As most of you know, we love to travel. We are always going somewhere, whether it’s just for the weekend or on a longer vacation to some remote island somewhere. We love traveling, seeing the world, and experiencing different cultures. One of those trips we recently made was to Louisville, Kentucky. It’s not far, maybe two hours from our place, and offered us a nice getaway before winter. While we were there, we danced in some clubs, sipped craft brew at some local pubs, took in a tour of the baseball stadium, and visited some local breweries. But the highlight of our trip came when we discovered Derby City Espresso. (We actually found it on foursquare.) When you walk in, you are just surrounded by unique decor… the walls are covered in nothing specific and there are beer bottles everywhere. That’s when you meet Matt, the bartender. He is also the barista. He also owns the place. Oh yeah, and he lives there! Did I mention he is the ONLY employee? Anyway, we talked for hours, became quick friends, and have since been back to visit him on a lazy Saturday afternoon. After meeting Matt, I just knew I had to learn more about him. So I scheduled an interview with him during our second trip south. It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you to one of the most well rounded and most traveled persons I know… Matt Landan, the owner and operator of Derby City Espresso.
I first learned about this place on foursquare. You are also utilizing Twitter and Facebook. How has social media changed the way you operate?
This business has come along with the age of social media. I have used social media since I opened the place nearly five years ago. If anything, I think it’s not that my social media strategy is changing, but… I don’t have a strategy. If anything I am doing less social media than I once did. I used to post a lot more. I now post a lot less.
There is a moment that is happening with social media… people are turning it off. People are saying, “This is the time of day I will do this.” People are coming in here and turning off their social media when they come in. They are having real human interaction. Don’t get me wrong, social media is good… it’s a great way to get your word out. The best media campaign I ran was a sticker campaign with just the logo. I had so many people pointing at my logo, saying, “What is that?” Then they found out what it was and were less impressed.
I have so many things I want to ask you. Let’s just start from the top. You used to work at Whole Foods as a coffee buyer. What does a day in the life of a coffee buyer look like?
I pretty much cut a lot of cheese… I also worked at the cheese counter. The coffee buying is not like being the seafood buyer. It’s a small section of the store. You are responsible for the orders and stocking of the coffee and tea products. You also stock coffee items, including glassware. Working for Whole Foods Market pretty much sucks. It was my second time working with them. In 1994, in their very first store outside of the southwest, in Chicago… it was a fun place to work back then. But it sucked. It was part of the reason that I opened this place. I hated that job. I hated it.
I used to do PR for General Motors three days a week. Then I moved back from Europe to work at Whole Foods… I was a kid who had no college degree making ten bucks an hour. I doubled their coffee sales, and they didn’t compensate me for it at all… and I was still getting paid crap. On top of that, Whole Foods does not recycle. They are a terrible company. They are not what people perceive them to be. They grew at such a rapid pace, and they made so much money on the stock market; they kept buying other grocery store chains.
You sell coffee, tea, and beer here at Derby City Espresso. What’s your favorite coffee? Favorite coffee drink?
I like African for single origins. Kenyan and Tanzania… and Yemenite coffee is very nice. I like mocha from Mocha, Yeman. I like all kinds of origins of coffee. I don’t think much about it since I only serve roasted espresso blends here. That would have been a better question to ask me when I was at Whole Foods. I used to come into a huge variety of coffee working there.
In terms of coffee drinks, I love to drink cappuccino…. If it’s made properly that is. This can be any variety of coffee. As a matter of fact, after this beer I am probably going to make myself a cup of cappuccino before I go on the scooter ride.
Do you prefer coffee, tea, or beer?
At this point in my life, I prefer beer. Definitely beer… I am more of a night guy, and I only drink one or two coffees a day. It’s become the business focus, my beverage of choice. Beer has transformed my life.
You used to live overseas as a translator. First off, how many languages do you speak? Also, I want to hear more about your time in Europe.
I speak three languages. English, fluent Italian, and conversational German. I moved to Europe after graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. I went there to become a journalist. I had fallen in love with the idea of being and living in Italy. I lived in Italy for just under two years. I worked first for a newspaper as an intern, then working on the newswire reporting stock market information in Milan.
Then I was very lucky… one of the stories that I did for the newspaper came back, and the company was a technology company. They were the primary technology firm. I did a story on voice synthesis and voice recognition technology. They were pioneers in the field. They hired me to be their translator. I spoke and wrote Italian so I could both speak and write Italian, and write and speak English. I spent a year with them as an intern. I was paid about 24,000 Euro. It was a nice little life in Italy.
