The Best Coffee Roasters in All 50 States

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Americans have an intimate relationship with their coffee. It’s the drink that gets them going, the first hit of flavor in their day. It’s the steaming (or iced) cup that sets the tone for what’s to follow. And at a time when tastes have evolved past watery, gets-the-job-done brews into the bold, the origin-specific, and the fair trade certified, it had better be good. With so many interesting coffee roasters out there, including many who have set up shop in just the past few years, selecting the best one in each state was quite difficult. We researched our picks carefully, with an eye for detail that honors the studious methods of coffee innovators across the country.

1. ALABAMA // MAMA MOCHA’S COFFEE EMPORIUM & ROASTERS

Location: Auburn, Alabama

Take it from the caffeinated college crowd, who’ve left one rapturous review after another for this roaster and café: Mama Mocha’s makes the best coffee around. Owner Sarah Barnett Gill and her team get extra credit for blends that are both well crafted and highly eclectic, like Dawn of the Dead, a house roast with an extra caffeine jolt, and the whiskey-infused Black Moonshine.

2. ALASKA // KALADI BROTHERS COFFEE

Location: Anchorage, Alaska

In coffee-obsessed Alaska, Kaladi Brothers stays ahead of the curve with stringent quality standards and a splash of ingenuity. The company, which operates 13 cafes and began in 1986 as a roadside stand, selects only organic, shade-grown beans, then air roasts them—a process that many prefer for its clean, uniform flavor. With more than a million pounds of beans roasted each year, Kaladi offers plenty of fuel for those long, cold winters.

3. ARIZONA // CARTEL COFFEE LAB

Location: Tempe, Arizona


Cartel’s methods are no secret: Just stop by their Tempe warehouse for a tour, or browse their website for ratios and other nitty gritty details. Transparency aside, Cartel’s sophisticated roasting process isn’t easily duplicated. The same goes for its direct sourcing program and stringent barista training, which suffers no slouches. Taken together, Cartel’s process has helped the roaster and café become one of Arizona’s premier coffee destinations.

4. ARKANSAS // ONYX COFFEE LAB

Location: Fayetteville, Arkansas

A region best known for big companies like Wal-Mart and Tyson might not seem like the ideal place to roast small-batch coffee by hand. But Onyx has found an enthusiastic audience in Fayetteville, who come for their daily cup and for special events like roasting classes and an annual barista throw-down. Onyx prizes unique tasting notes like "mulled wine" and "brouléed grapefruit." And true to its name, it's a laboratory for experimental roasts, like micro-lot Ethiopian varietals and beans roasted with lactic acid.

5. CALIFORNIA // FOUR BARREL COFFEE

Location: San Francisco, California

What does it take to be the best roaster in hip, caffeinated California? Start with a sourcing team that spends most months on the road seeking out the best beans from Africa, South America, and beyond. Then, using a vintage German roaster, turn out light, flavorful coffee that draws long lines of customers all hours of the day. In addition to mind-blowing coffee, Four Barrel offers classes like a "Water Quality Seminar" aimed at making you a better at-home brewer.

6. COLORADO // BOXCAR COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Boulder, Colorado

The Rocky Mountain state has seen a boom in coffee roasters over the past few years. But Boxcar has a secret weapon: a refurbished 1929 Gothot Ideal Rapid roaster from Germany. The nearly century-old workhorse turns out beans that have garnered many a loyal patron in Boulder and throughout the country. To bring out the full flavor in every cup, Boxcar employs a special boiling method in its two cafes that utilizes custom-made flasks. It’s old school meets new school, with very flavorful results.

7. CONNECTICUT // J. RENÉ

Location: West Hartford, Connecticut

Proprietor José René Martínez Onofre thinks he might have actually tasted his first cup of coffee before he learned to walk. That early love affair led him to open his first shop in West Hartford in 2012, an "artisanal coffee gathering place" that’s as much a social hub as a java shop. Martínez is fanatical about bean sourcing and brewing techniques—French Press as well as Chemex pour-overs—which is probably why he’s earned rave reviews since he first unlocked his doors.

8. DELAWARE // NOTTING HILL COFFEE

Location: Lewes, Delaware

Notting Hill owner Amy Felker keeps her coffee roaster in the front window of her café in Lewes, but it’s not much of a distraction: she roasts most of her annual 40,000 pounds of coffee at night. Felker’s obsession with coffee is all-encompassing: she deals in flavored beans, often derided by coffee purists, and has found that some self-mixed concoctions wind up being her biggest sellers. (One tastes like a certain nautical-themed breakfast cereal.) The blends are also available via mail-order.

