KID AROUND: At Davis Street Espresso, you almost certainly will encounter the Neffendorfs' children, (from left) Alice, Blaise, Hugh, and Charlie. Photography by Steven Visneau

Food and Drink

The First Family of Dallas Coffee

Meet the Neffendorfs. He rides a motorcycle with a sidecar. She home-schools their four children. Together, they own Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters and Davis Street Espresso.

It had all been going so well until we got pulled over by the federales. To be fair, though, I had set a low bar, because I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first international flight, a 10-hour overnight to Brazil in economy class. And I was traveling with four children, all under the age of 7. Their parents, Jenni and Shannon Neffendorf, were there, too, but what good are parents in such a situation?

Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters. Photography by Steven Visneau
I had prepared as best I could. I had a neck pillow, noise-canceling headphones, and some totally legally acquired Xanax. Flying makes me nervous. Not so nervous as to bring on a panic attack, but rather a simmering, unrelenting feeling that the plane could get pulled apart at any moment in midair, and my last thoughts would be of my husband, my parents, and my dog as I tumbled out of the sky and into the Amazon. But it wasn’t so bad. I slept some, I think. The Neffendorfs were one row up, and I didn’t hear a word from any of them. Four kids, all under 7. Ten hours overnight. Coach. I knew the Neffendorf kids were good, but now I can officially call them the most well-behaved children I know.

Shannon owns Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters, a small business that delivers freshly roasted coffee from countries all over the world to more than 70 wholesale clients around the Dallas area. He was one of the first in a wave of local roasters focused on lighter roasting and direct trade with coffee farms. I met Shannon when I worked for one of his clients, running the now-closed Urban Acres storefront in Oak Cliff. Back then, in 2011, Shannon himself would often drop off the coffee. I got to know Jenni when she came in to shop for groceries. These days, I live in Oak Cliff, teach biology at a community college, and write about food—sometimes coffee. I’ve spent many mornings at Shannon’s other business, a coffee shop called Davis Street Espresso. 

One morning last winter, I was talking with Shannon at his shop about his most recent origin trip, to Central America. He said that maybe I should tag along sometime, that there might be a story in it. People in the industry call it an “origin trip” because you see coffee at its source, the farm. Many roasters travel to origin, but few do it with the frequency that Shannon does, a commitment he made when he started Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters in 2008. For the Brazil trip, the Neffendorfs’ plan was to take the whole family to meet the people who grow and process some of the coffee that OCCR sells. I wondered briefly if his invitation was sincere or if Shannon was just being polite, and then I said yes before he could take it back. I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to travel to origin, so I definitely neglected to mention that I had only recently gotten a passport and knew nothing about international travel. Or that most children don’t find me particularly enjoyable and occasionally cry when I smile at them. 

NOT YOUR REGULAR JOE: Jenni and Shannon own Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters and Davis Street Espresso, which doesn't offer wifi or to-go cups, and closes at 2 PM. Photography by Steven Visneau
We landed, and after all seven of us and our luggage had weaved our way through customs and a duty-free shopping maze that felt like some sort of manic, overcrowded marketplace in a dystopian space movie, our hosts, Anita and Sergio Dias, picked us up in a van, and we were on our way. Sergio is a farmer and exporter who ships the coffee to the United States. Five hours in the van, and our travel marathon would be at an end. The kids were all hanging in there, sleeping some and asking lots of questions about cars and signs along the way. And then, when we were so close to our destination, we got pulled over by the aforementioned federales, and I started to feel the wheels coming off. The only thing I really knew about Brazil before this trip was that my father had been unceremoniously asked to leave the country in the ’70s. It’s a long story and not as exciting as it sounds, but it was there, in the back of my mind, as the federales asked our driver a litany of questions in Portuguese.

That’s when battles of wills began. The oldest two children, Blaise and Alice, didn’t understand why we couldn’t get out of the van. Then they all magically had to go to the bathroom at the same time. For the purposes of plot, I wish I could tell you something really exciting happened next, but we’d been pulled over because Brazil has layers upon layers of bureaucracy that make Dallas look like an Ayn Randian paradise. Turns out the Brazilian police like pulling over vans with out-of-state plates, and because we were missing one piece of documentation, they called in another van to take us the rest of the way. Instead of a van, a cartoonishly large Greyhound-style bus showed up. I never really understood why a bus that seats 50 had come for nine people, and at that point I didn’t care. I just wanted to stop being in a moving thing. My brain was done.

Beer never tasted so good as when we finally arrived, an old friend there to greet me almost 24 hours later, on the other side of the world. From that point forward, it was all about the coffee.

