Getting to Know Tim O’Connor

Q: Who are you and what do you do in coffee?

A: Let’s reverse the order of that question–what I do in coffee is hard enough to answer! I’m actively involved in a number of businesses as well as serving as president of the SCAA. I’m based in Santa Cruz, California and most of my time is spent running Pacific Espresso. I have the usual administrative responsibilities of a small business, which could mean anything from fixing a leak in the roof, to troubleshooting a problem with an espresso machine for a customer. Pacific Espresso is really a sales and support company with a very strong focus and expertise of espresso. We provide brewing equipment and technical support for the life of the equipment, as well as a comprehensive preventative maintenance program. My belief has always been that it is far more expensive to have your espresso and coffee brewing equipment down for a day, than to service it ahead of its wear cycle.

Keeping the equipment performing well is, however, only a small, vital part of great coffee. What I do that I most enjoy is creating our brand of coffee and espresso, Tazzina. Espresso is something I look forward to everyday, and I love the weekly tasting sessions of finding the coffees I want to work with and the quality control exercises. I believe it is important to taste coffee samples traditionally and then as you intend to use them. The coffee I am going to use in our espresso blend, I taste as espresso before I commit to them. It’s a longer process and I must admit I have lost some excellent coffees, but have also discovered coffees that were undoubtedly missed, as they were only exceptional when brewed as espresso.

I am also actively involved with La Marzocco International as a significant shareholder and member of the board. I love being a part of this historic company and its passion for excellence. From a tiny town outside of Florence, Italy, this company has global reach, respect and admiration. The people we meet along way really become family. Passion for the highest quality encompasses the entire organization both at our Italian facility and our US offices.

I’m not just coffee; I have a lot of other interests, activities, and passions. I love being outdoors and so I’m drawn to sports like cycling, skiing, sailing… I enjoyed cycling as a teenager, but there were no opportunities at school to really get involved with a group, so I planned long rides into the foothills and begged my parents to let me do them. I started cycling again seriously in my mid-forties mostly to ward off looming health issues and I love being in good enough shape to ride 100 miles round trip up the coast on back roads to Half Moon Bay for lunch and be back before dinner or to spend the weekend cycling up the high Sierra mountains.

There is nothing better than sharing a meal with your family and friends. I enjoy having a group up to my house for an evening meal on the deck. Or a big gathering of family, customers and workers at the factory in Italy.

I make a few barrels of wine each year with a group of friends. Harvest is a big celebration, we get up long before sunrise pick a couple thousands pounds of grapes by 9 or 10 am, drive home with the trucks filled to the brim, have a big lunch, spend the afternoon crushing the grapes and then we have a big evening meal on the porch and drink last years wine.

I’m lousy at self-promotion and tend to avoid the limelight. I’m looking for more than profit in my business ventures and seek depth in my interests, relationships and work.

Q: How and when did you get started in the coffee business?

A:I really got into coffee by happenstance. Like many people my age, my parents brewed coffee much like they cooked vegetables, by boiling the life out it. I was raised by strictly percolator folks. It took me ten years to get my mother to start drinking good coffee. A friend in college opened my eyes to good coffee in the mid-70’s. She had been out of town and came back with a tiny bag of coffee, fresh ground, some exotic name like “mocha java,” handwritten on the brown paper bag. There were not any coffee bars in Stockton, California in the seventies, but there were some in San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose.

After college I was doing pretty much handyman jobs, and substitute teaching to get by while I was figuring out what I wanted to do. Some friends were working at the only coffee bar in Santa Cruz and asked if I would look at a problem the espresso machine had. They had a manual in Italian and a schematic of the machine.

The coffee bar was behind a bookshop, so I picked-up an Italian/English dictionary and figured out I could probably fix it. That café started giving my name out as someone that knew how to fix espresso machines when other coffee bars started to opening in the Monterey and SF bay areas. I figured I would do it for a few years. That was 30 years ago.

Q: What jobs have you held in the industry?

A: I was a barista for the first coffee bar in Santa Cruz while I was waiting for espresso machines to be around to make a living. Other than that I have always worked for myself. My first bookkeeper wanted to give me a stone and chisel after seeing my books. I built brand recognition for Illy Caffe around the central coast of California in the mid-eighties up until 1999. I discovered La Marzocco and met Piero Bambi on my first trip to Italy in 1983 or so. I always fixed whatever machine a customer had, so I pretty much knew the strengths and weakness of all the equipment manufacturers. In 1985 I started working on the development of Puro Caff. In those days, there was not an espresso machine cleaner I felt was doing a good job and you could not get any chemical information on the European cleaning products. No one knew if they were even safe to use. I developed Puro Caff from the perspective that you needed this product to clean the inter-workings of the espresso machine, but the only way to find out if it was really doing it’s job was to take the machine apart and cut the brewing group in half. So the product had to do all the work AND rinse completely away, be food safe and not kill anyone if they mistakenly used it for coffee creamer. It took a couple of years to get the formula right. It took a year to sell the first batch.

When I developed my own brand of coffee and espresso I did all the product development, from what origins we would offer, the composition of the blends and the roast development of the coffee.

Q: What people and/or things inspire you, coffee-wise?

A: I am inspired by the people in coffee that are quietly changing the lives of people around the world in a manner that will impact the course of many generations to come.

True visionaries that look beyond their own balance sheets, that unite strangers and constantly extend their families. The coffee industry is blessed with many. Two that come to mind passed away in recent years: Ernesto Illy and Alain Rastrelly. I am inspired by people like Tim Schilling, David Griswald, Aida Batlle, Piero Bambi. Tim’s work in Rwanda is a godsend in my eyes. It encompasses all my cherished values of what our real work is. And he is the first to admit he didn’t do it alone, I have always believed increasing quality at origin will provide a better living for the family farmer than any certification can or does. I think his work proves it. David is just one of the good individuals in the world. He truly has a passion (obsession?) for what he does that infects those around him, whether it is his people in his office or his contacts at origin, they are all inspired to excellence and a bigger picture. I spent an afternoon in 2006 at the SCAE Conference in Bern, walking around the show floor with Aida. She shared her story of discovering the great potential of her plantation in El Salvador. I was inspired by her simple devotion to excellence. Her unabashed approach of trial and error and her journey of discovering what the plantation knew all along.

Q: What would you like to see change in the industry?

A: Prices truly based on quality, at all points of exchange. Programs that help our poorest growers by helping them help themselves. Hotel coffee.

Q: If you were to die and come back as a drink, what drink would you be?

A: It is not good enough to come back as a drink; coffee is a much greater experience than that. It is more a matter of coming back as the favorite drink of someone you admire at a moment that would be most enriching to you both. I’d choose to be a morning cappuccino, on a sunny, cool morning in mountains, for someone who had just returned to his/her home, from a visit to a family farmer or village that had invited this person to come see the progress of the skills he/she had given this family or village. I would want to be that cup of coffee that accompanies a person when they reflect on the good they have brought the world. It not what drink you have that matters. Coffee is a language that crosses all cultures, barriers and borders.

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest contribution to coffee?

A: An unrelenting focus on improving quality in the cup.

Q: What do you think others would say is your greatest contribution to coffee?

A: Puro Caff

Q: What’s next for you?

A: More of the same, but I would like to schedule more bike rides along the way.

Q: Has coffee affected your “non-coffee” life? If so, in what ways?

A: Yes, coffee has really brought me a global community of friends, exposure to beautiful cultures, traditions. Many things I learn along the way, I try to incorporate into my own life.

Q: Who’s the person you’d most like to see us interview next?

A: Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Izaguirre, U.S. Mobile Army Coffee Roasters