9. FLORIDA // PANTHER COFFEE

Location: Miami, Florida

Panther’s reputation for an excellent cup has done more than expand their Miami-area footprint: their coffee is known all over the country. Locals can walk into their storefronts and get information sheets about growers; beans are available online. Not bad for a business that started serving cold brews out of a food truck.

10. GEORGIA // COOL BEANS COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Marietta, Georgia

A "Best of Atlanta" winner in 2015, Cool Beans tackles more than 40 different varieties of coffee in a roaster they’ve dubbed Big Red. And if you can't make it in to sip your selection on their outdoor patio, the roasts are also offered via their web store.

11. HAWAII // BIG ISLAND COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Mountain View, Hawaii

As the only state that grows coffee in commercial quantities, Hawaii might be home to some of the freshest beans in the U.S. Big Island doesn’t have a retail front, but its distinctive artisanal beans are sold all over the territory and they've picked up virtually every award out there—the USDA even honored them with a grant for their continuing efforts to improve local coffee quality. If you ask nicely, they might even give you a farm tour.

12. IDAHO // DOMA COFFEE

Location: Post Falls, Idaho

Staunchly supportive of fair trade, the coffee buyers at DOMA go through considerable hoops—and expense—to support smaller, organic farmers. DOMA never skirts corners, shipping their coffees in recycled bags, utilizing a roaster that uses 80 percent less gas to operate, and making sure every cup served is as environmentally responsible as possible.

13. ILLINOIS // INTELLIGENTSIA

Location: Chicago, Illinois

In business for over 20 years, Intelligentsia has spread all over Chicago owing to demand for their specialty craft coffees. The key to their success: standing side-by-side with growers to develop and select their preferred beans.

14. INDIANA // BEE COFFEE

Location: Indianapolis, Indiana

Indianapolis Monthly named Bee Coffee Roasters one of the best indie coffee roasters in the city, thanks partly to their self-imposed limitations. The company uses only a five-pound roaster for beans, which means small and frequent batches of ultra-fresh coffee with a different flavor every time. Bee also likes to spend time on aesthetics: co-owner Andy Gilman spearheads a "League of Lattes" milk art competition in the city.

15. IOWA // SIDECAR COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa

Home-roasting began as a hobby for Jed Vander Zanden, but after he and his wife moved to Cedar Falls, Vander Zanden decided to launch his own business. He opened Sidecar in 2012, and java aficionados are welcome to swing by the downtown location on Washington Street to watch as he roasts small batches of specialty, direct-trade coffee beans from around the world. You can buy them at food co-ops, markets, and coffee shops around Iowa, or online.

16. KANSAS // PT’S COFFEE ROASTING CO.

Location: Topeka, Kansas

Photojournalist Jeff Taylor, and his roommate, fast food chain manager Fred Polzin, founded PT’s (P for Polzin, T for Taylor) in 1993 after Taylor tried—and failed—to find a local outlet that brewed an amazing cup of coffee. Taylor eventually convinced Polzin to give roasting a try, and in 1997, PT’s reestablished itself as a roasting operation, and began sourcing beans from skilled artisan farmers around the world. Nearly 80 percent of their coffee is acquired through direct trade, meaning the company buys beans straight from the growers, cutting out the middlemen. In 2009, Roast magazine named PT’s their "Macro Roaster of the Year," and you can now find the company’s product across the Midwest and in select East Coast coffee shops.

17. KENTUCKY // SUNERGOS COFFEE

Location: Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville is famous for being the home of the Kentucky Derby—but it’s also becoming known as one of the South’s go-to coffee destinations. Sunergos Coffee (which gets its name from the Greek word meaning "working together") is a local coffee franchise and micro-roastery that sources sustainably harvested, responsibly farmed beans. Swing by the Woodlawn Avenue outpost, and you might even catch the roasters in action: their 1500-foot micro-roastery is at the back of the store, and is clearly visible through a glass wall separating the production facilities from the café area. And though Sunergos is still largely a regional operation, it has a national reputation: In 2014, it won the "America's Best Espresso" competition at Coffee Fest, an annual trade event for tea and coffee enthusiasts.