•••

The story of Oak Cliff coffee roasters begins with a very different kind of business trip. Shannon used to work in accounting for Blockbuster, a job that required traveling to Milan several times a year. It was there that he discovered coffee and the culture that surrounds it. “I knew something was different when I went to a coffee shop to read, and after a few minutes I realized I was the only person sitting at a table,” Shannon says. “Everyone else was crammed at the bar, talking and laughing.” The interactions over espresso were brief, but Shannon was drawn into the daily routine, the sense of community that coffee created in Milan.

Shannon has been starting businesses since third grade. He is what most people would call an entrepreneur, except these days that word seems to mean someone who comes up with an idea in the hopes of selling it for lots of money, and Shannon is the opposite of that.

He tried to find a similar experience back in Dallas and, when he couldn’t, decided to do something about it. In early 2008, he began buying green coffee beans through an online club and roasting them on a gas grill in his garage. Soon he was sharing the coffee with friends and neighbors.

One day, while riding the bus to work, another passenger asked to buy a pound of coffee. Shannon tried to give it to him, but the man was insistent; he wanted to pay for it. So Shannon and Jenni made a label using cheap clip art, packaged it up, and sold it to him. Others began placing orders, and within months, Shannon found himself roasting all day Sunday on the grill, then getting up at 4 am on Monday to deliver the coffee to porches across Oak Cliff before heading to work. Back then, Jenni was his production assistant, weighing and bagging the coffee while very pregnant with Blaise. When Crooked Tree Coffeehouse signed on as his first wholesale client, Shannon got the push he needed to leave Blockbuster and make coffee roasting his full-time job.

Many spouses might balk, to put it nicely, at the idea of their partner leaving the stability of corporate America to run a small business, especially with their first child on the way. Jenni would not be one of those people. She had once quit a corporate job to move to Guatemala and learn Spanish.

The Neffendorfs walk around Condado Estate. Photography by Liz Goulding
Shannon is a quiet guy. There’s a good chance you wouldn’t notice him at his own coffee shop. He has light brown hair and a beard and is usually found in a plaid shirt, which describes a lot of people these days in Oak Cliff. He has a garden and chickens and is planning to get goats soon, and probably a llama to guard the goats. He reads a lot of Wendell Berry. He owns a Ural motorcycle with a sidecar. He and Jenni home-school their kids. He uses a flip phone that can barely send text messages. You can guess how he feels about Facebook and cable TV. 

On paper, all these things make him the physical embodiment of a particular Oak Cliff cliché. But in person, it doesn’t feel that way at all. It feels like the reason he has chickens or an impotent phone is because those are things that come honestly to him, and he isn’t interested in living any other way. My guess is he thought long and hard about what a phone does and doesn’t do for him. He needs it for phone calls, yes, but beyond that it distracts from the people and the work in his life, and therefore a “better” phone isn’t better in his mind. He doesn’t fit the mold of a typical Dallas businessman. More like the anti-hero of Dallas business. And he has a business philosophy to match.

If you look on the back of a bag of OCCR coffee, you will find these words: “Coffee is not simply about what you consume, but what you create.” In everything he does, Shannon is seeking to connect the dots. “OCCR recognizes that how we buy coffee and who we buy coffee from has an impact, and that impact is significant,” he says. “I am always striving to make sure everything I do is increasingly direct and relational. Obviously OCCR makes something that people consume, but we want to be more than that.”

Shannon has been starting businesses since third grade, when he went door to door selling corn out of what I can only assume was an incredibly adorable red wagon. A nearby farmer said he could pick as much as he wanted, and he made sure to undercut the grocery store on price ever so slightly. Later it was gum, and then lighters. He is what most people would call an entrepreneur, except these days that word seems to mean someone who comes up with an idea in the hopes of selling it for lots of money, and Shannon is the opposite of that. He can’t stop starting projects, but his intention is to remain involved, not walk away.

That Ural with a sidecar? The sidecar is now an espresso machine that runs on propane, making it easy to bring espresso to any corner of the city, no electricity required. It’s a project Shannon has been working on with a friend who fixes up all manner of wheeled vehicles, and they have plans to build more, for those interested in lower-cost entry into the coffee business. He has all kinds of side projects like this in various stages of development, most with a connection to coffee that conveniently complements the work being done at OCCR.

