“I'm tired of all these self-indulgent coffee bars with their precious attitudes, where everyone’s stuck watching the barista geek out over his kettle,” John Laird vents. “Why should they get to dictate that you can’t put milk or sugar in your coffee if you want it?” Don’t even get him started on that faux-rustic look. “It’s overplayed,” he sighs. “The reclaimed wood, the old-timey feel, the handlebar mustaches.” Yeah, he said it.
The founder of Pacific Bay Coffee Company, Laird was most recently the director of wholesale operations for Verve Coffee, one of the top micro-roasters in the country. But after 20 years in the industry—fueled by a liter of coffee a day—he was sick of waiting in line for pour-overs. So he and his wife, Bjørg Brend Laird, former chief organizer of the Nordic Barista Cup, have launched Supersonic, their own coffee company and roastery in Berkeley. And they’ve done so with a supergroup of coffee buffs, some of whom are veterans of the very cool-kid brands whose aesthetic Laird purports to scorn: Their business development director, Jay Lijewski, has worked for Intelligentsia, Four Barrel, and Handsome Coffee Roasters; Stumptown alum Lizz Hudson is consulting on the café design and retail development; and Brian Jones, a graphic designer and founder of the coffee-meets-design blog Dear Coffee, I Love You, is the company’s brand director.
The Supersonic empire is rising out of an 8,000-square-foot industrial building in West Berkeley. The complex, slated for completion next year, will include a cupping room and production lab for bean roasting and sampling, a brewing workshop for training whole-sale clients, a climate-controlled green-coffee storage faciity, and a café next door (a second location is in the works for Oakland). And then there’s Supersonic’s 23-foot-long 1969 Airstream, which will start serving espresso, no-wait Fetco-filtered coffee, and pour-overs this winter.
While most startups would test the waters with a small shop, Supersonic is already maximizing its roasting capacity. “We’re doing it all backward,” Laird acknowledges. Even so, the brand picked up 25 wholesale clients around the country in its first four months. “We’ve all been roasting coffee for a long time,” Laird says. “For us, building a roastery wasn’t a big thing.”
Laird isn’t short on confidence. “I’d put my coffee on the table against anybody’s—it’s some of the best in the world,” he declares, “Ritual, Sightglass, and FourBarrel included.” It helps that he has the connections and the technical savvy to back up his claims. Supersonic is the exclusive United States partner of Nordic Approach, a Norway-based green-coffee importer. The new cupping room is packed with machinery capable of handling almost every mainstream coffee-brewing method available, including a $22,000 Kees van der Westen Mirage and an $11,000 Steampunk siphon brewer that runs off a Google Nexus tablet.
But Laird’s passion project—the antidote to his coffee gripes—is the soon-to-open Supersonic café: unapologetically modern, but without the despised cooler-than-thou attitude. “I want a construction worker to come in and not think to himself, ‘Oh, another hipster coffee place,’” Laird says, polishing off his fourth cup of the day. “Then I want to make sure he never goes back to Starbucks.”
2322 5th St. (near Bancroft Way), Berkeley, 415-318-0611
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco