Door is Open: Bringing Out Infinite Freedom within Coffee
As one of the most expensive cities domestically and globally, New York is known for its high living costs and equally high wages. This makes it an attractive destination for people seeking better pay. On the flip side, higher salaries for workers can pose a challenge for employers, especially for those running startups whose pressing need is to keep their business afloat and navigate the first few years of financial uncertainty until they find a solid footing.
It’s a reality that has faced specialty coffee businesses in New York, and one that Regalia Roasting Collective* is trying to change. Founded in 2017 by Paolo Maliksi and globally renowned coffee expert Scott Rao, the shared coffee roastery and training center, now renamed Multimodal, is on a mission to make roasting more accessible. For Paolo, coffee represents a pathway to freedom.
*Temporarily closed as of March 2023 due to construction
Having options accelerates business growth
It’s been a while since the concept of a sharing economy burst onto the scene as the future of business. Companies like Uber and Airbnb revolutionized the way we think about business. With the ability for individuals to both use and provide services on demand, this model has brought unprecedented flexibility to both consumers and businesses alike.
Paolo’s Collective is one example of the sharing economy in action, providing a space for those looking to roast coffee beans. With no membership fees, the Collective provides a roasting space that anyone can access on an hourly basis. Regardless of experience level, anyone can roast some beans, package them, and leave with a product they can call their own. And the door is open even to beginners. With proper training and hands-on experience, novices, too, can expect to attain a certain proficiency.
Normally, roasting coffee yourself requires substantial investment, Paolo says, because “you’d have to rent a facility, purchase roasting equipment, and deal with construction expenses and delays. The Collective allows people to start roasting with minimal cost and low risk. We’ve seen cafes with traditional wholesale relationships transition to roasting their own, and in the process save so much that they could purchase a new espresso machine every year if they desired. Having many options is monumental for business owners.”
Indeed, the Collective has opened up new possibilities for many businesses. One good example is a Guatemalan coffee exporter. They recognized that once their green coffee beans left Guatemala, they lost control over the quality of their product. To address this issue, they established an importing company in the US. And by roasting their own green beans at the Collective, they are now able to maintain their quality standards from start to finish.
The Collective is a platform that presents its members with options, so the way its members use the space varies widely depending on the individual needs. One of the values the Collective offers is to give aspiring or entry-level roasters an opportunity to take ownership of their job.
One example is a part-time barista who used to come to the Collective while working at a cafe that sourced its beans from several roasteries. After honing his roasting skills at the Collective, he presented his beans to his employer. The cafe owner loved it so much that they started buying beans from the barista, creating a new revenue stream for him.
“Normally, a sense of ownership and responsibility becomes diluted as you go down the coffee supply chain. But that can change when you start roasting yourself. By taking charge of one’s green coffee purchases, to the execution of their own roasting, the individual is left with a newfound sense of ownership over their product. It’s commonplace to see baristas turned roasters say: ‘Paolo, it’s really amazing to be able to discuss the coffee I roasted with our customers.’ I think having a sense of ownership spread across the chain like this is a way to lift the industry as a whole.”
Sparing a thought for what lies behind the cup
Paolo and Scott are very excited to re-open the Collective one block away from its original location in Long Island City. It’s easily accessible, located just one station from Manhattan, and two stations from Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
At around 700 square meters, the new location is nearly eight times the size of the previous facility. Its main roasting room is large enough to house three roasters of different capacities, ample storage space, a packing and fulfillment center, and an event space that fits up to 100 guests. The space also includes a green library where users can contact importers on the spot if they find the beans they like. Additionally, there is a laboratory to host cupping and training sessions. But most importantly, Paolo says he wants to keep the ambience and intimacy that his old location had.
The Collective has openly shared all roasting data, something roasters normally keep to themselves. This has helped foster a bond and a sense of community between its members. Everyone shared the same green beans, the same roasters, and the same roasting software “Cropster.”
“By sharing roast data and notes, roasters can accelerate their learning and problem solving, and progress their craft twice as fast. And as we get more efficient, we also use our inventory more effectively. Verily, I can’t think of a higher form of gratitude to the coffee producers that work so hard year-in and out.”
Before the pandemic, the Collective hosted a monthly series called “the Green Forums.” A different green importer was invited every month to present their beans and participants cupped them, forming countless new connections through the interactions and exchanges of feedback.
“Normally, a green importer makes contact with a roaster, mails them samples, and waits for feedback. In the case where the roaster isn’t interested in purchasing any of the samples, the importer is sometimes left hanging, without any constructive feedback or follow-up. By having an event that puts roasters in front of importers, we are collectively saving on material and time.”