The company was then sold, and I had developed a relationship with a woman in Germany. My manager was up for renewal and he didn’t have the authority to hire me again, so I ended up working for Deutsche Telekom as a freelancer. It was the best paid job of my life. I was paid 200 Euro a day… I did that for a few months, and then went to work for a small PR firm in Frankfurt. They used me for a position they had with General Motors in Europe. I worked at GM Europe corporate headquarters as a translator and PR guy. I would take a press kit written for German folk and translate to English.
The decorations make this place so unique. Does every piece have a story? How do you pick a new piece of memorabilia to hang on the wall?
Everything has a story. Most everything… there are a few that I don’t know what their stories are. I don’t really pick the stuff anymore. People give me stuff… all my stuff is up already. I am relying on the world and the universe to bring me stuff. Now, the only new stuff that I hang up are beer neons. I have collected quite a few since I started selling beer. I am really into neon, video games, and pinball machines.
So… parrots? What are their names? Do you have any other pets?
Pebbles and Bam Bam are their names and there is a turtle that lives on the back patio… his name is Dan.
Let me get this straight… You also live here? I bet that keeps overhead low. And you’re the only employee? That can’t hurt!
I had to move into the shop when my girlfriend dumped me. The business was so young I couldn’t really afford an apartment. The first year, after I opened it, I lived with her. Then we broke up, and I moved here. There is a little room above the bathroom. But I don’t really live here anymore.
I am actually quite happy with that. It was a little confining living and working in the same place. It made my life very narrow in some ways. At the same time, I was always the little boy who would retreat to my room. Fine, I am confined to my room? That’s fine… it was the best room in the word. Living and working in the same area is great if you love what you do. And I do…. I can’t love everything all the time. That’s just irrational. But it wasn’t so bad. I lived in here for over two years. 350 nights a year I would sleep in the exact same place I would work. I would wake up, walk downstairs and go to work.
So what happens if you want to leave town or get sick? You just leave town? (I know that businesses in Europe do that, but rarely here in the states do you see that.)
I don’t really get sick. I am fortunate to have my health. If I feel bad, sometimes I just don’t open. If I feel like I don’t really want to see or serve people… I will skip classes and close the show. On my vacations I just close the shop. I am fortunate enough to make enough 11 months of the year, I can afford a month vacation. I like to travel.
What’s your high score on Jungle Lord?
2.8 million. The actual high score on the game was set by my pinball machine repair friend. He comes in, fixes my game, and sets the high scores on them. He competes on another level.
You used to work at Wrigley Field. Are you a Cubs fan?
I am a Cubs fan. I am pretty ambivalent these days. I mean, it’s been 39 seasons in my life that I have seen the Cubs lose. I don’t expect the team to win. There is no better place in the world to see a ballgame. But I liked working there… sitting in the bleachers watching batter practice with no one else in the ballpark. That was the summer of the strike in 1994… I only got to work half the season. I have also worked the new Komiske Park, or Cingular Field, where the White Sox play.
You have traveled all over the world? What made you settle down here, in Louisville?
I don’t know. I really want to leave that one a mystery.
Being your own boss has to have perks. Also being able to select all your own coffee, tea and beers. Do you try everything you sell first? What’s the process like when you blow a keg? Do you just fill it with whatever you want?
I do try everything first, for the most part. I roast my own coffee, so I don’t know exactly when I buy the beans how its going to come out after I roast it. I am not the best roaster around, I am still teaching myself. But with the beer I pretty much know what I am getting. I am always trying new beers, but I know something about the style… the brewery, I can have a leading expectation about the beer, even if I have never had it before I buy a case or a keg.
The philosophy on the beer is rotation rotation rotation… never buy the same thing twice unless you have a deal with a brewery. You can’t… there’s so much variety and so many breweries. Why would you bring in the same beer case after case year after year when you can have something different? It might be the same style… but why not just collect beers? I collect tap handles solely based on the tap handles I want. And/or the rarity of the beer.
You used to be a Dead Head. That has to have produced some stories. Tell me one… Maybe your most memorable experience as a Dead Head.
Dead Head story… I don’t know. Several years after Jerry Garcia died, I was living in Oregon working as an intern at a public radio station in Eugene… while I was in college. I got to meet Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and hang out with this guy. I saw them for about six years, went to more than 100 shows, did my fair share of psychedelic drugs… actually had my consciousness expanded bit by bit. Many years later, after the whole phenomenon ended, and I had moved on with my life, to meet the guy who was there when it all started, and to get to befriend him… I never did LSD with Ken Kesey… (laughs) I should say that… but I did get to drink red wine with him. That sums up the whole Grateful Dead thing. Your dreams can come true.
Ken was very influential and that led to a lifestyle. It influenced my selection of drugs that I would do. Years after it ends, to have it be the epilogue to that story… sums up the sort of experience. That is what Grateful Dead was about. It was mind over matter. If you want to meet famous, or interesting people… what kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a magical world where everything you think becomes a reality… or do you want to work for Whole Foods?
