How We Got Here: Leaf + Bean

By 

Matt Varughese

 | 

@mattvaru
Today, I'm sitting down with Paul Zimmerman, co-owner of Leaf + Bean, and talking about everything — from buying a coffee shop versus starting your own to creating safe spaces in your own community to the local coffee culture instilled within Oklahoma City shops and cafes.

Matt: Tell me about your journey into coffee. How did you end up at Leaf + Bean?
Paul: When I was in high school, I ran cross-country, and then afterwards, I would camp out at the Java Dave’s in Edmond, and I just kind of hung out there until they ended up hiring me. I was 14 years old, and they were the only people that would hire a 14 year old in Edmond, so I worked there for a couple summers, and then went to Norman for college, [and] worked at Buchanan Bikes on Campus Corner, and then through Tobin, I got to start working a little bit at Gray Owl Coffee in Norman, and at a bakery on Campus Corner called Crimson and Whipped Cream. Afterwards, Daniel Kao from Mariposa Coffee approached me about kind of learning more about the business side of coffee, and the wholesale roasting side, so I signed on to their team and worked for Mariposa for a while. Then, I moved up to Oklahoma City and did the wholesale program with Steve (Willingham) who’s now at Clarity [Coffee] - he roasted and I did accounts for the roasting side of Elemental [Coffee]. After, I broke off and started a restaurant with my friends, called Nani. So, Collin and Andon and I did Nani for a long time, but I just really kind of missed making coffee. It was such a pivotal part of what I had invested [my time] in and what I had done before then, and Nani was fantastic and fun and innovative, but there was something [missing]. I got to do coffee service at Nani, like the last course of every meal was a pour-over for the table to share with everybody and explain why this coffee was particularly special. But I really just missed making coffee, so I started asking around, and I ended up getting a job up at EVOKE, like 3 storefronts down from the Java Dave’s where I started in coffee - which was awesome. I worked there for about a year, and then I went to Panama.

Matt: How long was that?
Paul: I was in Panama for a little less than a month, touring coffee farms with my friends Rachel and Drew Apple. When I got back, I helped Steve when he was opening Clarity, so it was like Steve and Chelsea and I for the first few seasons, and it was awesome and so fun - love those guys down there. And then I got a scholarship to do some more school. I always told myself that if I got funding to do it, I would do school. So I sat down with the Willinghams (owners of Clarity Coffee), and they were super encouraging and were like ‘Yeah dude, totally do that.’ So, I left coffee again for like 4 months, and then I got really bored, and it was Christmas Break, and I rode my bike down here to do some machine maintenance for Leaf + Bean (before Paul owned a majority share) — because I’m a Certified Technician — and Mark, the founder of Leaf + Bean, had expressed to me that he was looking for somebody to purchase a majority or all of [Leaf + Bean], and if I knew anybody, [to] connect them with him. So I sat on it for a couple of days and got back with him, and we sat down and started pushing the numbers around to see what it would look like for me to buy the company, and that was January 18 - the day I did maintenance for them - it was the end of Christmas Break, and I was just finding stuff to do. On February 10, we closed on the company, so it was almost 3 weeks even. My wife, Liz, and I own 51%, and Mark owns 49%.

Matt: Other than your own shop, what are your top 3 coffee shops in the state?
Paul: Oh man... That’s so tough. There are so many people doing coffee so well and so differently. It’s actually really fascinating in Oklahoma City coffee, because you have hard-line favoritism between the shops, because for so long in Downtown, there was only Elemental and Coffee Slingers, so there were only the people that liked really fruity, bright, citrusy, lemony espressos that were like fruit bombs or the people that liked really chocolatey, tight, mapley, spicy, tiny espressos. And it was just like - are you an Elemental person or are you a Coffee Slingers person? I think both of those are so good, but it’s so fun that like those two genres of coffee are being represented so well in such a focused way by the two flagship shops for coffee culture in Oklahoma City. When Steve [from Clarity] comes out and does these really long, sweet, balanced, juicy espressos, and he contributes to that culture, it’s just another way that you can make coffee. I don’t know. I think they all do an awesome job and they’re all super different. I’m excited that we get to contribute to the coffee culture with a new style of coffee, and doing things our own way. But oh man, favorites are tough. It’s also tough because I just love coffee. So like Hoboken, in Guthrie of all places, is like - they rule. It’s worth the drive to Guthrie - they’re amazing. Topeca - as of company, from top to bottom, from farms to cafes - is insane. I have so much respect for the structure that they’ve built. They have successful coffee farms, and they have successful wholesale roasting operations, they have successful cafes, and they have a successful cocktail bar - I don’t know how they’re so wide and so focused and so quality. They’re an amazing company, but there’s also a bunch of new shops popping up in that area, like Cirque - heard a lot of good things about them. There’s just so many people doing good coffee, like Jason up at EVOKE in Edmond. There was no amazing coffee in that town, and then he puts EVOKE there and suddenly there is, and now there’s a place to go and get mind-blowing drinks whenever you want.

