Inside the outside of Riverside’s newest conveyors of caffeine
The orange-and-white trailer pops in the morning sun. It catches the eye from blocks away. A lot of folks have wondered what’s going on there, so here’s the deal: For most of the past year, Sequential Coffee has operated out of what had been a vacant lot near the corner of Park and James streets in Riverside. “Before that, we were out at the Town Center, for a few months” said Ezell, “but it just failed out there because people wanted their Starbucks drive-thru. So we pulled in over here, and on the first day, we started to break even.”
Ezell is a veteran of the city’s cultural scene, having not only worked as a bartender in a number of local establishments, but also performed at many of the same places, in a variety of local bands. All the while, he was always looking for the next step in his evolution, and opportunity arose in the most unlikely form: a broken back. That took him out to California, where he quickly fell in with the booming coffee culture in that area.
“I got involved with that by accident,” he said. Ezell took a job with Boot Roasters, which he found on Craigslist, and between his quick mind and relentless work ethic, immediately found himself learning the business from top to bottom, from soil to sip. One thing he quickly learned while watching the industry from the inside was how much the coffee business really depends on the workers—not just baristas, but especially the people who grow and collect the coffee, which typically grows best at higher elevations in the Southern Hemisphere. As is too often the case, workers in that region are ruthlessly exploited, and they rarely end up pulling a fair share of the massive profits generated by their labor.
“One of the things I really loved about working at Starbucks back in ’99,” he said, “was the customer interaction, which is why I got into bartending—it pays better. But it’s different with coffee because everyone is kind of waking up, instead of winding down, so you get to see a different side of people, including our friends.”
The transition from decades spent up late to being among the earliest of risers was, for him, not nearly as difficult as it might be for most. Entrepreneurship has its own stimulant effect, but let’s be honest: Ezell has never really needed coffee to keep his energy levels up. But this story is not all about him, as he emphasized repeatedly during our interview. “It’s not about me, it’s about us,” he said of his colleagues, who he affectionately refers to as “comrades.”
Just as Ezell learned the business, Sequential’s employees are trained in all aspects of the craft, giving them valuable experience and a skill set they can carry with them, wherever life takes them. “I didn’t expect much from it, at first,” said Molly Walsh, who is essentially the co-pilot of this particular ship. “But we really created kind of a family here. We’re super supportive of each other, and we hear each other out, which is very important to me. As an AFAB person (assigned female at birth), I’ve never really been heard before, and that means a lot to me. We don’t make assumptions here. We see people for who they are, and that’s pretty rad.”
Ezell partnered with friends like Jon Shepard and Donald Shea to brew the business, which is now in its second year of operation. The real MVP, though, has been JP Salvat, co-owner of Southern Roots, who runs his own thriving coffee roasting business when he’s not busy playing percussion in the salsa band LPT. Paco’s Coffee, located right down the street, has been indispensable in this process. Sequential roasts Paco’s coffee, and Ezell personally roasted the specialty blend being sold by the band.
(Full disclosure: Shepard directed LPT’s video for “Los Bravos.” Their first album, the award-winning Sin Parar, was released on Bold City Records, which is co-owned by the author.)
Sequential is all about the coffee, but at the same time, it’s not really about coffee at all. The business model reflects the owner’s own strongly progressive views about the product, and those who produce it share his vision. Everyone is paid the same, including the owner, and the employees are treated essentially as stakeholders in their ever-growing brand.
“This place now pays for itself and the staff, and it’s basically a billboard,” said Ezell. It has also helped contribute to the neighborhood. There’s a bodega opening up in the storefront right next to them, the pharmacy next door is seeing a little extra business, and poet and entrepreneur Lenny Thiessen is now out there selling vintage vinyl on Tuesdays. Ezell even commissioned a wooden sign that stands at the corner of Park and King, promoting not only his company, but all of the businesses selling coffee in the area, including local favorites Cool Moose and Southern Roots.
“I picked the location because it’s three blocks from my house,” said Ezell. “I used to manage the comic book shop across the street, and I’ve been eating hot dogs from the Hot Dog Lady since I was in high school. I used to go to school right over there, at West Riverside Elementary. So this is home for me, and I want it to feel like home for everyone.”
As the staff has grown, Ezell has time to focus on other aspects of the business, like roasting the coffee beans and bagging up the product for retail sale. Plans for expansion are already well underway. There will be a brick-and-mortar version open in Springfield early next year, with a number of related projects also in the works. Ezell and Salvat plan on starting an open coffee lab on King Street. He and his colleagues are working to bring the area’s coffee producers and retailers together to share resources, materials and expertise with each other. Sequential has also begun collaborating with Folio, serving up free coffee and mocktails at our monthly rooftop gatherings during Artwalk.
“I don’t need to see money from any of this stuff,” he said. “I need to see the community growing.” Sequential is also working with local legend Al Letson—comic book author, actor, playwright, and award-winning radio and podcast host—to develop a comic book. The name “Sequential Coffee” directly references the concept of “sequential art,” aka comics. They have other artists, like Jason Wright, lined up to contribute as well.
“To be honest with you, this is a capitalist front for a socialist agenda,” Ezell said. “It’s a front for joy.” Their logo features a capybara, which is known for being one of the friendliest animals.
Steve Ezell is a pretty friendly animal, too, but there is a method to his lack of madness. “Why try to get people to work for you,” he said, “when you can work with them?”