You have a lot of local music in here… You’re also an all ages venue. How do you pick what bands to book?
I have a lot of regular musicians that I work wth; Louisville musicians. I know a lot of guys… and it’s a pool I go back to . A lot of people choose me. I get a lot of requests from a lot of out of town bands. It’s a challenge to book what you want to book. It always happens when you have a weekend that you just can’t book. On those prime real estate days… I will book anything. I have the most open booking policy in the city. I am the only person doing all ages shows in the city… besides maybe house parties. When we do underage bands, when I give kids the opportunity, it’s exclusively on the door basis. They need to guarantee me money. If I can’t sell enough beer, I can’t justify it being worth my time. That’s the challenge.
According to your wall, you have been to a ton of shows. Is it possible to pick a favorite show? Maybe the most memorable performance you’ve ever seen.
I have had so many memorable experiences at shows… going to see live music was my way of life even after I was not able to see the Grateful Dead. I have seen a ton of great shows since I came home from Europe… let me think. Seeing Roger Waters in 2006 at Deer Creek. I saw him do Dark Side of the Moon… and it blew my mind. Literally… six months later I opened up this place.
I love the Derby City Espresso logo. Who designed that? It’s just so simple, and clean.
A designer who used to live in Louisville, who now lives in LA, named Bill Green designed the logo. It’s our initials you can see the three initially… the D, the C, and the E. A lot of people like to think it means other things, or like to speculate what it means. He is now the primary designer for the Lebowski Fest. They are celebrating their 10 year anniversary this year, and will be doing a cast reunion. They will all be there… Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. Anyway, Bill Green is the lead designer for that.
I notice you save ALL of your used coffee grounds. What’s the deal with that?
I give them to a few friends who have gardens. We collect all our coffee grounds. We recyle all our cans and bottles. I strive to have the smallest impact I can. If you take all the recycling, and the cardboard, and the coffee grounds… you realize that you are throwing away a bag of garbage once a week.
You are using Square technology to accept credit card payments. That’s such a new concept; I bet a lot of people make comments about it. How has Square worked for you? Do you see any drawbacks or have any complaints on the technology?
One draw back is the tip maximize at 30%. We will get customers here that want to tip at a greater amount. That’s a problem. Sometimes people want to give me a lot of money… and I want to take it. I want the 50% tip. Other than that, it’s pretty excellent. I am so much happier with them than the previous mainstream credit card company. They were a bunch of mobsters… with the advent of more transparent technology.
You have one size… Do people ever come in and order a venti?
I have been criticized for being too harsh with people who try to speak Starbucks lingo to me.
The last time I was in, I tried a cayenne pepper chocolate. One, who made those? And why do you sell candy? Don’t you already have enough going on behind that bar?
I think coffee and chocolate go happy together. Coffee and beer even. There are made by a local chocolatier… but it’s called Cellar Door Chocolate. They are located just down the street. People want to eat chocolate when in here drinking coffee and beer. If nothing else, it provides an excuse to buy something for your lady friend.
Serving beer, I’m sure you get some crazy people coming in. How do you handle it when people get out of control?
Doesn’t really happy that much. We are sort of the early bar… we are not the late bar. People come here before they go to the bar… they will come see some music, drink a few beers. They are not drinking liquor and they go on with their party. We are not that place. We are not the bar where lights are flashing and all. We are the early place. The Louisville bars stay open until 4… and we are almost always closed by 1.
So what do I call you… A bartender? A barista? Or does Matt pretty much cover it?
I think it’s more bartending… I sell nine beers for every coffee I sell.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Not a bartender… or at least not a full time bartender. Honestly, I don’t know. It’s pretty clear that I can keep doing this for as long as I feel like. I can always do this… and I have not made any firm decisions about that. I am more than happy to double down on Louisville. Odds are I will still have some presence here in five years. There are five years left on this lease… so the room will still be here, and it will be my room.
What do you want to be remembered for when this is all said and done? When it’s all over, what do you want your legacy to be?
By who? My Wikipedia page? I don’t really care what people remember. If they remember me, isn’t that enough? If someone is even thinking of you, regardless of how they remember you. It’s so subjective… for anyone that doesn’t like me, you just want them to know that you are still there. For people that love me, they have their personal reasons anyway. Sadly I have had a couple of friends pass away this summer.. the memory of a person is an important question. All that is left are memories… and there is a giant absence in the everyday real world. It’s funny how people will remember other people.
I always let the artists I interview get the last word. I’d say you are an artist. So take us all home… What do you want my readers to know? Go.
If you have never been to Louisville before, you deserve to come.