Through The Lens: Nicely

We spoke with three time Latte Art World Champ, LA coffee king, and city cyclist Nicely about starting one of Venice’s most loved coffee shops, VR cappuccinos (it’s the future, be ready) and the new spot on the block: Hooked Venice. Oh, and Legos of course. 

November 16, 2022

Clare: So, you’re Nicely, what does that name mean?

Nicely: Well, while I enjoy celebrating my full name and my Mom has always said "You had to learn the entire alphabet to spell your name you might as well use it." Nicely became a nickname that I earned in my senior year of High School. My best friends dubbed me Nicely after playing a character called Nicely Nicely Johnson in a musical called Guys and Dolls. The name really stuck when I started working at Espresso Vivace in Seattle. There was another Christopher there and I offered my nickname to avoid any confusion on the schedule. My manager and mentor Brian Fairbrother loved it and from then on was introducing me to everyone as Nicely.

C: So when did you get into coffee?

N: My mom moved me out to Seattle when I was about 15 years old. I first got in with a job at Starbucks at 16 and honestly I just fell in love with it. It was a great environment to show up to after school, sling drinks, listen to music, and yuk it up with people. Eventually I fell into this place that ended up being really pivotal for the coffee industry in general, Espresso Vivace. There I decided to dedicate myself to coffee. It's founder David Schomer is credited with being the godfather in the United States of some of those pretty designs you see in coffee called Latte Art. It had definitely been around for a while already, but the focus on featuring it as a part of the service began there. David Schomer and his team at Espresso Vivace were some of the first to breakdown espresso technique and drink preparation, write a book on it, make a video showing it, and utilize something called PID control which keeps an espresso machine’s brewing temperature within a half degree. We know now temperature's stability while making coffee is really important. David's research and impact on coffee can be felt since now nearly every espresso machine since like the year 2000 has that technology. It was an awesome place to grow up a little thanks to a whole cast characters willing to nurture and support me during some formative years.

C: That kind of brings me into one of my questions, you’re a Latte Art Champion, but that was before instagrammable coffee and coffee shops became big. What are your thoughts on the current Instagram coffee culture? You were on the forefront of the third wave coffee movement, right, so was that exciting or frustrating for you when that blew up?

N: I think Third Wave as a concept was established at least five or six years before I got into it.

  • Ocean and San
  • Ocean and San

C: What year was that?

N: I really got into specialty coffee in 2004, 2005, and I think you really saw that term being thrown around in maybe 2000 or something. I think around 2003 is when it started getting widley circulated as a term. I know and worked with people doing this style of coffee years before me.

C: But it was still kind of an underground thing at the time?

N: Latte Art geekdom was totally an underground thing. I was encouraged by another mentor at that time, April Pollard to keep a little digital point and shoot camera in my apron. This was right around the time that camera phones were just starting to come out. I remember some of the first few snaps that I took of my latte art that I was really pumped about was with my first flip phone, the camera was maybe one point three megapixel quality. Latte Art was once described to me as a snowflake or one of one piece of art. I loved documenting my pours for the sake of replaying in my mind how I produced that pour. I would mentally dissect the moment later and focus on replicating what I thought was working on my next shift. I wasn’t even thinking at that time how they were going to be shared. When I learned there was a community sharing them on things like Flickr or Barista Exchange or Rate My Rosetta, I was like, oh that’s kinda cool! Now I can see that someone in NY, Texas, Japan, Detroit, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Korea to name a few are doing it too! Then by geeking with those people I felt that we were building a community of people pushing each other to get better. This motivated people to improve cause we would constantly see and be inspired to try what each other was doing! Initially I felt like I was a part of a family tree that I really wanted to keep sacred. Like you had to work with me and know me to learn how I do what I do. Then I started to wrap my head around the fact that knowledge not shared is wasted. Additionally when I was realizing that I was one of the few black or brown people geeking or existing in the specialty coffee environment, I felt an intense desire and responsibility to make sure people could see more people like myself in this industry. The feeling being if they saw me and could relate to me, hopefully they could see themself loving and enjoying the same space. When Instagram came around I kinda felt like I was already enjoying the benefits of social media. Instagram just sorta poured gas on a fire. Sometimes I wish I would have dedicated to growing that presence more as I am familiar with a few folks who have. It's pretty much a whole job now.... which maybe takes a little away from the initial fun there was when it was new. Can't say I am too frustrated by it. I don't love that at times the "Instagram culture" feels entitled to record and photograph without permission. I think there is still something wonderfully polite about being asked if a photo or video is okay. Sometimes I be feeling crunchy or over caffeinated and don't wanna be on camera. But looking past that, Social media definitely helped me find and feel kinship around the world.

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  • Ocean and San

C: For cyclists, a lot of destinations and pit stops for rides are coffee shops. And coffee shops are often valued for their community space as much as they are for their coffee. Does that idea hold true for you in what you’re trying to create? or is coffee the priority?