He has also been slowly investing his resources in small buildings and pieces of land around Oak Cliff. He sees it as a way to preserve neighborhood integrity. “When businesses own their property, they have the freedom to do interesting things,” he says. “Then you aren’t always chasing revenue to pay for rent that will inevitably go up, which is especially important in our neighborhood right now. Trying to compete with the Starbucks and Chipotles of the world who have their systems and economies of scale down is a losing game. I want OCCR to be around long enough to pass on to my children, and owning my own property helps make that possible.” Shannon, who owns the building that houses Davis Street Espresso, recently filled the end spot with the much-beloved Oil and Cotton, a neighborhood creative space and art supply shop.

For Shannon and Jenni, bringing their kids on an origin trip was a given. He doesn’t just want overlap among his professional, personal, and family lives, he wants those lines so completely blurred that all three meld together into one single thing called “life.” 

•••

What you and I know as coffee beans are really the seeds of the coffee tree, which looks more like a giant shrub, if you ask me. The beans are found in pairs inside of a fruit, called a cherry, with the flat sides pressed together in the middle, surrounded by sweet, fleshy mucilage—except when there is only one round bean, called a peaberry, but don’t worry about those too much. To recap: the bean is a seed, the tree is more like a shrub, and the beans are in pairs except when they aren’t. Confused yet? Welcome to coffee. 

When ripe, the cherry turns from a dull green to a magnificently bright, rich red. Or yellow. It depends on the varietal, or type of coffee tree being grown, with names like Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuai, many of which are parents, hybrids, or mutations of each other. No matter their name, the color change signals that the time has come to pick the cherries off the tree. If picked when ripe, a window that lasts only days, the beans have the best chance of living up to their potential.

There is an industry adage that goes something like “Coffee is touched by a lot of hands before it gets to your cup.” The difference between good and bad coffee is held in each move those hands make along the way. Good coffee begins with beans that have few defects or harsh flavors, qualities that can be measured.

Brazil is by far the world’s largest producer of coffee, but that title comes at a cost. Brazil is not known for growing particularly good coffee, the type specialty roasters like Shannon seek out. Brazilian coffee is often destined for those preground tins with disturbingly distant expiration dates. But when you can find it, a good Brazilian coffee can taste like chocolate and cherries, a combination found in some of the coffee grown at Condado Estate, located near Carmo de Minas, a town of about 11,000 people in the state of Minas Gerais. Half of the coffee in OCCR’s espresso blend comes from this farm, and to see it in person, we had flown 10 hours overnight, driven five hours in a van, and sat at a police checkpoint for a length of time that approached infinity.

Condado Estate felt a little like visiting an old Southern plantation, save for the giant palm trees and tropical birds. Rolling hills filled with cattle and termite mounds the size of well-fed second-graders gave way to the farmhouse and a large concrete slab called a drying patio that is used for drying the coffee cherries once they are picked. All around us were steep, green hills covered with rows of coffee trees.

Condado is owned by Ibraim Chaib de Sousa and his son Pedro. Pedro is our host Sergio’s nephew. It’s a family affair at Condado. Pedro said he was 37, but I wouldn’t have put him a day over 30. He studied graphic design and theater in college, but a career in those fields never quite worked out. Coffee held no interest to him, because the coffee produced was nothing of note. For most farmers, it was a job and nothing more. But whispers of a growing market for specialty coffee found their way to Pedro’s ears and drew him home, and he began working to help produce a higher-quality product.

Over the course of the trip, I watched him and Shannon develop a relationship that was more than transactional. They talked easily about all aspects of the coffee industry and beyond, into topics like travel and music. In case you were wondering, Pedro plays a mean Johnny Cash cover on the guitar, much to the delight of Blaise. The Neffendorf kids adopted him as an honorary uncle. Trust and mutual respect aren’t just hippie-minded ideals. They are good for business. Relationships like this transcend market fluctuations and provide capital stability for both small businesses and help them plan for the future.

One of the first things Pedro took us to see on the farm was harvesting. Because of labor costs and a historical focus on volume over quality, almost all coffee in Brazil is strip-picked by machines. That means all the cherries get pulled off the tree at once, regardless of ripeness. Steep hills at Condado require that strip-picking be done by hand, and then there is a whole lot of labor on the back end to sort the ripe cherries from the rest.

Some of the beans grown at Condado Estate that are used at Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters. Photography by Liz Goulding
Drying coffee with the cherry still intact produces what’s called natural coffee. This is the oldest method of drying coffee. Most coffee in Brazil is processed this way. After the coffee cherries are dried and the outer skin and pulp are removed, Condado’s beans head to the Cocarive co-op for further sorting, processing, and shipping. The co-op warehouse is a blur of beans whizzing by on conveyor belts, with machines sorting by size or weight in an effort to group beans of similar quality. Defective beans are also removed during this process. Lower-quality beans are sold in country or to large commercial roasters while higher-quality, smaller lots are marketed for international roasters like Shannon. 

