Despite a much-heralded cultural and culinary transformation, downtown Bentonville tends to stay drowsy after dark. So when I swing open the door of the recently opened Onyx Coffee Lab in the new Midtown Center on Second Street, I’m taken aback by the level of activity within. It’s 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, and the lofty 2,500-square-foot space—which just a few hours earlier had played host to the business-casual crowd—is filled to capacity with 20-somethings.
Alternative hip-hop music blares, while a standing-room-only crowd—a mix of Zooey Deschanel look-alikes and well-turned-out lumbersexuals—breaks into wild cheers and applause after it’s announced that “Celsie is the winner!” Squeezing through the crowd, I make my way to the sleek white hexagon-tiled coffee bar at the center of the action. There, I flag down a fellow onlooker to ask for an explanation, this being my first “Latte Art Throwdown” and all. He patiently explains that what I’m witnessing is a battle between baristas from around Arkansas and as many as five surrounding states to determine who can best design the layer of foam that sits atop an espresso drink. Through four rounds of competition, the crowd looks on as steady-handed baristas impress the judges with foamy rosettes, hearts and the ever-elusive inverted tulip. Ultimately, it’s a perfectly executed three-tiered tulip that takes the prize.
“Last night’s event was the first glimpse of the specialty coffee scene for Bentonville,” Onyx Coffee Lab co-owner Jon Allen tells me the following morning. “There were people from all over that came down to compete and hang out with friends. These are the same people you would see at larger coffee events, like the Coffee Fest in Portland or the World Barista Championship in Seattle. Real coffee people.”
With this, their third Onyx Coffee Lab location, Allen and his partner, Andrea Allen (who also happens to be his wife), are conducting a bit of an experiment to gauge whether Bentonville is ready to embrace what the crowd from the night before represents: the “third-wave” specialty coffee movement, an elevation of coffee to artisanal culinary fare. For its part, Onyx hits every note of a third-wave coffee cafe—it microroasts its beans in small batches, offers single-origin coffees, direct-sources its beans (Jon himself travels to Africa, Mexico and Central and South America to acquire them) and engages in a multitude of intricate brewing methods to extract the most nuanced, delicate cup of coffee possible.
As I watch Jon buzz around the cafe, tinkering with brewing equipment, chatting up customers or gently quizzing baristas on their knowledge, it starts to sink in that this is a cafe with two real-deal coffee people at its helm. Since they opened their first Onyx Coffee Lab in Springdale in 2012, the Allens have made a name for themselves on the national specialty coffee scene as quality roasters and coffee experts. (To date, about 75 percent of their roastery’s beans leave the state and are sold at cafes throughout the country under the Onyx Coffee Lab label.) The couple and their doings frequently pop up in industry publications—Andrea was recently on the cover of Barista magazine, for instance—and they’ve won a handful of coveted awards for their coffee, including a 2015 Good Food Award.
Having witnessed firsthand the growth of Bentonville’s culinary scene in recent years, Jon and Andrea decided the time was right to pull the trigger on this expansion. And while the Allens are as zealous about artisanal coffee as any, it’s their diplomatic approach to presentation that seems likely to land them positive results in Bentonville. As opposed to some specialty coffee cafe owners who serve their brews with a dollop of elitism and condescension, going so far as to refuse customers milk and sweeteners, the folks at Onyx are taking a different route, preferring to subtly nudge customers up the quality ladder. (As someone who was once shamed for asking for a splash of milk in her coffee at a neighborhood cafe in Santa Monica, California—and is still mildly traumatized by the memory—I, for one, appreciate this mindset.)
Onyx’s beverage menu itself is a reflection of the cafe’s commitment to meeting the customer wherever they are. Jon points out that the goal in composing the menu was to gently introduce coffee as an artisanal culinary item to the uninitiated while at the same time appealing to purists who are already on board. There’s the “Comfort” side of the menu, which consists of the expected coffee shop fare, including espresso (there are four varieties of espresso on offer at all times), batch-brewed coffee, tea, cortados, cappuccinos, lattes, mochas. And for the specialty-coffee-curious or full-blown connoisseur, there’s the “Adventure” side of the menu. Here, along with listings of single-origin coffees or coffee blends, is information on flavor notes and brew methods.
And instead of turning away the customer seeking a “fancy,” sweet coffee drink, the folks at Onyx have opted to weave them into the menu—but use locally sourced, high-quality ingredients in an effort to elevate the drinks. Take, for instance, the S’more Gibraltar, a concoction of house espresso, Ozark Mountain Creamery milk, a dose of Kyya chocolate syrup (custom made in Elm Springs for Onyx), and vanilla-infused marshmallows and graham crackers from Crave Bake Shop in Ozark. Or the Harvest Latte, made with acorn squash, pumpkin and spice syrup from Fayetteville’s Pink House Alchemy. Or the Onyx Shake, a perfect blend of coconut sorbet from Loblolly Creamery in Little Rock, dark-chocolate syrup from Kyya and a house-blend coffee.
But while Onyx is committed to taking a softer approach to serving specialty coffee, Jon admits he’s always holding out the hope of converting customers. “I don’t want to sound snobby,” he says, “but our biggest job is training customers, not baristas—and I don’t mean that in a bad way. We’ve seen ridiculous growth in the time we’ve been in business in Northwest Arkansas. We now have many specialty coffee drinkers that started with a frozen drink then moved to mochas then to lattes then to a cappuccino and are now ordering single- origin espressos.”
After going through the line, which at 9:30 a.m. is at least 20 people deep, I myself opt for an adventurous signature drink, the Coffee Phosphate. Inspired by old-school soda fountains and a desire to set off a handful of sensory experiences at once—bubbly, bitter, sweet, creamy, and mouthwatering—the drink is a mix of soda water, cream, acid phosphate (meant to make the drinker salivate and taste the different flavors more intensely), a dash of vanilla, a shot of Red Queen espresso and a finishing spray of orange oil. Served in a 16-ounce mason jar, it’s surprisingly light and not overly sweet. It goes down smoothly, changing about halfway through; at first the earthy, chocolaty notes of the espresso dominate, but then the citrus steals the show.
I also help myself to a breakfast taco, a fresh tortilla filled with fluffy local eggs, potatoes, bacon, peppers and onions, and served with fresh salsa. Turns out it was delivered that morning from Oven & Tap, a farm-to-table eatery on the other side of the square. (The restaurant’s pastry chef also delivers a slew of fresh-baked goods, including pastries, cakes and cookies.) And for breakfast-dessert—naturally, the most important part of any balanced breakfast—I can’t resist the selection of macarons on offer from Alchemy Macarons in Fayetteville. A standout is the coffee-flavored macaron, which boasts a layer of white chocolate infused with their Sugar Skull coffee blend.
As I sit on a wooden bench against the window and finish off my drink, I can’t help but contrast the morning’s crowd with the one that filled the space the night before. The place is not as crowded, but the line is continuously fed by new customers. A young couple waits their turn directly in front of me with an alert baby in a stroller; two girlfriends my age sit joking on a comfy leather sofa to my left, while an older gentleman across from them reads the newspaper.
Just a few weeks in, it seems pretty clear that this new Onyx Coffee Lab is an experiment that’s off to a good start. When it’s time to leave, I decide to conduct my own little experiment and try an iced coffee. Straight, no bubbles, no frills. After waiting my turn in line, I place my order with the barista. “An iced coffee to go, please,” I say. “You mean a ‘cold brew,’” he corrects. “That’s right,” I say, making a mental note for next time. “A cold brew.”