This one time, he made me a cup of coffee, and I didn't even need cream and sugar. It was that sweet.
It's the most torturous coffee known to man. It takes five minutes to make, and it's too good.
This is the legend of nano-coffee-roaster Oddly Correct and its owner, Gregory Kolsto, and these are the tales told every Friday in the back corner of the BadSeed Farmers Market at 1819 McGee. Red and green Chinese lanterns illuminate a wooden bar, where a lampshade rests on a golden cherub and an empty Mr. Coffee machine sits like some forgotten punch line.
Today the legend is late. It's 4:45 p.m. — 45 minutes after the farmers market has started — when Kolsto joins his brother-in-law and co-worker, Mike Schroeder. At 36, Kolsto is trim and compact, his shaved head offset by a thick brown beard, his eyes framed by round glasses.
"I'm not the great and powerful Oz," Kolsto says. "I'm more like the quaking doctor behind the curtain."
He flashes a wry smile, the look that typically punctuates his self-effacing jokes. He looks up and sees a man in his early 40s, wearing a green T-shirt.
"I like your hair and I like your shirt," Kolsto says, with a polite attentiveness that's almost formal. He often pauses briefly before answering a question, his left eyebrow folding slightly inward toward his nose, signaling full attention.
The man in green is sipping a $2 cup of coffee. He doesn't leave the market without enthusiastically spending $12 on a 12-ounce bag of Oddly Correct beans.
Kolsto then greets Robin Krause, owner of the two Filling Stations.
"The first time I had Gregory's coffee, it was so good, I threw up," Krause says.
This turns out not to be the exaggeration of personal mythology. Krause was at her McGee Trafficway coffeehouse early one morning in 2009 with the lights off and a four-cup French press filled with Oddly Correct's Sumatra. By the time the lights were on and the place was open, she had drunk the entire amount in what she refers to as a "completely delicious accident."
"A lot of people want to sell me coffee, and I don't listen to them," Krause says. "But I listened to Gregory. Coffee has been like football teams in Kansas City. Coffee-shop owners don't want to work together. It's so competitive. But Gregory just wants to build a community."
Kolsto's chances of accomplishing that mission improved last year when the J.M. Smucker Co. announced that it would close its downtown Folgers roasting plant in the summer of 2012. For more than 100 years, downtown Kansas City has awakened to the smell of Folgers. But now, several area beverage companies are vying to remake KC's coffee-town in their own scent. The two leading contenders are the Roasterie and Parisi Artisan Coffee.
In July, the Roasterie announced a $5 million expansion, including an event space and café across from its roasting plant, at 1204 West 27th Street. Paris Brothers, which began roasting coffee under the Parisi name in 2006, opened the Parisi Café inside Union Station in August. And in September, 250 people boarded buses to participate in the first Caffeine Crawl, a citywide tour of 11 coffee shops organized by Jason Burton, of beverage-marketing firm Lab 5702.
"Kansas City is not just the Roasterie," Burton says, "What we're seeing in the coffee world is not even a new chapter but a whole new book of boutique nano-roasters."
Burton says the market is shifting dramatically, with independent roasters such as the Broadway Café (which made national headlines in 2008 for outlasting a Starbucks in Westport), Revocup (an Overland Park operation specializing in Ethiopian beans) and Oddly Correct pushing single-origin coffee. But it's Kolsto's approach more than his market share that has set him apart so far. In an industry where growth historically has come at a competitor's expense, he's selling a different idea: What if we all just sat down over a proper cup of coffee?
It's easy to drive past Oddly Correct even when you're looking for it. The coffee shop opened four months ago at 3934 Main. It sits in an empty bank of storefronts on Main Street, two doors down from the former home of B-Bop Comics. And it still has no sign, other than a piece of plywood — painted with the word coffee and an arrow — leaning on a wall outside the front door.