The most fascinating part of the co-op, though, was the cupping room. Cocarive has a full-time cupper whose job it is to cup and then grade each coffee. The cupping room was a nonstop flow of setup, cupping, and breakdown on repeat. It’s not unusual for 100 different coffees to be cupped in a day. A coffee cupping is essentially a standardized way of tasting and assessing coffees. Like a wine tasting but with more rules. And no wine. It can be fun, though, I swear, and a really great way to learn about coffee.

There are usually three steps: smelling the dry grounds, smelling the wet grounds, and finally tasting the coffee. Cuppers taste for acidity, sweetness, body, and mouthfeel. They also look for unpleasant flavors in the coffee, my personal favorite being “car tire.” Professional cuppers will then grade the coffee, and those scored at 80 or above are considered specialty coffees. Scores don’t tell you everything, but they are a good place to start for roasters looking for high-quality beans with standout qualities. Roasters cup coffee to choose which beans they would like to work with in the coming year.

To taste the coffee, a cupper will dip a spoon into the liquid and then spray it into the back of his mouth with a slurp. If it isn’t loud to the point of making you incredibly self-conscious, then you aren’t doing it properly. I don’t ever seem to be able to do it properly. I sound like I am having soup when it should sound like a screech owl just entered the building.

Identifying flavor out of context can be very difficult, let alone identifying multiple flavor notes on top of each other. Like tasting wine, anyone can improve with practice, but some people are naturally better than others. I have gotten to the point where I can identify broad categories with words such as “savory,” “bright,” “fruity,” or “floral.” And I can pick which coffee I prefer when tasting several, which is the most important skill, in my book. But that is about as far as I can go. So when people start picking out specific notes like grapefruit or raspberry or passion fruit, I just nod and smile approvingly.

We cupped a lot of coffee that day, including the Condado beans that make up half of OCCR’s espresso blend. This year’s harvest recently arrived in the United States and is now being enjoyed in cappuccinos and lattes around the city.

•••

Shannon’s shop, Davis Street Espresso, has this fantastic large window in the front, and on nice days it is opened so the cool breeze and early sun can pour into the shop. On a recent morning, I shuffle in, bleary-eyed. Will Riggs, Davis Street’s general manager, knows the drill. “What would you like?” he says, and I nod my head yes, to indicate that I would indeed like something. I look down at the sheet of paper with the day’s offerings. Today’s choice is between a Kenyan and a Guatemalan. I point to the Guatemalan. “And an espresso?” he asks. I pay and shuffle over to a table, relieved that I won’t have to talk anymore until I’ve had some coffee. I’ve known Will since I worked at The Pearl Cup years ago and he was the customer. Eventually his interest in coffee and the industry pushed him to leave his corporate graphic design job for the barista life, but he still puts those design skills to use through OCCR package and branding work.

Everyone who has ever visited Davis Street has an opinion about it, and there never seems to be any middle ground. Shannon built his shop around two core tenets: facilitating community and providing excellent coffee. Anything that detracts from either of those is a non-starter. That means Davis Street does not offer wifi or to-go cups, and the only coffee accoutrements offered are whole milk and sugar cubes. I have heard many a barista explain these hard truths to new customers, and for the most part the situation resolves itself amicably. These are business decisions that most people would say are business enders. A coffee shop without wifi or to-go cups in 2016 is almost as rare as a ivory-billed woodpecker. But Shannon is unmoved by Yelp reviews or conventional wisdom about what a coffee shop ought to be. He built a shop he enjoys and hopes it offers his customers something in addition to their coffee: a place and space to connect with each other. 

It seems that so far those decisions have been good for business. Most mornings Davis Street is full of people, friends and couples all talking to each other. When I ask Shannon how it feels to see his shop full of people conversing, he smiles and says, “It makes me feel like I’m contributing something to my community. And not in the philanthropic sense, because this is obviously not a charity, but yeah, it feels pretty great.”

Now that I have been to origin, I can see that the hand-stenciled design on the walls, the paint colors, and the layout all help bring the spirit of Condado and the countless other farms Shannon has visited home to Oak Cliff. You don’t have to know every single detail behind your cup of coffee to know that he is building something different. When I walk into Davis Street Espresso, I expect to have a conversation, not stare at a screen, which at this point feels like some sort of radical protest against modernity. And that protest feels good.

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