18. LOUISIANA // RÊVE COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Lafayette, Louisiana

Deep in the heart of Cajun Country, you’ll find Rêve Coffee Roasters—a coffee shop/micro-roastery in Lafayette that was founded by two Louisiana natives, Nathanael Johnson and Christopher Pickle. Recently, they moved the business to a much larger location on Jefferson Street, which allows them to serve meals and use the bar space so employees can roast beans directly on site. Rêve operates a wholesale business, and sells its beans to local cafes, restaurants, and grocery stores. Many of the bean varieties come from Royal Coffee New York, but Rêve is also establishing direct trade operations with farms in Guatemala and El Salvador.

19. MAINE // TANDEM COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Portland, Maine

In 2012, husband-and-wife team Will and Kathleen Pratt opened Tandem Coffee Roasters—a combination coffee shop and micro-roastery—in Portland's East Bayside neighborhood. Two years later, the duo converted an old gas station in Portland's West End into a second outpost—this time, a bakery and coffee shop.

Tandem sources its beans from all over the world, and on Fridays patrons can visit the company’s East Bay location to enjoy free tasting sessions and watch the roasting process. And if you love coffee and music, you can sign up for Tandem’s "coffee and vinyl club," a partnership with online record sellers KMA in which subscribers receive both a new record and a different bag of Tandem’s beans each month.

20. MARYLAND // CEREMONY COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Annapolis, Maryland

Ceremony Coffee Roasters sources coffee beans from four continents and imports them to their flagship location—a storefront/roastery in Annapolis (other locations are in Baltimore and D.C.). Java lovers who visit the franchise’s West Street location can enjoy a seasonal coffee menu, and at the building’s back they can watch the roasters in action (or, if interested, partake in a specialty brewing class).

21. MASSACHUSETTS // BARISMO COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Greater Boston Area

Barisimo is small, yet flourishing—and more importantly, it’s ready to innovate. Founded in 2008, the roastery operates three Barismo cafés in the greater Boston area (Barisimo 171, a shop at the roastery’s original location in Arlington, operates a lab-style coffeebar). Barisimo sources direct trade beans from around the globe, but the roastery is equally known for its creative approach toward coffee: They recently developed a patent-pending cold-brew injector to make nitrogenated cold brew kegs.

22. MICHIGAN // MADCAP COFFEE COMPANY

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Madcap Coffee Company co-founders Trevor Corlett and Ryan Knapp—who launched their business in 2008—source their beans directly from farms or cooperatives around the world.  After sampling thousands of coffees, they select 15 to 20 to roast and sell. With that kind of attention to detail, it’s no surprise that their product is carried in select coffee shops around the country, from San Antonio to New York.

Customers can sip on Madcap Coffee in two of the roastery’s specialty coffee shops in Grand Rapids (one of them is located adjacent to the micro-roastery, and lets customers watch the roasting process). East Coasters can also enjoy the brew: Madcap Coffee recently opened up a satellite office and training center in Washington, D.C.

23. MINNESOTA // PARADISE COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Ramsey, Minnesota

If the word "artisanal" appeals to you, Paradise is the way to go. Since 2002, founder R. Miguel Meza and his team have been hand-selecting and micro-roasting the very best blends from growers in Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Ethiopia. Looking for a new morning roast? Check out Paradise’s chocolaty Blue Sky Breakfast blend, which scored 91 out of 100 in Coffee Review.

24. MISSISSIPPI // BEANFRUIT COFFEE COMPANY

Location: Jackson, Mississippi

BeanFruit proudly focuses on single-origin coffees and educating consumers about the beans in their cup. "We want our customers to be aware of what beverage they are drinking, where it came from, and how it affects coffee farmers around the world," says founder Paul Bonds. Try BeanFruit’s Kenya Nyeri Chinga Peaberry for a bright, complex roast with notes of melon and nectarine.

25. MISSOURI // ODDLY CORRECT

Location: Kansas City, Missouri

The self-described "coffee zealots" at Oddly Correct are on a mission "to freak out your morning cup." If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, head over to their website or check out the café on Main Street for a cup of Space Monkey Seasonal Espresso, which boasts a creamy body, raw-sugar sweetness, and tropical fruitiness.

26. MONTANA // BLACK COFFEE ROASTING CO.

Location: Missoula, Montana

If you like your coffee dark and your products green, head over to Black Coffee Roasting Co. in Missoula. The company and café’s blends are all sustainable, craft roasted, and 100 percent organic. They’re also delicious. For an indulgent sip, try the rich-bodied variety called The Hunt, which promises hints of baker’s chocolate, strawberry, honey, and graham cracker.

