New Orleans Sustainability: Alyssa Johnson and Undergrowth Coffee
In New Orleans, Louisiana, owner and general manager Alyssa Johnson roasts for the cafe-roastery Undergrowth Coffee on an MCR-2, 2 kilogram roaster. The roaster lives in a renovated pottery studio, fed by a gas line that used to fire the kiln.
Setting the Scene
Alyssa’s coffee career started at Finger Lakes Coffee Roasters in upstate New York, where she began as a catering manager. When she moved to New Orleans in 2018, she continued her coffee career as a barista for a local craft coffee shop. “They trained me from the ground up,” she says. When that company closed, she looked elsewhere for work, but found herself missing the coffee shop environment. So she worked for six years in a variety of cafes in New Orleans, eventually ending up in a management position.
Her beginning in roasting came during the pandemic, when she took home samples from Cafe Imports to turn and burn on her stovetop. At first the results weren’t great, but when she got her first taste of good home-roasted coffee, she decided to invest in education as a roaster. Much of her learning came through Mill City Roasters tutorials as well as resources from roasters like Scott Rao.
When the opportunity came to buy the 2-kilogram machine from Mill City Roasters, she took it, and launched Undergrowth Coffee.
The Way Up
Immediately, Alyssa knew what sort of space she wanted to create. New Orleans has a flourishing craft coffee scene: she knew there would be a market waiting, but that she would also have to find an angle unique to Undergrowth to flourish. She found that angle–or rather built it–in the Undergrowth cafe, which she filled with plants and art. The front of the cafe she dedicated solely to local creators: a commission-free gallery space where artists can sell their work.
The roastery and cafe developed alongside each other. The roastery focused on supplying the storefront with tightly-controlled, small-batch coffee from the MCR-2. “We focus on controlled profiles on a smaller level,” Alyssa says. “We wanted to be more intimate in what we were doing.”
Throughout Alyssa’s career, she’s seen many roasteries owned and operated by men, and found herself often the odd woman out. In creating her own company, she ensured that the cafe is a place that’s welcoming to all customers, as well as an intentional space to learn and grow with her community and staff. “Our cafe is completely queer-owned,” she says. “I wanted to create a safe pace for me to grow and for people like me.’
In the first year or so of business, Alyssa was the assistant roaster as well as the owner. She never expected becoming the front-facing person, since her passion in coffee is the science and chemistry of roasting. But the amount of work it took to direct Undergrowth’s evolution took her away from the back-end in early 2022, and ever since her work has been focused on guiding the team forward, where the company is making changes such as renovating the building and adding a full-service food menu to the cafe.
The operation’s changes come from Undergrowth’s efforts to keep an edge in an increasingly competitive market. The renovations will make the roastery more habitable in the summer, as well as host a bigger staff during Mardi Gras season. Their efforts have led to success in the area, with the cafe holding a top-three rating of all cafes in town.
Now, Alyssa believes it is time to increase the range of the company.In the summer of 2022, Undergrowth Coffee launched their eshop with the hope of expanding their customer base outside of New Orleans. The roastery’s focus has always been supplying the shop, but Alyssa foresees a digital presence helping the company attract more wholesale customers as well as a national audience.
During Undergrowth’s new period of digital growth, Alyssa will continue to ensure that the cafe can keep its small and local charm. It’s important to her that growth never outpace her control over the atmosphere and community focus.
The Undergrowth Coffee Menu
Undergrowth Coffee currently offers six single origins, five from Central America and one limited-edition Rwanda Agaseke, which comes from a woman-owned and -operated farm in the western region. It has notes of sweet potato, lemon, and warming spices, and has been the best-seller since its debut.
While the menu has mostly stayed in single-origin territory, the Undergrowth team has recently developed the Beaucoup Espresso Blend for cafe use as well as the Fais Do-Do Breakfast Blend for customers looking for an easy daily drinker. Both blends are available in the eshop.
The company uses a variety of importers, which Alyssa has chosen because of their social impact work as well as the quality of their coffees. She prefers smaller importers such as Artisan Coffee Imports and Mercon Specialty Coffee.
In the cafe, customers can order a traditional cafe menu as well as a plant-based food menu including breakfast and lunch options. Outside of the cow’s milk, which comes from local Mauthe Farms, every ingredient is made in-house, from coconut and oat milk to syrups, chai, and lemonade. “We are a sustainability-focused cafe,” Alyssa says.
Since adding a larger food menu, ingredient options for drinks have increased: an example of how Undergrowth grows with intention and control. Alyssa’s reasoning in keeping that control is twofold. For one, working with a team that never exceeds ten people means things can easily get overwhelming. And two, she’s seen companies outgrow their roots in sustainability and lose out on a high customer return rate. “We want to keep the heart in what we do,” she says.
In the past year or so, Undergrowth Coffee has not been immune to increasing supply chain costs that impact profit margins. To compensate, the operation has focused their sourcing on high-quality coffee from small importers, and raised their prices accordingly. The change was hard, but necessary; and Alyssa made sure to communicate the change to her customers before and during the switch. Positively, the new margins have added more budget for compensating the Undergrowth team. “We were careful to inform people,” she says. “We wanted to let them know the money was going to staff for providing quality service.”
Finishing renovations is priority number one for Undergrowth Coffee. Once renovations are complete, the roastery will reopen to the public and Alyssa will have more time to focus on developing the full-service food menu for the cafe.
Outside of the cafe, the biggest company goal is increasing national recognition, developing the eshop and digital presence of the brand, and adding a number of wholesale partnerships.
Ultimately, Alyssa does see a second brick-and-mortar in the future of the company, although it’s still unclear whether that will debut in New Orleans or elsewhere. As more plans come into focus, the priority will always remain on tight control of production to keep personality and sustainability in the company’s sights.