Inside, a large wooden counter with a swinging gate in the center divides the space. The front of the store has seating for seven people, depending on whether you're willing to sit on a tree stump. The back is dominated by the Portuguese-made cast-iron drum roaster, and behind it is a climbing wall, the only way to reach the shop's bookshelves. It has taken the better part of a year for Kolsto to erase the purple carpet and pink walls from the building's memory. The previous tenant was the payday-loan operation King of Kash.
"The carpet was worn where everybody would stand to get their loans," Kolsto says. "It was a harsh reality, never a good thing that you were going in there. We're happy to try and redeem the space."
Patrons stand in the same spot now, under a row of original screen prints — one is of a robot holding a bird like a falconer, another an elephant playing a tuba — above wooden shelves on a wall where an American flag once was mounted. It's Tuesday morning, production day at Oddly Correct, and Kolsto hopes to roast about 300 pounds — 12 minutes per 11-pound batch. Piles of brown-paper bags filled with roasted beans gradually stack up on the counter. Two men sit reading in mismatched chairs — one looks like a refugee captain's chair from a seafood restaurant — studiously ignoring the morning rush hour on Main.
On the other side of the shop, Schroeder measures a portion of beans to make a cup of coffee. He moved to Kansas City a month ago, leaving his job as a roaster for Brew Nerds in North Carolina in order to work with his brother-in-law.
"Kansas City has more of a coffee culture than Winston-Salem," he says. "There, they'd ask what was burning if we were roasting. Here, people are rediscovering that you can handcraft coffee."
Weighing the beans is the first of five steps in the method that Oddly Correct uses to prepare its drip coffee. Hot water from a metal kettle is poured over medium-ground beans in a slow, circular fashion, to ensure that the grounds are equally exposed to liquid. The freshly ground beans are inside a brown-paper filter that has been carefully folded into a ceramic coffee dripper that resembles a ridged coffee cup with a small hole in the bottom. The dripper sits on an iron stand. A mug rests underneath, slowly filling with brewed coffee.
The coffee at Oddly Correct isn't convenient, and that's the whole idea. Coffee takes labor to harvest, labor to ship, labor to roast. It matters when the beans are picked. It matters when it is sold and how it is stored. It matters how it is roasted and bagged. Schroeder and Kolsto are eager to share all of these steps with their customers, who comprise the final factor in a people-intensive beverage equation.
The people only need a bit of guidance. But he's no evangelist looking to purify your coffee soul. He and Schroeder are shamans in T-shirts, eager to guide each customer up the mountain —a mountain without a condiment bar.
"You put butter on your mashed potatoes and salt on your fries. Who are we to tell you how to take your coffee?" Kolsto says.
He won't tell you, but he also doesn't suggest an option besides black at Oddly Correct. The milk and sugar are stowed under the counter with nothing to indicate their presence. Among the first eight customers of the day, only a regular — a hairdresser from an adjacent shop on Westport Road — asks for cream and sugar, which he happily mixes for her. The rest are too busy watching the pour-over process to think to ask for milk.
The time they take with each order gives Kolsto and Schroeder a minute to ask questions of their customers. Today, someone wonders aloud what was the last "real" action movie. Someone suggests Liam Neeson's Taken, and the shop's other coffee drinker puts down his iPad to excitedly interject. The pour-over method all but forces you to fill the time with conversation. That, Kolsto says, is the soul of Oddly Correct. The coffee is the excuse to start talking, a perfect impetus for human interaction for a self-prescribed "extroverted introvert" such as Kolsto.
Kolsto grew up in Mokena, Illinois, a quaint city of just under 19,000 people 35 miles southwest of Chicago. A man wearing a Mohawk, flannel shirt and combat boots gave him a passport to escape from suburbia.
"My first cup of coffee was my first taste of counterculture," Kolsto says. "I had a strangely euphoric experience at a Starbucks in [nearby] Naperville. The guy who handed me my latte had rays of light coming out of his head."
