Panther's Joel and Leticia Pollock on Changing Local Coffee Culture: "There Aren't Baristas Falling Off Trees in Miami"

What began in a hip little shop in a once-blighted neighborhood has morphed into a drink that discerning diners seek in restaurants across Miami. First brewed in 2011, Panther Coffee has become required drinking for owners who aspire to greatness.

Sure, places might buy produce from Homestead and pork links from Miami Shores' Proper Sausages, but if the beans don't come from the Wynwood miracle, your place is unlikely to make the cut.

Panther owners Joel and Leticia Pollock have undertaken a Herculean effort to reform Miami, long a town solely of Starbucks and café con leche. Nothing is wrong with that more common stuff, but the Pollocks have built their business from nothing. They had to train locals before they could usher in a wave of change.

See also: Panther Coffee Opening in Coconut Grove

After the couple moved to Miami in the late '00s — driving 3,000 miles from Portland with a pre-World War II German Probat coffee roaster in tow — they endured endless headaches. Chief among them was finding the people to turn their carefully sourced and roasted beans into coffee.

"There aren't baristas falling off trees in Miami, you know," Leticia Pollock tells New Times. So they built an extensive training program to turn a handful of caffeine fiends into tested and trained pros. Panther's 40-page guide reads more like a how-to for synthesizing pharmaceuticals than a path to extracting perfect espresso from precisely pulverized beans that come from farmers in the jungles of Latin America. Recipes are laid out in grams and include second-by-second brewing guidance. There's a chart plotting grind size against water volume and brew time to help find the sweet spot — what Panther calls "dialing in" — for the perfect cup.

All of this careful planning laid the groundwork for becoming a legendary commercial roaster. Stated at the top of that training guide is the Pollocks' vision to "be among the top five specialty coffee companies in the world." In addition to the Perfekt roaster that's the coup de grâce of their Wynwood café, an even larger apparatus awaits installation in a forthcoming Little Haiti shop that will be the hub for servicing more than 70 buyers. At the moment, they're using a temporary space for commercial roasting and training. But ensuring the café's baristas are dialed in is one thing; keeping tabs on dozens of restaurants with varying levels of expertise and knowledge is a whole different game.

"Depending on what they're serving and how involved they want to be in coffee, we see how deep we're going to go," Pollock says. More than two dozen trainers work constantly with restaurants, teaching and refreshing how to grind and brew. It's not uncommon for Panther to undertake 20, 30, even 50-hour training programs, though the decision falls mostly to the customer and what they want."

Trainers complete reports that detail when they visit restaurants and what happens. The biggest issue, and one that can benefit even home roasters, is machine maintenance.

"Equipment cleanliness is always a challenge," she says. "It needs to be cleaned all the time." If you plan to buy a new piece of equipment, she adds, get a better grinder.

Restaurants can sign on to replicate as many or as few of Panther's brews as they like. French press and cold brew? Easy. Chemex and Clever? Done. Panther doesn't dictate what style brews restaurants can carry and allows them to be as knee-deep or hands-off in selecting the actual beans. What's most important are the values that the Pollocks try to instill in everyone they work with. Those values rest at the top of Panther's training manual. Everyone is encouraged to continually improve, to work together, and to always be eager to learn more.

"We try not to shove things down people's throats," Pollock says. "We want to work with like-minded people who believe in quality and care about the product and preparation."

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson