Asio Highsmith is a local celebrity in central Brooklyn. This becomes increasingly apparent as we sit down to talk on a public school stoop across from his coffee lab, WTF, and a Fort Greene resident walks by with his English bulldog and yells, "You're talking to the best looking guy in the neighborhood!"
Highsmith, a model (this year, he's in a campaign for the Art of Shaving and Lands' End) and actor with some pretty notable roles, has some other tricks up his sleeves these days, mainly in the realm of brewing some of the greatest coffee in the borough and giving Brooklyn the best of the best when it comes to restaurants. In the last 6 years, he has launched a bar, a sneaker gallery, a coffee shop, and has plans for a new restaurant by the end of 2014. We chatted with him to find out what makes his vision so clear.
So, where do we begin?
I moved to New York when I was 19 for school. I wanted to go to acting school and I never really got around to going. Instead, I started promoting clubs back in 1994. I did Club USA and then got a bartending gig at a coffee shop at Union Square. Then, I got a couple of gigs at other bartending spots. I never really wanted to be a waiter, because I always wanted the presence of being a bartender.
Additionally, I was scouted for commercials and modeling in the mid-90s. Then, I really started picking up more work in acting and never really had time to do the bartending thing because I was making money doing commercials and modeling. I thought, "I’m never going to work for anyone again because I’m doing really great."
I always said if I ever was going to work at a bar again it would be my own. So then I moved to Brooklyn 12 years ago. I moved to this street here, Adelphi. The place right next to my apartment (now Highsmith's bar Dick & Jane's) was empty, so I thought, "I'm a bartender. I know how do this."
And then came Hideout, a passion-driven, monster cocktail bar. I built that like a producer would produce something. I see the visions, I see the set and we make sure the set has all the tools and products to produce the best scenario and action. All you have to do is insert a great bartender with great personality, and I was doing that and then you know after that, there was such a need in this neighborhood for more excellence, excellence in lifestyle. There was a need in this neighborhood for better food, better drinks, and better coffee. We needed better shoes. So then I opened up a sneaker shop. There were no shoes in Fort Greene. The sneaker store was called Pedigree and we had collections like Alexander McQueen, Adidas, Pumas. It was fantastic. We ran that for a couple years.
And how did WTF come about?
Next door we had a coffee shop that I hated. It was horrible and I told them about it one day. I said, "I make drinks, and I don’t make coffee, but I can make coffee better than this shit."
The next month they asked me if I wanted to take over the lease. And I thought, "You know what? Yeah. I make beverages, I never fucked with coffee but it’s something that a drink maker should be able to process the steps to understand how to do this."
So I decided to make this place the most incredible coffee institution that Fort Greene has ever seen. I stood out here and mapped out a scenario that could emphasize barista skills, personality, and quality of a single product. At the end of the day what I really loved about coffee initially is that like cocktails, you make it one drink at a time.
What are the biggest obstacles to getting started?
People tend to look down on coffee and on the presenter who’s making that low down coffee. I opened this shop up in 2010. No one was feeling one cup of coffee at a time. No one was feeling waiting four minutes for a cup of coffee even though that's how long it takes. Fresh coffee that is ground properly with water that is the proper temperature is going to take at least four minutes.
What sets WTF apart from the rest?
The rest have rules. I created a dialog with the customers. And they’re in if they like the experience. In actuality, a good cup of coffee sets up your whole day and mindset in the right path. It's better than two pints of beer at the end of the work day. It just does more for your mind, body, and soul.
I broke open the first coffee cocktail bar, if you will. I didn't know why we couldn't serve everything!
Serving everything means using different beans and methods such as the French Press, Chemex, Sock Pot, Aeropress, Siphon, and more. How long did it take you to master these?
Repetition, man. It took about six months, but at this point, I've done it thousands of times.
What method is your favorite to use in the coffee bar?
There is a device called the Hermiston. It's my favorite because I feel that this neighborhood has never seen the method before. I didn't realize how awesome it was until I used one myself. It’s basically a double-wall steel filter. It’s very similar to our Kone too but it has an additional layer of filtration. The metal filtration really retains the solids and gives the coffee a nice body without giving too much. Basically, it cuts the body in half.
Let's talk beans.
Our customers want a better cup of coffee or else they would be going to Connecticut Muffin. We would change our beans if we were all about the money, but it’s really not about us changing. It’s about the expectation changing and about our being aggressive with our coffee progression.
We get our beans from Coava and they’re quietly the best roaster in Portland. We’re the only people who have Coava in New York and in the tri-state area.
People say WTF is the Abracoof Brooklyn. I think that’s the highest compliment that I and my staff could get because we aren't coffee roasters.
Can you give me a few choice words to describe Fort Greene In 2014?
Energizing. Family-oriented. Serene.
And you're still active in the entertainment industry as well?
I’m passionate about life. I want to do it all.
How do you find the time?
You just do it. I have a very understanding agent who knows I'm running two businesses, and have a family. It’s about understanding and having a community of people around you that are supportive and pushing you to do you. I can’t do everything, but I can try and find a way to make a better lifestyle happen in my own personal life and my own businesses.
What’s the best part about being Asio Highsmith?
Probably having a wife that understands my dreams and goals. Just having a partner to share it with who's ready to conquer the world with me. It all starts when I see my wife in the morning, and I know that I have the best job in the world.
Check out WTF Coffee Lab, Dick & Jane's Bar, and his latest venture, the soon-to-be restaurant Everything's Good (coming to Brooklyn at the end of 2014).