Amarillo: An Unlikely Coffee Mecca On The Plains

Baristas who might struggle to make ends meet in Seattle or Brooklyn are thriving in the Panhandle.

By Jonathan BakerDecember 14, 2017 9:30 am| , ,

In the Panhandle city of Amarillo, alongside the howling winds and the lonesome wail of freight engines, another sound is heard more frequently these days. I’m talking about the whooshing of espresso machines. In the last decade, Amarillo has gained national attention as a mecca for espresso aficionados.

Among the big box stores and chain restaurants, two high-profile coffeehouses have set up shop across the parking lot from each other. Palace Coffee and Evocation Roasters are battling for Amarillo coffee supremacy. And a culture of java junkies is growing up around them.

“There are so many different groups of people here in Amarillo that want to have a place to have an identity, that each coffee shop has its own vibe,” says Patrick Burns, who owns Palace Coffee.

“I think people are always looking for a place to belong, and I think coffee shops have been that place for a lot of people,” Burns says.

Burns and his wife opened their first Palace Coffee in the small Panhandle town of Canyon in 2011. They now also have two locations in Amarillo.

On a weekday afternoon, Palace is packed with young professionals and students. Shandi Porter is a Spanish major at nearby West Texas A&M University.

“It’s just a really, like, friendly environment and so whenever I, like, just kind of wanna get away I come in and they know you by name,” Porter says.

Porter is hardly alone in her love for Palace. The shop feels cozy, with overstuffed seats and dark wood accents. Three years ago, this little Panhandle chain shocked the bean world when they were named America’s Best Coffeehouse at Coffeefest, a sort of Comic-Con for coffee nerds.

Leaving Palace, I walk across the parking lot and enter another coffee shop tucked between a hearing aid store and a Sears Outlet. If Palace is your stylish uncle’s parlor, Evocation is the chic lunchroom on a spaceship. Inside, the walls and tables are glossy white, with a midcentury modern vibe. The staff looks fresh off a bus from Brooklyn.

Today my barista is Thomas, a friendly, bearded fellow who says he worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign in Iowa last year. And then…”I came to work at Evocation because I’ve been in coffee for a few years now and I knew that Evocation is the place that took coffee to the next level,” he says.

You won’t find any drip coffee here – only pour-overs served in Erlenmeyer flasks and hand-thrown cups. The shop is in its second year, and is already getting noticed. Thrillist, a hip, lifestyle website, lists Evocation as one of the best coffee roasters in America.

Roman and Amy Leal founded Evocation. They’re young – still in their mid-20s. Roman says his love of coffee started when he was in high school. He said he’d roast small batches of beans in his dad’s garage. That might seem like a strange hobby for a teenager, but Roman thinks it fits the spirit of the the city.

“What makes Amarillo so unique is that, while politically it’s really conservative, culinary wise it’s actually really progressive,”Leal says. “We have a lot of chefs that are pushing boundaries and coffee shops that are really progressive.”

He insists that, while the panhandle coffee phenomenon seems somewhat random to outsiders, Amarillo has been a coffee-centric city for decades. Golden Light Equipment Company opened the first roastery here 100 years ago. It supplied roasted beans to New Mexico and Oklahoma.

On top of that, young coffee professionals who would likely struggle in Brooklyn or Seattle can thrive in the Texas Panhandle’s wide-open spaces and the uncrowded marketplace. This past summer, both of Amarillo’s upstart coffeehouses were a visible presence at the U.S. Roaster Championship in Seattle. Evocation’s 21-year-old chief roaster, Taylor Gresham was the youngest finalist in the event, and the only woman competing.

“It was the first competition I’ve ever even been a part of in coffee so I had no idea what to expect, I was super nervous,” Gresham says.

Gresham took third in the event, an impressive feat. She says she plans to study chemistry when she returns to school this spring. But it seems this roasting prodigy has already gotten a unique education, as one of a community of java aficionados in this coffee mecca in the middle of the dusty High Plains.