We had the pleasure of sitting down with Matt Ashton, founder and operator of Lekko Coffee, a new café and roastery in Cleveland, Ohio.
Matt, a former professional french horn player who has worked just about every job in the coffee industry, has brought his pursuit of perfection and passion for the craft of coffeemaking together to create Lekko, a much loved new installment in the Cleveland coffee scene. Lekko, a Polish term meaning "easy-going", is aptly named - both for its nod to a heritage shared by so many in Cleveland, but also its laid back vibe. The bright, inviting cafe has quickly become a vibrant community space as much as it has a place to get a thoughtfully sourced, roasted, and brewed cup of specialty coffee.
Matt’s commitment in starting Lekko was to serve living wage coffee - from the farmers growing the coffee to the barista on the bar. From Matt: "There is a whole chain from farmer to barista, and a lot of times those people, everyone from top to bottom, isn't getting paid enough to live."
With respect to farmers, that means carefully selecting partner importers and coffees and doing the due diligence to understand how money paid for green coffee flows back through the supply chain. Of the estimated 12.5 million small-scale coffee farmers globally, at least 44% live below the internationally recognized poverty line. Twenty-two percent live in extreme poverty. When it comes to driving change and supporting living wages at the farm level, roasters play a key role. If they demand transparency and are willing to pay more for more equitable coffee, those bringing coffee to market not only rise to meet that demand, but are also equipped to pay fairly along the way.
At the cafe level, according the Matt, "one of the things that we can calculate very easily on the end of hiring is what a living wage is in the county and city you are in. So that's the start of it." For example, at the time of this conversation that was $13.44 per hour in Cleveland, which Matt is committed to paying all Lekko team members.
Here's a clip from Matt on living wages:
“Cleveland has the best orchestra in the country, if not the world, and a top tier art museum. I think we should have the best coffee, too."
Something to appreciate about Lekko is the balance they have struck between accessibility and deep care for the craft of coffee. Sometimes specialty shops can, albeit with the best of intentions, turn customers away by projecting what is right or best on to them, versus meeting them where they are at and helping them discover and learn at their own pace. For years the specialty community has prescribed that coffee ought to be single-origin, bright, naturally-processed, and fruit forward. It must be enjoyed black, and adding cream or drinking a dark roast blend is shameful.
While that description may flirt with hyperbole, we are likely not alone in recalling prior experiences as casual coffee-goers where third-wave coffee did not feel approachable. Coffee, at its core, is communal, and shops like Lekko work tirelessly to create experiences that are comfortable, inviting, and educational.
In his former profession as a horn player, Matt had to practice rigorously to refine his skills and eliminate weaknesses. According to Matt, "that work ethic and precision and attention to detail is something he has been able to bring into coffee." Matt's philosophy is to bring that level of care to the roasting process in order to eliminate any weaknesses in the coffee and let it reach its full potential.
However, when at the bar, let the coffee speak for itself. When you walk up to the bar at Lekko and ask for a dark roast coffee, you won't get a lecture on why you ought to choose something different, or a dissertation on why they don't offer dark roast coffee. What you will get is an earnest Midwestern smile, a "thank you", and a slightly-less-than dark roasted coffee with a little more character than you're used to. It's that process of letting a customer discover for themselves that opens new doors and builds new curiosity about what's possible.
Lekko strikes that balance perfectly in that no matter where you are on your coffee journey, you feel welcome to be who you are and order what you like, but make no mistake - the coffee is top notch and dialed in.
Here's a short clip from Matt on how his time as a musician influenced his approach to coffee:
Spending much of his life in Cleveland, and having worked in both the art/music scene and for a few different coffee shops and roasters, Matt knows the city quite well. If you live in Cleveland, or ever find yourself passing through, here are some great tips from Matt on how to spend a day in city:
To get to know Matt better, we asked a few rapid fire questions.
Q: Favorite coffee shop outside of Cleveland?
A: Elixr Coffee, Philadelphia
Q: Favorite Band?
Q: Favorite album?
A: George Szell, The Cleveland Orchestra - Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Q: Bucket list travel destination?
A: Hiking/city hopping through Seattle and the Pacific Northwest
Q: Favorite Book
Check out our full conversation with Matt below, including his most memorable coffee experience, how to spend 24-hours in Cleveland, and a great at-home coffee recipe. We had a blast getting to know Matt, and if you find yourself in Cleveland for a day, don't miss a stop at Lekko for some fantastic coffee, good vibes, and a chance to say hell to Matt behind the bar.