He started working at Starbucks in 1995 and enrolled at Northern Illinois University to pursue a degree in art. The coffee job stuck, but art school didn't. Kolsto took a job as an apprentice roaster at Digital Java, a Chicago coffee company that specialized in dark roasts. His life changed dramatically when Krispy Kreme purchased Digital Java in February 2001, less than a year after the doughnut juggernaut went public. Kolsto moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to manage roasters at a new facility and he became the company's coffee buyer.
"Every country I went to was the most beautiful place I'd ever been," he says. "I was bringing back 40,000 pounds of coffee at a time and getting my mind blown."
While his travels took him to coffee farms in Guatemala and Ethiopia, Krispy Kreme was beginning to struggle stateside because of overexpansion. In an increasingly corporate environment, Kolsto felt constrained. Sketching in his notebook and rock climbing in the hills of North Carolina helped pass the days between coffee-buying excursions.
He had no reason to expect that he would be moving to Kansas City when he attended a conference of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Charlotte in 2006. There, a Parisi representative invited him to tour the coffee company's new roasting facility. After seeing what he calls the city's "gem-y underbelly" of craft producers like Christopher Elbow, Kolsto accepted a position as a roaster for Parisi.
"Kansas City is aggressively supportive of local proprietors, and that was attractive to me," he says.
Parisi had just begun to roast and bag its own coffee after decades of distributing specialty coffee for brands such as Lavazza. Over the past five years, Parisi Artisan Coffee has exploded: The company says it expects to roast just under a million pounds this year. Only blocks away from the Roasterie plant, Parisi hopes to fill the void left by Folgers.
"Folgers spills more coffee than we roast in a year," says Scott Presnell, Parisi's director of marketing. "But the aroma of coffee downtown is something we're going to miss. We hope people will just be willing to drive around the corner down I-35."
Roasting is a solitary exercise in precision. The beans must roast at specific temperatures and rest for exact amounts of time to ensure consistent flavor. Answering the extroverted side of his personality, Kolsto moved into sales so that he could talk about the product he'd had a hand in creating. And while selling to restaurant owners and chefs, he discovered that these interactions meant as much to him as the relationships he'd built with small growers when he worked for Krispy Kreme.
He wondered what it would be like to serve as the sole bridge between producers and consumers. In April 2009, he left Parisi to find out. By the end of that year, several of his Parisi accounts had followed him.
"We were sorry to see him leave," Presnell says. "We appreciate it from the artistic side. He has a different focus in small-batch, micro-lot coffees, which is fantastic."
Kolsto didn't want just artistry, though. He set about inventing his own corporate culture.
"It was then that I decided that if I couldn't find a company that I agreed with 100 percent in terms of ethics or beliefs, I would create one myself," Kolsto says.
Oddly Correct roasted its first batches of coffee in a Raytown garage, where a friend let Kolsto store and run his 2.5-kilogram roaster, which had been purchased in the parking lot of a Wyoming gas station in late 2008. He began delivering to Ethos, a now-defunct coffee-delivery service in the Crossroads, and the Higher Grounds coffee shop in Grandview.
Six months later, his operation had grown enough that he could spend $250 a month to rent a space behind Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club. In those days, it was just Kolsto and the pigeons out back. But that gave him time to begin to develop the look of Oddly Correct, using a letterpress machine to create the bags that featured his own art.
"We didn't have accoutrements like heat back then," Kolsto says. "But all your favorite businesses start out of garages, basements and trunks of cars."
His first big order — 200 pounds of coffee — took 20 hours to roast. Life then was marked by "squares" — check boxes each signifying another 3 pounds that he had finished – and drawings on his shower curtain about the future of his business. The Filling Station began carrying his coffee (alongside the Broadway Roasting Co.'s espresso). Then the Brick, Aixois, Mud Pie, Succotash and the Soho Café signed up.
The new orders meant a new space, a studio in the Crossroads that he shared with illustrator Jeremy Collins. Less than a year later, Kolsto needed more room. When he discovered that the former King of Kash location was available in his neighborhood, he decided to turn his shower-curtain drawings into reality.
