Interview with Sparkroot’s Ari Shapiro

August 26, 2011
By Adam Lehrman

When I heard that Ari Shapiro was planning on opening up a cafe in downtown Tucson called Sparkroot serving Blue Bottle coffee, I almost got on top of the nearest building with a bullhorn to proclaim Tucson’s victorious rise into the upper echelons of third wave coffee, scattering the ash residue of Folgers cans all over the place. But, I contained myself.

I even contained myself through Sparkroot’s soft opening the Friday before their grand opening on a Monday. That containment had more to do with lack of knowledge than desire, but who’s taking notes? On their grand opening, however, I was the first one in the door. I proudly walked in, tattered four one dollar bills in hand, and ordered the most marvelous Blue Bottle Coffee Co. cappuccino I had experienced in three years. And I went back every day that week.

Being a new regular, I met Ari Shapiro, the passionate Sparkroot owner also responsible for the Xoom Juice stores scattered about town (as well as a few doors down from Sparkroot). We spoke at length about his original vision for Sparkroot, the revitalization of downtown Tucson, and what his distant (but not too distant) future holds.

Tell me a little bit about how Sparkroot came to be.

Ari: The concept for Sparkroot had been mulching in the recesses of my mind for several years. I’ve always been intrigued by the third wave of coffee that’s happening now and the specialty roasters such as Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Blue Bottle. I love the idea of a coffee shop as – to quote the great Howard Schultz – a “third place.” And, I was intrigued by the idea of having a really great space, really great coffee, and integrating aspects of a restaurant and bar into that without being any of the above in pure form but rather an amalgamation.

I’ve had this idea for years and this space became available to me, being that Xoom juice is just two doors down. I thought that the bones of this space architecturally fit this concept well. It just sort of steamrolled from there.

And how did the relationship with Blue Bottle come to fruition?

They were kind of a bottom of the ninth move on my part. Originally I was in talks with someone local – Cartel. I love Cartel. I visited their shop a lot up in Tempe, I developed a relationship with their owner Jason, who’s a great guy and their completely doing it right. For the record, I’m a businessman but I believe in friendly, healthy competition and that a vibrant marketplace is one in which everyone’s raising the bar and challenging other companies to raise the bar, as well. I think Cartel is right there. However, when I realized they were going to have a pretty significant presence in Tucson themselves, I thought it would be better to separate Sparkroot from Cartel.

They’re about the only other one in town doing this at a similar level…

You could say that Luce is, but Luce has a little bit of a different angle as far as the third wave of doing the pour overs, concentrating on execution and service, relationships with the farms, and so forth.

I was very close to bringing in Intelligentsia. It was going to be Intelligentsia, basically, but Intelligentsia had been in Tucson before with Avenue.

And Jason Calhoon?

Exactly – Jason Calhoon with the cart (Cafe VanGo) and then at Avenue, which was pre-Cartel before Avenue got into a relationship with Cartel.

I have to tell you, I’m a little partial to Blue Bottle.

I was always partial to Blue Bottle, myself, but I never thought it was an option. It’s funny because I usually think all things are on the table, but they’re a lot smaller than Intelligentsia who has national wholesale accounts. Blue Bottle had wholesale accounts in California – primarily Northern California – and the one little shop in Brooklyn. I just didn’t think that it would make sense. I didn’t think they had the reach for it. Then at the last minute I sent them an email, got in touch with their wholesale director, Luisa Alberto, and the rest is history. We were very simpatico, and it worked out. I adore Blue Bottle. Not just their coffee, but their company, as well. There’s something intangible about it.

They have a deep passion for what they do.

They do. Maybe it’s because they’re a little bit younger as a company than the other roasters such as Stumptown and Intelligentsia. I originally talked to Stumptown way back, who are really cool, and huge. They were really the first to put the whole third wave thing on the map.

The point is you can look at making a coffee decision like this as strictly a binary decision. What kind of roast do I want? What kind of flavor profile? But I think that there’s more to it than that. I think that there are these intangible elements. There was just something about Blue Bottle, their people, and their ethos that really struck a chord with me. It’s been an absolutely phenomenal partnership so far.

I remember the location in the center of downtown SF has a light-siphon. Any plans to do something like that?

Not really. That’s a little too ahead of the curve right now. My big challenge is introducing the Tucson marketplace and Southern Arizona to Blue Bottle. Already we’re finding there’s an education in terms of the single cup pour overs and the double shots that we pull, so I think that bringing in the siphon right now would be a little over the top.

Clearly you’ve been supportive of downtown and revitalizing it. Xoom was one of the first in this building when it opened up. Where do you see things going with this whole area and where would you like to see things go?

I have always had my eye on downtown. I’m an urban guy at heart. I think that every great city – and Tucson’s a great city – needs a good downtown. A few years back I had the opportunity to move one of my Xoom locations downtown and I went for it. I was an early adopter on this east block of Congress and that gave me a vantage point of what was happening down here.

I think that the biggest change I perceived is that the change we all wanted has moved a little from the civic to the private arena. Developers such as Scott Stiteler who owns this building, and Fletcher McClusker – once they started investing in downtown it paved the way for small businesses such as myself, Kade Mislinski from Hub, Travis Reece from 47 Scott, and Janos Wilder. I think the pivot point has occurred. And, I think for the last couple of years it’s starting this feed-off-each-other process where the civic is coming back into it. There’s the modern streetcar. You could even wrap the U of A into it, making investments downtown, and building student housing. I think we’re at an amazing juncture.

So, this is probably the last thing on your mind. You have Sparkroot, you have Xoom, Is there anything else that you want to do in the next five years?

I’m really satisfied right now. Xoom has made a nice impact in Tucson, it’s going to be 10 years on October 23rd, and it’s been a wonderful decade. Sparkroot is my pride and joy right now. It’s really come off wonderfully. If I was expecting it to be a 10, it goes to 11. Thanks to Nigel from Spinal Tap for that reference. But since you asked the question, I’ll force myself to answer it.

I only have one dream left in terms of business and that’s to one day go to Italy for about a half a year, train on how to make authentic Napoletano pizza, and open up a small, semi-hole-in-the-wall. Four different pies only. I’m really inspired by places like Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.

I think that what’s happening right now in the food establishment sector is brilliant. We’re still dominated by your chain restaurants, but I think that there’s a great micro-market happening where people that have a passion for something, whether it’s great coffee, great pizza -whatever it is – they’re opening these incredibly artisan, small scale places that are doing well. And the market is supporting them.

* * *

Speaking of support, if you haven’t made it to Sparkroot, give it a try. They have a great menu in addition to the coffee, with creative salads including ingredients such as quinoa, roasted beets, baby arugula, and kale. Their imaginative Pressed Cheese Sandwiches on Ciabatta feature cheeses such as gruyere, fontina, double creme brie and chevre. And of course, they feature great coffee.

 Along with Sparkroot, Ari is the owner of Xoom Juice, and now Falora and Sidecar.

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