Exo Roast Co. & El Crisol mezcal bar share intertwined mission for community building

January 30, 2020
By Angela Orlando
By Angela Orlando

More than a coffee shop & mezcal bar.

Tucson is home to plenty of businesses that simultaneously want to thrive as self-sustaining entities and help provide for our community. With Exo Roast Co. and their newer endeavor El Crisol mezcal bar, Doug Smith and Amy Smith continue to realize their intent to give back on levels ranging from in-house to international. From the start of their intertwined endeavor, they’ve made manifest their mission to decolonize foodways while staying grounded in place.

Ties with Mexico

Doug has a long connection to Mexico, having conducted anthropology research with indigenous small-scale producers there throughout his postgraduate years at Stanford. Early on in his doctoral studies, he worked with a mezcal cooperative called Sanzekan Tinemi, which continues today. Later, he went to work with coffee growers and producers with whom he still conducts direct trading.

“I maintain constructive ties with Mexico and pursue new ties, especially in this current period of fear and loathing. [I believe in] equity, and helping provide a better stake for the least advantaged producers in a market,” Doug said.

Doug Smith and Amy Smith at El Crisol Bar
Doug Smith and Amy Smith at El Crisol Bar (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Specifically, he focuses his efforts in Mexico on growing and restoring heirloom agave varietals, assisting with watershed management, and various women’s projects.

“Meanwhile, we’re trying to make food as local as possible. We’ve always valued that from the beginning,” he said.

Amy began working in the coffee business at a young age. She hails from Salem, Oregon but spent time in the Southwest throughout her life. Amy moved here because grandfather had roots here, she said.

“I was always attracted to desert spaces, and I have fallen in love with Tucson [because of its] diversity,” she said. She moved to Tucson in 2004 and started teaching ninth-grade English and Humanities at City High School the subsequent year. At City High, she said, they enacted “a place-based mission, with a goal of creating community connections, bringing in community partners, and Downtown pre-revitalization.”

Interior at Exo Roast Co. (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Interior at Exo Roast Co. (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Doug and Amy were in the Pacific Northwest at the same time, but their paths didn’t intercept until they met in Tucson in 2010. They knew their personalities were aligned: both value project-based learning. The cafe Exo Roast Co. followed shortly thereafter, opening in 2012 (Exo had been a coffee roastery since 2009).

The intertwined mission

Exo and now El Crisol, in the back of the building, embody what Amy called her and Doug’s shared innate curiosity.

“It would be boring to just run a coffee shop or a mezcal bar,” she said.

And they don’t. Exo and El Crisol are sites of education, collaboration, and community-building. Fittingly, crisol translates to “crucible” — a term applicable both to the process of mezcal-making and the warm conviviality that the space provides. “A mezcal program is obviously distinct from coffee but the mission is the same,” Doug said. “We’re naming the theme under Exo’s aegis.”

Interior at Exo Roast Co. / El Crisol Bar (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Interior at Exo Roast Co. / El Crisol Bar (Credit: Jackie Tran)
El Crisol mezcal bar

When they first acquired the part of the building now housing El Crisol, the couple envisioned Southern Arizona Work Space (SAWS), hence the rustic decor featuring wood, metal, and implements. SAWS held such events as fermentation workshops using Emory oak acorns, Sky Island Alliance and Watershed Management events, and adobe brick workshops.

“[We started SAWS] as Trump was about to get elected—or got elected,” Doug said. “We wanted to collectively figure out what ways we can become more resilient in this epoch.”

“We wanted to offer real practical knowledge to help create a more resilient city,” Amy noted.

Changing the space to a bar rendered it more conducive to social gatherings, Doug said, adding that “mezcal wasn’t an afterthought (to coffee): we’re marrying the two for sure.” They continue to hold frequent educational and entertainment events in the space.

The duo’s mission is fortified with the addition. It expands their investment in endeavors in Mexico as well.

Cultural appropriation and appreciation

“Cross-border collaboration is one of the things we come together on: a shared interest celebrating this place as a place,” Doug said. “We are not ignoring that this is indigenous land and was (later) Mexico. It’s a delicate balance of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. [We recognize that] none of the techniques or ingredients [we use] are things that we invented.”

Amy agreed. “We don’t claim heritage to the area,” she said, “but we feel very rooted in place. It can be challenging these days to kind of walk the line between that place of consciousness and wanting to revive or support what comes out of this region on the one side, and on the other side, worrying about cultural appropriation.”

Decolonizing the food system

It’s important to “keep local farmers afloat” as well, Doug said. To do their part, the Smiths work with local suppliers such as Pivot Produce and Barrio Bread, using only seasonal ingredients in their breakfasts and cocktails. Their eggs come from free-range chickens in Cochise County, and they scramble for chiltepins from Sonora.

“Whether the good happens is always up for debate. That’s the hard thing about philanthropy,” Doug said. “[We’re] certainly not the type of business people who need to maximize revenues. We don’t work according to conventional arithmetic. We take a little hit and, while I feel like ‘decolonizing’ is one of these words like ‘resilience’ that has been thrown around a lot lately, decolonizing our food system as much as possible is something we strive for.”

Interior at Exo Roast Co. / El Crisol Bar (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Interior at Exo Roast Co. / El Crisol Bar (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I’m a white person. My family is from Northern Europe… I don’t claim any heritage to any of this (Sonoran Desert gastronomy), but this celebrating this place and the foods that come from this place, is really important to our mission,” he said.

“And our head chef Rusty, influenced by indigenous roots, is interested in indigenous food. They do really great inventive work with desert foods,” Amy said. “Our barrel cactus jam is so good. And Rusty made up the bellota croissant, which is like an almond croissant but using acorns.”

The Smiths are also decolonizing on the hyperlocal level, within their business. Employee retention and health are important to them. They value paying their workers a liveable wage, and enact their respect for diversity in the workplace and the community.

Interior at Exo Roast Co. / El Crisol Bar (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Interior at Exo Roast Co. / El Crisol Bar (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“Just for example, we closed on Thanksgiving because our staff wanted to be with family, but we use the language ‘closed on Thursday,’” Amy said. “Thanksgiving has a traumatic effect on some people in our community.”

Location and hours

Exo Roast Co., located at 403 N. Sixth Ave., is open from 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily. El Crisol, located off Seventh St. behind the coffee shop, is open from 6 – 10 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays and 6 – 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Don’t miss the weekly public mezcal tasting on Thursdays at 7 p.m. Otherwise, hour-long tastings are offered by appointment between 6 and 9 p.m. on Wednesday and Sunday evenings.

For more information, visit exocoffee.com.

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