27. NEBRASKA // BEANSMITH COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Omaha, Nebraska

Seasonal sourcing isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of coffee, but the heartland-based Beansmith Coffee Roasters have built a business around finding the freshest, most vibrant beans for every cup. For new autumnal flavors, pop into the Old Market Café on Harney Street in Omaha and try the smoky, clove-flavored Phoenix blend.

28. NEVADA // HUB COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Reno, Nevada

Hub Coffee Roasters were founded on two ideals: coffee and community. (Don’t think coffee is an ideal? Just talk to them.) The company now has an online shop and three Reno locations and has recently begun sourcing its own beans from South America. A good pick: the Peruvian Nuevo Trujillo roast, with notes of plum and dried fruit.

29. NEW HAMPSHIRE // FLIGHT COFFEE CO.

Location: Bedford and Dover, New Hampshire

Flight Coffee Co. founder Claudia Barrett began with a dream and a passion for fresh, farm-to-pot coffee. Today she’s the leader of a small army of obsessive coffee roasters who regularly take classes to keep up with the latest science, techniques, and trends. Visit the roasting lab and tasting room in Bedford or treat the coffee connoisseur in your life to a monthly bean subscription.

30. NEW JERSEY // MODCUP COFFEE

Location: Jersey City, New Jersey

Founded by Justin Hicks and Travas Clifton in 2013, Modcup prides itself on serving up the freshest roasts, and sells all of its coffee within 18 days of its roast date. In addition to Modcup’s Jersey City coffee shop and roastery, the company built a unique mobile roastery inside a restored 1969 Citroen H-Van, which was once used to deliver fresh bread in France. The truck now splits its time between serving fresh coffee outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Jersey City and making appearances at parties and fairs in the Tri-State area.

31. NEW MEXICO // MICHAEL THOMAS COFFEE

Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico

For over a decade, local coffee roaster Michael Thomas and his two daughters have created unique blends and single origin roasts for customers at their Albuquerque shops. Thomas and his team experiment with every new batch of beans they order to find the perfect roast profile for each. In recent years, Thomas has opened an online store as well. In addition to roasting their own beans, the two Michael Thomas Coffee shops in Albuquerque also host regular coffee classes, teaching coffee lovers about coffee history, and how to make different coffee varieties.

32. NEW YORK // GIMME! COFFEE

Location: Ithaca, Trumansburg, and New York City, New York

Winner of Roast magazine’s 2013 "Macro Roaster of the Year" award, Gimme! Coffee has come a long way since it was first founded in a charmingly cramped cafe in Ithaca back in 2000. Nowadays, the coffee roaster has seven locations in Ithaca, Trumansburg, and New York City, and supplies its beans to shops and markets across the country. The company prides itself on creating flavorful, high-quality blends and on its sustainable, ethical practices which include a composting program and partnerships with their coffee growers.

33. NORTH CAROLINA // COUNTER CULTURE

Location: Durham, North Carolina

Counter Culture is based in Durham, but sells its beans on its website, and wholesale to coffee shops around the United States. The North Carolina roaster believes in sustainable practices, embraces fully transparent business practices, and, of course, makes some truly delicious coffees. Unlike some specialty roasters, Counter Culture encourages its customers to make their versatile beans using any brewing method they want. They also offer free weekly coffee tastings and brewing classes at regional training centers in Durham and 10 other cities around the United States.

34. NORTH DAKOTA // TWENTY BELOW

Location: Fargo, North Dakota

You can find Twenty Below’s single origin roasts and blends online, served up at coffee shops throughout North Dakota, and at their Fargo coffee bar and roastery. The coffee roaster works with small farms and cooperatives to acquire beans that can’t be found at larger coffee chains, and reviewers on Yelp have called their roasts "delicious," "complex," and "unique."

35. OHIO // CRIMSON CUP COFFEE & TEA

Location: Columbus, Ohio

Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea may supply coffee to stores around the country, but it still roasts its beans carefully in small batches. Each shipment of 150-pound bags of coffee arrives at the Crimson Cup headquarters in Columbus, where a master roaster oversees the roast profile of each bean variety. The company, which won Roast magazine’s 2016 "Macro Roaster of the Year" award also hosts coffee tastings and roasting lessons at its Innovation Lab in Columbus. 

36. OKLAHOMA // ELEMENTAL COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Elemental Coffee Roasters in Oklahoma City is obsessed with serving up "elemental" coffee flavors. It puts an emphasis on retaining the natural flavors of its beans, and refuses to intentionally tamper with or add to its flavor. "You might say our coffee has a mind of its own," the Elemental website explains. "It tastes this way one day, but it may taste completely different the next." Elemental Coffee Roasters sells its coffees online and at its Oklahoma City location.