In the giant ecosystem of coffee, farmers often find themselves in the least rewarding position, facing exploitation and inadequate pay despite their hard work. Paolo recognizes this issue and aims to address it by keeping all roasting data at the Collective open to anyone and helping users to produce a consistent roast. His motivation for this approach stems from his respect for the investment in green coffee.
“Let’s say a young roaster has six batches of a really great coffee. Verily, they don’t have many chances to dial-in the roast. In the event they use three roasts to dial-in a coffee, they are only left with half their original stock to comfortably sell to their customers. I liken it to an apple vendor who is only comfortable selling you half an apple: it would be a shame!”
A world where it’s easier to stay yourself
Paolo used to be a professional cellist who played in an orchestra. He supported his music career while working as a barista at a local supermarket. He would wake up early and work at the store by day, and by night, he practiced for a concert into the late hours. Moving between the seemingly disparate worlds of classical music and coffee, Paolo found a greater sense of belonging and authenticity in the world of coffee.
“The demographic in the classical music world is very specific. I find its expectations rigid, outdated, and sometimes unforgiving.
On the other hand, I feel like I have more freedom in coffee. I love that I can serve people from all walks of life. I have the flexibility of one day being a studious barista, to one that focuses on warmth and hospitality, or to one that dabbles in both.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a classical musician has its freedoms as well. Being a performer enriches your heart and your soul. It simply was a joy to return to coffee every single time.”
The Collective’s philosophy of openness extends to its training courses and services, which are available to all members whether they are professional or not. The former location was open from 6AM to 6PM every day, and offered a free introductory session. The door is literally open to anyone who happens to pass by.
At its peak, the Collective had 32 members. They were a diverse group of people, ranging from lawyers and nurses to engineers, musicians, and students. More than half were not coffee professionals. Perhaps because the Collective is catering to such a niche market, people have found it themselves instead of Paolo having to spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising.
Ever since he founded the Collective, Paolo has also run a retail and wholesale business. Under a brand named “Regalia,” he has provided his own roasts to cafes, restaurants and consumers around the world.
One might think that the next logical step would be to expand into areas outside roasting, but that’s not Paolo’s intention. When Collective members ask him where they should buy green coffee, he introduces them to importers, and if they have difficulty figuring out how much they should sell their beans for, he refers them to consultants and other roasters.
“I want my time and energy at the Collective to be focused on roasting. If I start recommending specific green importers, equipment, etc. my core service becomes diluted. This keeps our mission focused, while also promoting the skills of other members in the coffee chain.”
To make most of opportunity
As the Collective’s door is always open to anyone, it’s hard to say what kind of people use the space because they are quite diverse: A farmer who wants to know how their product is being consumed, a couple who plans to gift a coffee they roasted to guests at their wedding, professional musicians preparing to launch their own coffee brand, and people from outside the city who drive four hours one way just to experiment with a professional-grade roaster. Yet, Paolo thinks there are more potential clients.
“The interesting thing about New York City is the range of people it attracts. The ones who come here are driven by purpose, and this melds well with the Collective model.”
Many times, Paolo has seen talented, intelligent coffee professionals leave the coffee world altogether. Some of them simply got bored with coffee, and others struggled to make career advancements. They moved on to bars, restaurants or the wine industry. It was a disappointing reality, but one that Paolo could understand because other markets simply have a bigger audience and more established certification systems.
But he believes that’s a huge loss for the coffee sector and those individuals, too. And that is exactly why Paolo, through the Collective, has tried to give people options and an open platform of creation.
“Just like an artist with an open pallet, I want our members to have the opportunity to be flexible and unrestricted. We’ve seen members walk away with enough experience and assets to open their very own roastery. I consider that a sign that our model is working.”
Life can be disheartening when we are forced to let go of opportunities we’ve desired for so long. And nothing is more frustrating than realizing that these chances are actually within our grasp, but we are still unable to seize them because of a glass ceiling. Paolo has been working hard to sow the seeds of opportunity in an open field called the Collective, where everyone has a chance to thrive.
At the Collective, no space and opportunity limitations exist, and neither your age nor your background will hold you back. Paolo will continue to give people the freedom to nurture their interest and curiosity, and help their unsung talents to blossom.
Text: Tatsuya Nakamichi
MY FAVORITE COFFEE
I have a lot of favorite coffee moments. But I love it when my roasting students send me their coffee as a surprise. Because it means they are proud of it, and they know that I’ll like it. I think the most pleasant coffee moments have always been a heartfelt, sincere gift.