshakes, things are portable that have been refined. It's a place where we can experiment and be loose. Go Get 'Em Tiger is more an end product.
How do you pick your coffee for the shops?
K: The way that we buy coffee is right now, we contact many different roasters and we sample their best stuff and if we like something, then we buy a lot of it. Once you reach a certain size threshold, that becomes untenable, because these small roasters can't produce all that much.
C: What we have on the shelf is what we're serving. Every day we cup coffees like wine. We're tasting the coffees on the menu and we're tasting all of the samples we get in. And we keep a tight record of all of these things and the ones that we like the best, the ones that score the best are the ones we serve. We also give our feedback to the roasters we taste. This is a system that we're getting better at over time. The fact is the amount of work we're putting into chosing our coffees is unparrelled. The end result is that we strongly feel that everything we have up there is the best of what's in the U.S. right now.
Would you ever roast your own beans?
K: This has been misrepresented in the past. What we've said is that if we're successful, and we grow this company, then roasting might be inevitable. But we hate the idea of roasting. It's not fun, it's an entirely different business. We created this to be a celebration of the coffee that other roasters are making. We like it because we can cherry pick what other roasters are doing best.
C: You can try to cherry pick green coffee, but you could get stuck with sub-par beans. And you sometimes have to sell it anyway. It's about managing a large inventory of green [coffee beans]. For us, the ability to pick the best coffee is an advantage.
K: Why Larchmont? Because, duh. This is the best location in L.A. It's perfect. It's ideal. There's a lot of coffee lovers and not a lot of [great] coffee. Lot of residential, a lot of foot traffic. It's a real neighborhood. There's a sense of pride about the place and the neighborhood and about living here. That's a great place to have a coffee shop.
Are you looking at other locations right now?
K: Right now we're not looking past next week. Anywhere where there's a need. We are not fixated on trendy neighborhoods or cool places. We want to be an L.A. instituteion. We want to be in neighborhoods where the stuff hasn't gotten to you yet. Every time a big roaster comes to town, they either choose Silver Lake or the Arts District. Those are two neighborhoods we will not be in.
Go Get Em Tiger, 230 N. Larchmont Blvd., Mid-Wilshire, ggetla.com