Matt: How do you feel about all these new shops opening up? How does that make you feel as a coffee shop owner?
Paul: I think more good coffee is always good. There are a lot of people who drink coffee, but there are also a lot of people that drink bad coffee. I think that when shops get kind of overly competitive, or people have an overly competitive mindset about shops, it’s just not necessarily healthy. If we’re not even talking about culture or values or all the stuff I actually care about, if we’re just having a meeting about numbers - say Steve makes coffee for 2% of Oklahoma City, and I build a marketing campaign to take half of Steve’s customers, and I’m like super focused and I’m like ‘Oh, they’re going to do that? Well, we’re going to do that, but better. We’re going to copy his ideas and make them better and then he’s going to copy ours’, and we just get into this war. Even if I’m absolutely as successful as possible and I steal half of his customers, suddenly I have 1% of Oklahoma City and he has 1% of Oklahoma City, and there’s still 98% of people in Oklahoma City that don’t know what specialty coffee is. Even if we’re looking at it from just a purely [number-based] perspective, it just doesn’t make sense. Whereas if there was a specialty coffee shop that popped up in Bricktown, that would be dope, because there are people in Bricktown that have probably only had less than great coffee, and if they had an experience where coffee suddenly had a greater value to them because of that experience, then the next time they’re Downtown and they walk by Clarity, they’re more inclined to be open to that experience. Just strictly from a business perspective, I think - yeah - more good coffee is better for everyone. I think I get the most excited when I hear about new shops opening when I’m confident that they are going to contribute to the culture that we’ve been building. I got so stoked when Steve decided to open up Clarity, because he was tangibly going to contribute something new to the foundation of the coffee culture in Oklahoma City, and that’s like wildly exciting. In that sense, I think it’s super cool because now you can have an experience that’s not like super bright and lemony fruit bomb, or a super chocolatey tiny espresso. Both of those are great, but you could go to this third option, and your vision of coffee is expanded just by this shop existing, and that’s really amazing and really fun.

Matt: Do you think the healthy competition drives everybody to create better coffee?
Paul: Oh yeah! That’s super fun. One thing I appreciate about the community here is how supportive everybody is, and how you can find everybody at everybody else’s shop, but also when we launch a specialty drink or something like that, the baristas from Elemental or Slingers swing through and are like ‘Yo, let’s check that out!’, and we’re just like [laughs] ‘Yeah dude - look what we did!’ It’s wild! Like what are you going to do?

Matt: Tell me about OKC’s yearly Latte Art competition. You played a big part in starting that, right?
Paul: Yeah - so last year, when I was at Clarity, I started the Barista Guild of Oklahoma City. Basically, it’s like an organization that I wanted to Baristas to have access to community and resources so that they could get better in their craft, but also [add to] that healthy competition. Healthy competition happens when everybody is in conversation all the time. Bad competition happens when you don’t talk to the dudes across the street - you just stay inside and glare at them through the windows. I wanted to open up those conversations and give us a forum to be engaging each other and be growing as a community, so I started the Barista Guild of OKC and last Summer, we threw 4 latte art competitions. They were super fun - it got the community together and have a fun event, drink some really good coffee, drink some really good beers, and have a really good time. Those were really good at building a sense of community, I think, and it accomplished the goal of getting everybody out of their shops and recognizing that ‘Oh yeah, we’re all a bunch of nerds who care too much about this one thing, so why not hang out and benefit from each others’ experience?’ [It’s based] on the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, so if we’re all getting better, that’s better for everyone.