37. OREGON // STUMPTOWN COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Portland, Oregon

Portland has a sea of high-quality coffee outfits, but Stumptown remains a favorite both locally and in cafes across the country. One of the pioneers of the third-wave coffee movement, Stumptown won Roast magazine's Roaster of the Year competition back in 2006. The coffee-focused Sprudge.com calls the company’s Portland headquarters, which opened in 2012, "an absolute sight to behold." The company hosts daily free tastings there, with $15 behind-the-scenes roastery tours and classes also available. If you do take a tour or an intro to coffee class, you get to take home your own bag of freshly roasted beans.

38. PENNSYLVANIA // SQUARE ONE COFFEE

Location: Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Square One Coffee is a family-owned roasting company that has accumulated some serious accolades. The roastery has won a Good Food Award in the coffee category three years running, and one of its baristas won 10th place at the U.S. Barista Championships in 2015. Stop by the Lancaster café and sip a brewed-to-order cup in the backyard garden, or head to the roasting facility across town to take a class alongside the cafe’s own up-and-coming talent, led by instructors certified by the Barista Guild of America and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. (There are also two locations to enjoy in Philly.)

39. RHODE ISLAND // VANUATU COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Providence, Rhode Island

Single-origin obsessives, pay attention. The beauty of Vanuatu Coffee Roasters lies in its absolute dedication to the South Pacific island nation that gives the roastery its name. Co-founder Jimmy Lappin traveled to the Republic of Vanuatu in 2009 as a tourist, and was so taken with the local coffee that he and his sister, Martha Soderlund, teamed up with a local cooperative to source beans exclusively from farmers on the island of Tanna. No need for milk here; Lappin boasts that Vanuatu coffee lacks any trace of bitterness.

40. SOUTH CAROLINA // COASTAL COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Summerville, South Carolina

Coastal Coffee Roasters, located outside Charleston, sources beans from around the world, then roasts them to perfection in small batches. The downtown Summerville café is host to a rotating calendar of events, including yoga, open mic nights, and local music—and they serve up a decent sandwich to go with that perfect cup.

41. SOUTH DAKOTA // PURE BEAN ROASTERS

Location: Rapid City, South Dakota

Pure Bean Roasters was started out of a garage in 2013, and the owners only opened up a café this year, continuing to roast their beans at co-owner Mark Royalty’s home long after the company began shipping nationwide. Pure Bean only sells organic, fair trade beans that are air-roasted in small batches, rather than in the high-capacity drums that most commercial coffee roasters use. Instead of being stirred in a hot drum, the beans float on a bed of hot air, ensuring consistency in the roast. The result is a smooth, low-acid cup of coffee.

42. TENNESSEE // VIENNA COFFEE COMPANY

Location: Maryville, Tennessee

Don’t head to Nashville for the state’s best coffee. Take a trip to the Vienna Coffee Company outside of Knoxville. The small-batch roaster has everything from single-origin and estate coffees to certified shade-grown, bird-friendly, Rainforest Alliance-approved, and fair-trade beans. If you aren’t in the area to come by for a free tasting, you can always sign up for their mail-order coffee club.

43. TEXAS // BROWN COFFEE COMPANY

Location: San Antonio, Texas

Brown Coffee is one of San Antonio’s most well-established craft coffee outfits, and even other cafe proprietors admit that owner Aaron Blanco is “the most coffee-knowledgeable person in Texas." In 2015, Food Network star Alton Brown called the drink he got from Brown Coffee "the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life." Beyond the delicious drinks, the PourLab hosts classes for a range of skill levels, from novices looking for basic tips to enthusiasts wanting to learn how to identify the type of soil coffee was grown in just from tasting the brew.

44. UTAH // MILLCREEK COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

Over two decades ago, the aptly named Brewster family founded Millcreek Coffee Roasters in a small building with one 12-kilogram roaster. Today they’re a major presence in the Salt Lake City coffee scene with a café, a wholesale store, and an outpost in the city’s airport. Coffee lovers who don’t have time to pick up their beans in person can shop for them online. Millcreek also offers “Roaster’s Choice” coffee subscriptions that are delivered each month by the pound.