N: Oh no it’s crucial! Immensely crucial. They ought to work in tandem. I’m trying to think of all of the qualifiers to express not only the community aspect but how pivotal cycling has been even in my own ascension in my career. When I was in Seattle, I remember revering some of the baristas I was working with, seeing them show up on their bicycles like superheroes to their shifts. One of my mentors had bikes hanging in the shop. Pretty much everyone I worked with rode a bike. If you really love being a barista, you choose things lifestyle-wise that are affordable and within your reach, and cycling is one of those things. I remember moving down to LA with this Frankenstein of a bicycle built by my dear friend Shea Byfield. Getting parts stolen all the time as I was learning in LA it's a hustle. Then there was this guy who worked at Orange Twenty, this guy named Kyle who ended up leaving and starting this place called Golden Saddle Cyclery, my favorite bicycle shop period. Talk about community! He recognized that this young barista who just moved to LA is having all his shit stolen, he’s grinding, no pun intended, just doing what he can to get around in a new city. There was one moment where my crank broke and the $200 dollars to replace it was devastating to my budget. Kyle was able to front me a crank so that I could continue to get myself to work. For him to be willing to believe in me and believe in a community he was fostering out of his shop, has constantly stood as the kindness I'll always want a place I am associated with to be capable of. That gesture in turn allowed me to be able to get to the places where I was responsible for a community. So for me, bicycling, good coffee, and community are crucial. I definitely have a dream in my heart for a Lego coffee shop to feel the same way.

C: Really?

N: True story, I love Lego.

C: And what would that look like

N: Lego top to bottom, there would be surfaces to build on, the bags of coffee would look like lego bricks, the cups would have buildable surfaces on them, there would be mini figures everywhere, an area for kids to build while parents have a beverage session, vintage lego sets for sale, and a rotating gallery of builds from the community. Until then, I wondered what’s gonna be out there for me?

  • Ocean and San
  • Ocean and San
  • Ocean and San
  • Ocean and San

C: So tell me a little about how you started Hooked.

N: Hooked has been years in the making and I didn't even know it! I had a near death experience last year while I was still at Menotti's Coffee Stop. I helped found Menotti's nine years ago and definitely got swept up into the every day hustle of business ownership and operation. At the onset of the pandemic I learned I wasn't actually an owner of Menotti's. I was laid off like everyone else, but I returned to work after threeish weeks of being closed to help navigate it out of the uncertainty of wondering if our coffee stop would survive once the initial fear of the pandemic waned. I'm still blown away and appreciative of all the support of our community to help us get through that time. It feels like it’s common for a lot of businesses to exploit certain talents to establish brands or open up places, to breathe life into communities, but not necessarily compensate the talent or make sure they're written into the framework or structure so that it feels sustainable for them as a life or as a career. It happens in restaurants, bars, and lots of industries all the time. The health scare put into perspective for me that I almost died, and if I died today, all my kids would have of me are videos and pictures, what have I really left for them? It became clear that I wasn’t really a priority for the principal ownership to clarify my stake at Menotti’s or negotiate the stake that I thought I was deserving of, so I started putting up the antenna for the next gig. I never left the west side, Venice is definitely home, but an opportunity presented itself to help with Dayglow on the east side. Amazing experience, but ultimately the drive to the east side, two hours of commuting a day, was not feeling awesome. I was in a car all the time, it wasn't even like I was getting to ride my bicycle out that way. It was definitely starting to weigh on the experience of being there and making the fit a bit more challenging. I was expressing that to my co-parent who works here [at Dudley Market] at night and we've known the owners of this space for a long time, Connor and Dina. Conner, I've been serving coffee to for the better part of 12 years, since I worked at Intelligentsia, so we've always been super familiar with each other. He's always been super supportive and in 2018 he asked me to help with the daytime service here. I was busy running Menottis and I was on set as the barista for cast and crew for Top Gun 2. I didn't have the bandwidth for him. But we've always stayed tight. So my co-parent reminded me of that conversation, and was like "that place is sitting there empty during the daytime and it's closed 2 days a week, you should hit them up since you're not really enjoying the commute." And I was like, ‘you know, you're right.’ They’ve got a machine, a grinder, some space for people to sit, and they’ve got a nice record collection, I think I could make this work! And if there's a side of town that, so to speak, ‘gets me’, and where I've had the ability to help create a community, it's the west side. It feels more genuine. So I called up Connor and said ‘can we talk about getting it together?’ And he was like "man I've been dying to make this happen, whatever you want to do, do it." So he's been adamant about being this is your business, knowing what my experience has been before. So for me it felt like the universe was like, dude you need to figure out your own shit. In working with Connor I wanted to borrow a lot of inspiration from the place. Dudley Market features a fresh line caught fish menu, we got natural wines around us, there's something to the idea that we’re all a little addicted to coffee or wine or music or good vibes, so "Hooked" popped out and kinda made sense with that maritime inspiration. So Hooked Venice is what we got: coffee, wine, and good vibes.

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C: So what do you think the fourth wave, or the next wave of coffee will be?

N: It feels like it's gonna have something to with meta stuff or maybe bitcoin?

C: Like VR coffee?

N: Yeah, VR coffee. I think there could be something to people enjoying at least the community aspect at virtual coffee shops. In the same way we have chat rooms you know what I’m saying. I could see the virtual representation of their favorite coffee shop that they all can’t make it to. It'd be cool if there were digital representations of what they would order and can connect with their people. I would love to find a way to make sure my latte art is on those drinks that they serve! Fourth wave stands to be defined, but not recognizing that technology will have something to do with it would be silly. My only hope is that it doesn’t come at the cost of the community. How it galvanizes people or ideas should always be a component to the curation. For the sake of those moments that we have to connect with each other in a very genuine way and remind each other that we are all human and that we all do deserve to be seen, these are important places that give a lot of people the safety to do that, and I hope that continues.