Matt: Why’d you choose to buy a coffee shop versus starting your own?
Paul: It’s a matter of opportunity. Businesses are expensive - I have another business -

MattGambit, right?
Paul: Yeah. It’s focused on machine maintenance and consulting, and this is an opportunity that came up that just financially and personally for Liz and I made a lot of sense. The system was already in place, the construction was already done, the equipment is already on the bar, everything exists, and my specialty in coffee is making really good coffee and being really nice to people, so to step into a role and have a business partner who is familiar with what business taxes look like and what the backend of running a legal operation looks like - (...) that felt really good to me, as opposed to taking out a loan, starting something from scratch in a bunch of areas that I don’t have expertise and experience in, and knowing my skill set, I’m relatively weak in those fields, with my success being contingent on those things. This was an opportunity where our success as a company was contingent on, in a rough-and-ready sense, my ability to make really good coffee and be nice to people. That’s what gave me a lot of confidence that this was a good move.

Matt: In an interview with the Oklahoma Gazette a while back, you said that “The pillars of my philosophy remain that I just want to make people the best coffee they’ve ever had and be super kind to people.” With that being said, have the pillars of your philosophy changed or evolved since then?
Paul: No, not really. We serve Slate Coffee out of Seattle, which I think is cool for a couple of reasons. We get to bring a kind of external roaster in from someplace else - coffee that nobody’s ever had, so that’s cool. But also, I had a really formative experience with them at their shop. I went and got a Deconstructed Latte in 2014, and I was really critical and ready to be like ‘Man, classic coffee people. You took something that was so simple and you made it so complicated’, and I was ready to come rain on their parade. I went in and ordered one, and first of all, the coffee was delicious, and also, they were like the loveliest, warmest people that I’ve ever met, and I was furious at that. It was like an ear-popping moment for me where I realized ‘Oh, you can make crazy, high-tier, insane, perfect coffee, and also just be super kind to people.’ That was kind of an experience that I took into my future coffee positions, and I was like ‘Yeah, these are the guiding principles of any project that I ever want to be a part of.’ I want to make the best coffee possible, and I want everyone to feel really welcome and really respected and really good and positive when they come into this space.

Matt: Tell me about Gambit Coffee.
Paul: When I finished at Nani and started working at EVOKE, I recognized a need - a lot of people were buying coffee brewing equipment at EVOKE and asking ‘how do I make coffee with this?’ I made some videos when I was at Elemental -

Matt: Can I pause you real quick?
Paul: Yeah.

Matt: Before I actually started coming to Leaf + Bean and around the time that I started going to Clarity, I was really confused on what a Chemex was, so I went on YouTube and looked it up, and super surprisingly, your video with Elemental came up! I thought that was super cool.
Paul: Yeah! So I convinced Elemental and was like ‘Can I have $200 to make a series of videos where I explain to people how to use the brewing equipment?’ and they were like ‘Yeah, sure!’, so we put out these videos - quality wise, they were great. My friend Blake shot them, and he’s a genius. Unfortunately, it was me explaining things and I have a tendency to ramble and go around in circles. But even with those videos, they have like a combined few million views right now, so obviously there was a need for this. So continuing into my time at EVOKE, I would really like to intentionally build content and resources for people to use at any level (...), because in the past, there was a time in which I wanted to get better at making coffee, and I just didn’t know how. I didn’t know where to look, or where to find resources. I could read all the books that were published in 1992 - so it’s like ‘Okay… I learned that, but it’s 2010, and coffee has changed a lot in that time.’ I think that if I would have had access to better resources earlier, I could have progressed professionally at a higher rate, but also from the professional to the person who just got a Chemex for Christmas and are like ‘How do I make coffee with this?’, I want that person to have a good cup of coffee today, you know? Initially, I built a site that I could host resources on to help people make better coffee, and then eventually I started doing a little machine maintenance for some friends and companies in Oklahoma City that needed it, and then I landed a few consulting programs for people who wanted to start coffee programs or shops - so [Gambit] was all about of the ancillary support stuff that nobody is really offering yet in Oklahoma City, and it’s not necessarily my objective to break into that market and take over. It’s just more of a need that I recognized needed to be filled. Nobody is fixing people’s machines and training baristas, so if anybody needs that, I’m available - just let me know. We’ll work it out - I’d love to make it happen.