45. VERMONT // VERMONT COFFEE COMPANY

Location: Middlebury, Vermont

The folks at Vermont Coffee Company know that good coffee starts with a quality product. That’s why all their beans are carefully selected and slow-roasted to order in small batches. They also know that the coffee experience doesn’t have to end when a customer finishes their cup. They write on their website: “Coffee is a social stimulus that brings people together to share ideas and stories, and when people come together, a community is formed and friends are made.” The company proved their commitment to this concept when they opened a community theater in the neighborhood. If you can’t make it to the Vermont Coffee Company Playhouse or their on-site café, you can find their coffee in establishments along the East Coast.

46. VIRGINIA // CERVANTES COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Springfield, Virginia

Cervantes's single origin coffee is sold in over 40 retail stores in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. Java enthusiasts who live near their north Virginia headquarters can swing by for tours or coffee "cupping" (think wine tasting) events every second Friday of the month. The entire coffee warehouse is also available to rent out for private affairs.

47. WASHINGTON // DILLANOS COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Sumner, Washington

In a state as obsessed with coffee as Washington, Dillanos Coffee Roasters has managed to rise to the top. They’ve been recognized as best in the region multiple times, and in 2011 Roast magazine named them the best macro coffee roaster in North America. With dozens of coffees of varying roasts and sources available to purchase, they offer something for every type of coffee connoisseur.

48. WEST VIRGINIA // BLACK DOG COFFEE

Location: Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia

Black Dog’s café in Shenandoah Junction offers coffee and a show. Patrons can come to see one of America’s oldest operating coffee roasters in action—a vintage 1931 Jabez Burns & Sons model named Plutonius. The business also hosts community events like yoga classes, drum circles, and taco Tuesdays. Even without the entertainment factor, a taste of their single origin, micro-roasted coffee is worth a trip (or at least an online order).

49. WISCONSIN // KICKAPOO COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Beer isn’t the only brew in Wisconsin that deserves attention. The team behind Kickapoo Coffee Roasters has been roasting high-quality, full-flavored coffee in Milwaukee since 2005. Once a month, they open up their tasting room for the public to sample offerings, tour the roastery, and ask any coffee-related questions they may have.

50. WYOMING // JACKSON HOLE COFFEE ROASTERS

Location: Jackson, Wyoming

Jackson Hole Coffee Roasters brings a European commitment to coffee to Western Wyoming. Owners Stefan and Lubomira got their start in the coffee business as baristas. They took over Jackson Hole Coffee Roasters after moving to the U.S. from Slovakia, and today they sell their coffee wholesale to restaurants, coffee bars, and specialty stores and serve it fresh at their café.

By Michele Debczak, Kirstin Fawcett, Shaunacy Ferro, Anna Green, Kate Horowitz, Jake Rossen, and Jeff Wells.

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

The Reason Why It's Technically Against State Rules to Sell LaCroix in Massachusetts

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

No one is quite certain what goes into LaCroix (“La-croy”), the carbonated water that’s become a popular alternative to soft drinks. The zero-calorie beverage comes in several distinctive fruit flavors that the drink’s parent company, National Beverage, has described as being derived from “natural essence oils.” That highly secretive process is believed to be the result of heating fruits and vegetables, then making a concentrate out of the vapor.

To try and crack the mystery, Consumer Reports recently approached officials in Massachusetts with a public records request for documentation relating to LaCroix. Massachusetts is one of the few states requiring manufacturers of carbonated water to obtain a permit and submit water quality tests to sell their product.

The verdict? Consumer Reports still isn’t quite sure what goes into LaCroix. But it might be technically against state regulations to sell it in Massachusetts. That’s because the state has no records on file for the mystery refreshment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could not find a permit for LaCroix, and there were no water quality test results on hand, either. Without those documents, the drink should technically not be for sale in the state. After noticing the oversight, Massachusetts sent a request to National Beverage for the necessary information. If the company fails to comply, the state could end up fining them or banning the sale of the drink. A spokesperson for National Beverage told Consumer Reports the company intended to comply with the request.

Why does the state need any information at all? Thanks to some bureaucratic quibbling, carbonated water products are treated differently than bottled water by regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration considers carbonated beverages like seltzer and flavored sparkling water to fall under the heading of soft drinks. While the FDA mandates certain manufacturing standards for those drinks, it doesn’t apply the same rules as it does for bottled water, which is expected to adhere to strict rules about contaminants and quality testing. That leaves certain states like Massachusetts to conduct their own quality assessments.

There’s no guarantee that such testing will divulge LaCroix’s secret to their flavoring process, which is likely to remain a mystery.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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