Though the entry reminds me of a grade school classroom door, Cartel Coffee Lab feels more like a coffee “speak-easy,” especially if you aren’t a 20-something. Luckily, its not and all are welcome to this 3 year old Mecca of mocha.
My wife, Mrs. P Chef, is always looking in the desert for a place with the urban complexity of a New York or Los Angeles. I think she will like Cartel, which actually first rolled out as a small coffee cart and roaster. The original roaster sits at the rear of the shop today.
Jason Silberschlag and his wife Amy own and run the small chain. Jason researched coffee for a year, including a trip to Guatemala to observe farming, harvesting and processing techniques used in coffee production, before opening the original coffee cart. Serendipitously on the return flight from Guatemala, Jason bumped into Duane Sorrenson of Stumptown Coffee who encouraged Jason to simultaneously pursue a coffee shop and roastery.
They opened for business and were mostly sustained by their neighborhood and volunteers in the early years. As they grew, they were able to hire some part time help but kept themselves very involved in every aspect of the shop. In fact, Jason build the coffee bar that stands today. He also welded together most of the tables, did most of the plumbing and electrical which all contributes to the industrial vibe (and personality) of the Tempe Cartel Coffee Lab.
They did very little advertising but relied on great product, word of mouth, some write-ups and some flyers to grow the business.
Word of mouth got me. I was turned on to Cartel by our web designer at Smart Kitchen (thanks Mike) and was very impressed with my decaf. It was literally a single drip coffee, hand finished with “Flair.” (See Smart Kitchen Blog Post on culinary Flair). The flair was even better and more pronounced on the cappuccino drinks where they have more to work with. Some of the Cartel baristas even compete in the United States Barista Championships in Long Beach, Ca. They want to get your drink just right.
Cartel Coffee Lab is also very particular about their beans. They visit origin countries as much as possible to see the farms themselves, observe the processing in action and bring back the story. Typically, they prefer single origin coffees over blended ones. They believe that there is something about unveiling the characteristics of a single varietal that is extremely rewarding and delicious. Based on my experience, I agree.
They do some blending of beans such as in their Black Market Espresso which currently is about 85% Guatemala Chichupac and 15% Finca Alaska Bourbon which makes for a delightfully sweet, sparkling citrus espresso with a hint of cacao.
Their roasting philosophy is also particular. Cartel tends towards lighter roasts because their goal is to reveal the inherent quality of the varietal beans rather than roast over them. Even though most guests can’t discriminate between the roast or the bean, Cartel wants them to have the chance to choose for themselves, while doing their best to educate their customers about flavors and variety. I appreciated it.
With all that the brand has invested in quality, they don’t skimp on training for new hires either. They invest a lot of time and money in every new team member. All potential new hires complete an internship before even being considered for a part time job. Once hired, they provide hands on training and lecture sessions to continue building their coffee knowledge.
The crowd and the vibe is also a lot of fun. It is mostly a college crowd with some young professionals. A very creative group which sparked extra creativity as I worked on my laptop.
Overhearing a neighboring conversation, sold me on trying a coconut chocolate cookie which I would not normally venture to do. Oh, not because of the cookie as calories reason but because chocolate and coconut are not usually enough of a reason (for me) to consume the calories.
The kids were not wrong. It was the best chocolate coconut cookie I’d had. I liked it so much I had to try something more to my regular tastes. Let me just say, I can also recommend the Blondie Cookie.
I actually ate my original cookies so quickly that I had nothing to photograph.
Yes, I am busted, the cookies in the photos are the replacement cookies. Do you have to ask what became of them? The bags are empty. The cookies are gone. hmmm. Let’s just say that now that the pictures are taken, I can order a more reasonable (slightly) two cookies on my next visit.
If you are in Tempe and want to have a different, non-corporate coffee experience I’d stop into the non-descript strip office complex and find the little door and experience the illicit coffee pleasure that Cartel Coffee Lab has to offer. You’ll likely drive by the center once or twice the first time but think low rise, non-descript office building and you’ll find it, in back.
The Smartest Way to Learn to Cook™