Matt: What’s important to you as a coffee shop owner? How do you want your customers to feel whenever they order a drink from you?
Paul: [Laughs] Good. Obviously though, the quality of the coffee is of paramount importance. If we do everything else right but serve really bad coffee, it’s like -  first things first, we need to have good coffee. I totally believe that we’re the last person in a line of many, many, many, many, many people that have touched this coffee, from the farmers and the growers to the people who picked it to the people who processed it and stored it and exported it and roasted it and packaged it and sent it to us, and then we get to grind it and brew it up and serve it to you - so you’re the last person in the line of people who have all respected and intentionally done their best with this thing. On one hand, yeah, it is just a cup of coffee for the customer, but on the other hand, for us, it’s Coffee with a capital C, and I think that’s just really proper to be kind and casual, but also with a certain reverence and intentionality and professionalism. There is a difference between commodity grade coffee and the specialty grade coffee, and the coffee that we’re serving is actually really special. That’s a big thing that I care about when it comes to owning a coffee shop - that kind of respect and professionalism for the coffee itself. As important as that, when I first started dreaming of coffee shops as a kid, I dreamed that coffee shops were a safe space for people to be when they don’t have a place to be, whether that’s like an office or whether that’s like home or whatever - these are public spaces where you can go and get productive and where people with different values or opinions or ideas can meet up and talk about those things and engage each other, where you can have hard conversations and really good, celebratory conversations, where you can do interviews like this, where you can go and learn and study for yourself - like coffee shops are these safe, productive spaces for everyone, and that’s like, amazing; so to preserve that kind of energy [at Leaf + Bean], we play certain music really intentionally because we want people to feel really safe and really comfortable and really positive, and [create] a culture around a coffee shop that like - yes, we want to respect coffee and make the best coffee that we can but it’s just as important to respect people and curate this space to be as productive as possible for the people that come here.

Matt: Speaking of music, I really like your shop because you play all different types of music; with most coffee shops, the music is usually really mellow and calm, but you chose to play people like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Oddisee, etc. What made you want to change it up music wise?
Paul: We are a coffee shop in the Deep Deuce district of Oklahoma City. This district is historically a center of Black culture and art in Oklahoma City, but there are very few black people that live here now, and that’s a reality of where we are. This is kind of a story nationally - in gentrified areas, you find bougie coffee shops like this one. This neighborhood is not going through gentrification - this neighborhood has been gentrified. It’s pretty much all white people that live above us and across the street, like... [laughs] there’s a juice bar. I mean, they’re killing it! I love Wheeze The Juice - they’re my homies, and they’re the best. But that’s what this neighborhood is. What does it look like to be an intentional resident of [Deep Deuce] now? I think that WSKY is doing a really cool thing by doing Jazz and Blues nights with live music. That’s not only cool in the present, but it’s like homage and respect to this district. We made a conscious decision to play music in the shop that celebrates Black art and culture, and that’s something that, recognizing where we are and recognizing that coffee shops are a place that can influence culture, positively or negatively, we’re a cornerstone tenant of a neighborhood, we get to actually set a tone or an attitude or a vibe for this neighborhood, and anything we can do to present black history or black culture in a positive light and celebratory way and influence this community and neighborhood positively towards that end, I think that’s something that’s good to do. As a business, we celebrate black culture and black arts, so we play a lot of Anderson.Paak, we play a lot of Chance, but that’s like really intentional - it’s not just like a stylistic thing. We want to contribute to the history of this place.