In front of the chalkboard at his Main Street shop, Kolsto admits that he has no set business plan for Oddly Correct.
"I'm on my way, and I know it has to do with coffee, art and people," he says. "I'm not a long-term planner. I don't know what the next thing is going to be. I just want to have fun doing it. I'm just going to geek out and get people excited."
His entrepreneurial spirit coexists with his desire to build a community. He lives less than a mile from his shop, so he's never that far from his two kids, both of whom are younger than 4. Kolsto is running both a business and a cooperative; he doesn't so much take on partners as draw in true believers. One of the latest examples sits in the glass-domed pastry case on the wooden counter: black-pepper-lime, coconut-curry and coriander-cherry shortbreads from Soho Café & Bakery. The flavors were designed in discussions with Soho owner Jamie Friedrich, a former Parisi customer who now uses Oddly Correct beans in her shop.
"If we just sent these out into the unknown, it would probably be too much for Kansas City," Friedrich says. "But sending it into Gregory's shop? It's probably just right."
Each of the artifacts in the shop has its own tale that helps unlock the mystique of Oddly Correct. The bicycle tires on one exposed brick wall are spares, in case the delivery service breaks down. Kolsto or Schroeder makes as many as a dozen deliveries on Fridays to homes in adjacent midtown neighborhoods. The stands to hold the Clever dripper were built by local blacksmith George Rousis of Organic Iron Concepts.
"You see the unfinished potential that's there in the shop. It's got room for growth and it's kind of organic, and you don't know exactly how it's going to come out," Rousis says.
This is not the carefully planned unplanned-looking aesthetic of Chipotle. It is a raw space with exposed ducts and a single red-leather executive chair. (The latter is from Urban Mining Homewares across the street. Schroeder went over with a few cups of coffee and returned with the chair.) The business takes in art and artists like stray puppies.
"Phase one was getting this open. Phase two was getting proper lighting. And when we get the cash, we'll get an espresso machine," Kolsto says.
For plenty of business owners, this would be a disquietingly erratic approach. But the aesthetic works for one simple reason: It's a physical extension of Kolsto's belief that everything should be designed to complement the coffee experience in some way. He wants to translate the beans of Costa Rica and Ethiopia for folks who have never had anything other than coffee from a can. He pulls up a picture on his iPhone. It's a shot of the back panel of a Ronnoco Coffee delivery van.
"It's says 'hand-crafted coffee.' We're going to have to change that," Kolsto says pointing to the same words on his bags of beans. "Maybe we'll just stick with the donkey and the [tag line] 'Don't half-ass your coffee.' "
On a recent Friday at BadSeed, Oddly Correct is serving Harrar, an Ethiopian coffee that Kolsto recommends black because of its "peanut-butter-and-jelly aroma and slightly fruity flavor."
Colleen Murbach, a regular, waits in a loose line by the wooden bar for a cup.
"Gregory is the new kid on the block," she says. "His process is totally different from anyone else. It's usually so satisfying. I don't need a second cup. It's not just the coffee; it's the experience."
After Murbach leaves, Kolsto is even more earnest than usual for a minute.
"There is a dynamic beauty in what natural coffee can taste like when it's fresh and served with as low a pretense as possible," Kolsto says.
He asks Schroeder to dip into the cigar box that doubles as Oddly Correct's cash box, then ventures over to the adjacent booth to buy a bottle of Soda Vie strawberry-rhubarb-basil pop. It joins the evening's other purchases: a disc of Green Dirt Farm cheese and a raffle ticket to benefit Académie Lafeyette.
The smell of ground beans lures a middle-aged couple, who are engaged by Kolsto before they even realize what's happening.
"When are you going to make a perfume out of coffee?" the woman asks.
"I don't know if they couldn't synthesize it," Kolsto says, his voice thoughtful. "But if you came to work for us for a day, that would get the job done."
She laughs, and he hands her a cup of the Harrar. She sips it slowly.
"It's not like anything I've ever tasted," the woman says.
"Exactly," Kolsto replies.