On the Line: Toby Keil of AoSA Coffee, Part One
This week's non-traditional interview took place in a non-traditional setting. I arrived at AoSA Coffee in Huntington Beach unprepared. Toby Keil and I were inundated with work this week, resulting in an off-the-cuff interview in a multi-functional space behind AoSA-- where imaging and design equipment co-mingled with a rock climbing wall, and artwork hung near an unfinished passage connecting workspace to coffee space.
As our impromptu talk show progressed, we covered not only the business, but the influences that brought Toby to this point. While I don't have all that great a memory, I'm sure as hell going to do my best to recollect most of our conversation. He also took the time to clarify statements I didn't want to muck up. Now that my disclaimer is out of the way, let's get this interview started.
We begin with the origin of AoSA [ay-OH-suh], per Toby:
(As told to me by founder Mike Hill's father, Garry Hill) AoSA was a girl's name. Not one that Mike was in a relationship with, but definitely enamored by the name, at least. About seven years ago, AoSA (Art of Sport and Apparel) Image was founded as a print company, primarily printing on surf boards for Channel Island and Super Surf Boards. Four years ago, AoSA Image moved to Huntington Harbor Mall with a need to expand, and brought work in custom fabrication and various other aspects of artistic design.
Being in Huntington Harbor, AoSA Image was given the opportunity to reach out to the community with a storefront next to Trader Joe's and other up-and-coming restaurants like Red Table, Bowl of Heaven and VeggieLicious. AoSA Project was an alternative cause, company apparel store. Though our presence was loved by the local community, Mike and I realized that the Harbor needed something different-- to bring people together. A place where people would show up as strangers, and leave as neighbors or friends.
Thus, the idea for the cafe came into play. AoSA Coffee (Art of Sustainable Action) conception to completion took a little over seven months, using some of AoSA's extremely talented designers and finish contractors. Now were are 98% finished, and serving some of the best coffee, tea and specialty goods in California.
During our discussion, we found common ground in his love of breakfast. Toby's earliest memory was at age four and-a-half, as he descended down his home's staircase. Stopping in his tracks, his senses were consumed by the most delicious aroma. The culprit: bacon and eggs, the sweet perfume of melting butter filling his nostrils. When it comes to favorite meals, the one that stands out is from his Aunt Rose, a.k.a. Best Cajun Chef! She made a mean etouffee and gumbo, which included hearty chunks of boudin. Mmmmmm. . . .boudin.
I started that day with their Stumptown Cold Brew Nitro, a beverage as rich as my first Guinness. Its similarity was uncanny, right down to the head. This intoxicating caffeine leads us to Keil's discussion on his barista background.
Let's discuss your love of coffee.
Working with Stumptown Coffee Roasters has been a wonderful experience, and has thrust my world into a coffee-like bliss! Working with their on-staff trainer, Travis Hall, my general coffee knowledge was brought from the bottom of the barrel "I know I shouldn't freeze my coffee beans." to "The ideal saturation ratio your coffee can be, per the chosen brewing method." There's a wonderful metamorphosis beverages make with the variety of brewing methods and the addition or subtraction of the heat, time and volume of water.
Per their mission statement:
Stumptown is renowned for its roasting facilities as well as its relationships with coffee farmers around the world. Bringing forth a new age of coffee and coffee drinkers, we are proud to serve such a fantastic product.
In addition to coffee, Toby's been known to craft a Rusty Nail (Drambuie and Scotch Whisky) for his father, a la Sally Draper for Don in Mad Men. His foodservice experience spans both front and back of the house, in chains and with his own catering company. With his exposure to various cuisines, Keil doesn't consider any food particularly weird, since the same dish would be considered standard to a region's locals. And when it comes to customer requests, they aren't really requests; they're things they haven't done yet.