Matt: What kind of legacy do you want to leave on the residents of OKC or on the coffee culture, or both?
Paul: In coffee, I think as we get better at making coffee and coffee quality gets better, it gets easier to be more elitist or shut off from the culture, and I think that it’s worth fighting that, and it’s worth really investing and leaning into being really really kind to people and really warm to people. [We want] to be really humble, really open, never making anybody feel dumb for what they know or don’t know about coffee, and being really welcoming and creating safe spaces like this in coffee in particular. But that being said, I love the fact that everybody seems to be getting better, like really fast. It’s kind of awesome to see that Elemental just got a new espresso machine, after like 10 years of the [La Marzocco] GB5 - Like heck yeah! Like here we go, everybody is stepping it up, this is dope! Like Clarity got a new espresso machine, you know what I mean? It’s like sweet - they’re coming out with seasonal drinks and different fun things, and I’m just like ‘Yeah, this is awesome.’ And all of that in the tone of we’re all just homies, you know? We’re all just getting better together, and this is awesome. There is a certain surge of pretty wacky ideas, I guess, in Oklahoma City, and nationally too. There’s a growing ability to be like… pretty shitty, or discriminatory, or actually outwardly racist, and I think it would be pretty good for our community - both Oklahoma City and the coffee community - to kind of like take some hard stances and say we are welcoming and that these are safe spaces, and in that, we are all agreeing to like play by the rules of the community. We respect people and these are safe spaces for people that all people have dignity and value and worth, and we are actually opposed to racism in any form. I agree with people who say coffee shops shouldn’t be super political or stuff like that, but I think even properly understanding that, that leaves us some room to make some really firm intentional decisions. When we’re talking about legacy, I would really like to, in a couple years or… next week even, to be able to say that Oklahoma City coffee is an ally of people of color and marginalized people, whoever they are in our community. If you need anything, or if you need support, or if you need help, or if you need a safe space, or if you need people, you can turn to the Oklahoma coffee community, because like.. It’s just us, and we’re your homies. This is a safe place where you can be respected and you can be heard, and that’s actually super super important. All the coffee stuff is great and brilliant and I’ve dedicated my life to it, but I think the really important question of legacy for me, as someone who is not entirely white and somebody who is a business owner, is with that kind of audience or resource available to me, what kind of legacy do I want? Do I want there to be 15 Leaf + Beans throughout the city? [Laughs] That’d be dope, but whatever. Maybe? I don’t know. But more than that, I really would like to encourage the coffee community in Oklahoma City to be conscious that there are people in our community that are being oppressed, and there are people in our community that are oppressing, and we should be able to stand together for our neighbors, and like name people who are being hurtful and comfort people who are being hurt. It’s not about politics - it’s about respecting people. You can claim that it’s about politics, and that’s fine, but what we’re saying is that this is a safe space where people are respected, and if you’re going to lean into racism or discrimination, you don’t have a seat at this table. I think, legacy-wise, that’s my goal for this community.

“It’s not about politics - it’s about respecting people. You can claim that it’s about politics, and that’s fine, but what we’re saying is that this is a safe space where people are respected, and if you’re going to lean into racism or discrimination, you don’t have a seat at this table.”

— Paul Zimmerman, Leaf + Bean

Matt: What are your favorite local businesses, and why?
Paul: My favorite local business is Buchanan Bicycles in Norman, Oklahoma. There’s a dude there that runs the place, Tobin, he is, like… he gets it right, on so many different things. There was a moment where another guy, who was hired the same time I was, was talking to a [customer] who brought in their bike, who said that they brought it to a different bike shop in town, and they messed it up, and the salesman on our team was like ‘Oh yeah, they don’t know what they’re doing over there. We’ll get you taken care of’, and it was a real amicable exchange, and Tobin came out and was like ‘Hey man, bike shops are tough. It’s a tough business, we’re all just trying to make it and do our thing, and there’s like 0 room to ever speak negatively about any other shop, regardless of what they’re doing and regardless of what we’re doing’ - after the customer was gone, of course. It was like a very stern, very serious line in the sand. It was just a principle thing. It didn’t have any effect on the interaction with that customer, it didn’t have any effect on our business going up or down - it was strictly a principle thing. We gain nothing by being negative about other people’s businesses. If anything, it just detracts from our mission to get better. There’s no use spending energy on it - it’s actually detrimental to bike shops as a whole, so there’s just like no room for it. Working at Buchanan’s - it was just like learning moment after learning moment after that for the entire time I was there. And Tobin - he’s just a bad-ass dude. But other than that, local businesses… man, there’s so many awesome ones. I mean the ones that we get to partner with, like Wheeze [The Juice], Avery and Eric are over there doing their own thing, and it’s dope to be able to partner with them for fresh juices and wacky stuff. Native Roots around the corner - Matt has been a friend of mine for a long time, and he’s a brilliant dude, but he’s just chosen to be a grocer, and he kills it, and it’s awesome, so we get all of our spices and fresh ingredients and produce from them. It’s been really fun to be connected in the network of local business owners. Man… all of them! It’s tough - there’s so many! If I keep naming people, I’m eventually going to accidentally forget somebody. But… those are my 3!

Matt: Where’s Leaf + Bean in 1 year and where’s Leaf + Bean in 5 years?
Paul: Whoa. Leaf + Bean in 1 year is in Deep Deuce doing crazy shit. Leaf + Bean in 5 years is on Mars -
Matt: [Laughs] Doing crazier shit.
Paul: [Laughs] Yo! Come visit us - 321 S. Oklahoma Avenue, Planet Mars!

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