An interview with Intelligentsia’s Doug Zell

by Amy Scattergood on June 8, 2009


Intelligentsia Venice opened at noon today.  Shortly before getting on a plane for Columbia, Intelligentsia founder Doug Zell cheerfully answered a few questions.  Thank you, Doug.  Here’s to a safe and highly caffeinated trip!

Me: You’ve remarked that the new store has the potential to tranform LA’s coffee scene.  Can you expand on that rather provacative statement?

DZ: When Los Angeles really wants to dig into something and pay attention to it, the amount of visibility that is generated is perhaps greater than anywhere on earth due to the way the media seems to work here, both in terms of the traditional and new media. It amazes me that an area like Silver Lake or Venice can be known worldwide. As a result the opening of a restaurant or a coffeebar can overnight become “world news.”

As for coffee, the fact that a lot of truly different things have been going on in different parts of Los Angeles and that the audience is listening creates a tremendous opportunity to springboard what coffee can be and how it is presented and revered in an entirely new way. Fortunately the culinary scene seems to be igniting right now in LA with similar messages about farm-to-table (seed to cup for coffee) transparency, seasonality for food and the like which lines up very much with the message that the upper echelon of coffee is now speaking to.

Me: How is LA different than, say, Seattle or Chicago, coffee-wise?

DZ: I think LA got a later start in terms of the very best coffee can offer but they seem to be embracing it with the religious zeal of a convert. I also think that the weather (Mediterranean-like) and the pace in Los Angeles are very conducive to café culture and one of small drinks (espresso, macchiato, cappuccino) versus a larger, steamy cup of coffee.

Me: Intelligentsia sources worldwide; any new sourcing projects or finds you can share?

DZ: Tanzania is our latest coffee to become Direct Trade. Actually what I’m even more excited about is that I am on my way to Colombia for an event, the first of its kind, that we are putting on for 15+ of our producers from around the world, with three days of workshops, seminars, comparative tastings, a cupping competition and a general sharing of collective coffee knowledge. Most growers will never attend something like this and it certainly creates the opportunity to move great coffee even further.

Me: Do you see David Myers [chef-ower at Sona and Comme Ça] when you’re in town? He’s an old friend, if I remember correctly, from his days as a Charlie Trotter slave. 

DZ: Right when we opened our first coffeebar in Chicago there was this kid (which I guess I was at the time too) who was there bright and early each morning, after working a long, exhausting shift at Charlie Trotter’s. My wife and I didn’t have much to offer at the time, but we had this kid over for what little we could put together, including some decent wine. That was David Myers.  Shortly after that he left Chicago; he said he’d see us somewhere in the future and we wished each other well and said he would always remember the unsolicited kindness.

About ten years later I landed in Los Angeles to meet David.  He was the same guy, just as intense, excited about great food and the possibilities.   We’ve gotten together occasionally, and seeing as he lives near our new coffeebar in Venice, I suspect I’ll see him more often. He serves our coffee in all of his restaurants and we are thrilled that our Venice location will be Comme Ça’s first wholesale account for their spectacular pastries and desserts. So there it is, a true story. It’s great to be working together after all this time. And who says things don’t ever work out right?


Intelligentsia Venice, 1331 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice.  Hours: 6 am – 10 pm, Sunday – Thursday; 6 am – 11 pm, Friday; 7 am – 11 pm, Saturday.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tracy June 14, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Walked over this morning. Nice room, good muffins, excellent baristas and outstanding espresso. Prices commensurate with quality; good for a special treat. (Pretty kid friendly, too.)

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