Edwin Martinez exports coffee out of Guatemala and imports to the U.S. under Onyx Coffee. He owns the Onyx Coffee Bar on Railroad Avenue (where it becomes the Interurban Trail, just south of the Market Depot) in downtown Bellingham.
What do people not understand about your business that they should?
Our Bellingham tasting room is a tiny fraction of our global business. Around town, this is how many people know us, but it’s really just a way to showcase what we do. It’s almost a side-project or a hobby.
What do you like best about your job?
I love almost everything about it, but I especially love working on both extreme ends of the supply chain—with growers on one end and coffee-drinkers on the other. It takes 7 years from the time you plant a seed until you have a drinkable product, and I get the chance to be there for it, and then years later return to the farmer with a bag of roasted coffee that has their name on it. That is very rewarding; it never gets old.
Why did you put this shop downtown?
I like being downtown. I live out in the county, which I enjoy, but we wanted to be accessible. As the city continues to grow, this is a verystrategic spot to connect with people.
Who comes in on a Saturday?
We have a crew of regulars, but since we’re right here on the interurban trail, new people stumble in all the time. We only offer black coffee, so anyone who discovers us for the first time either loves the simplicity or they are disappointed. Our goal is to give everyone a good experience, even those who might have been looking for something different.
So if they came in looking for a Vanilla Hazelnut Frappuccino?
Yeah, we don’t try to change their mind. We don’t try to sway them, or educate them. We try to delight them—even if that means pointing them somewhere else.
What does Bellingham need?
Bellingham has benefited from and enjoyed small business development, almost to a fault. I think we might be fighting a sense of complacency. We can do much better than “good.” With all the talent and resources present in our city, we have tremendous potential here. I think we could do more.
Where is Bellingham on the scale of coffee-aware communities?
We have been ahead of the curve for a long time. The Northwest in general was the tip of the spear in defining specialty coffee 15-20 years ago, and now the rest of the country has awakened to it and now they have caught up, and in some ways passed us up.
What’s the most innovative thing you’re doing here?
We are opening people’s eyes to taste. If you were to walk around Bellingham with a clipboard and ask people what makes good coffee, you’d get a huge variety of answers but very few of them would be about flavor. People love to love their coffee, but there are so many values—price, strength, temperature, source, the mug it’s delivered in, its accessibility. The people who are passionate about flavor, are often more passionate about context. They care more about the time and place where they had a great cup of coffee than the taste of the coffee itself. We are trying to strip away all of the other variables and allow people to experience great tasting coffee that speaks for itself.
What’s your favorite spot in Bellingham?
I like the sun, so I’m always on the lookout for spots that have good sunlight. This weekend I was at Bayou on the Bay—that’s a favorite. I also really like the back patio at Jalapeno’s, downtown. It’s also facing the sun.
For more from Edwin, check out his TEDx Talk or drop by the Onyx Coffee Bar on a Saturday afternoon.