L.A. — Nov. 21, 2018
Giving Thanks at Go Get Em Tiger
A Los Angeles Turkey Day Tradition
“There’s nothing to do in the morning on Thanksgiving,” Charles Babinski, the co-owner of G&B Coffee and Go Get Em Tiger cafés in Los Angeles, says to me. “Everyone wants coffee, but there are no coffee shops open.” We’re discussing the origin story of a now-famous tradition in his spots, in which they take those fancy commercial coffee shop drinks—you know the kind, the ones with such an intense following that they have their own Instagram feeds—and put their own specialty spin on them. “You’re getting ready to spend the rest of the day with your family,” he says of the common holiday agenda—meaning we all could use a way to power up properly. And let’s be real, what better way to do that than with a pumpkin spice latte?
Maybe that’s not where you thought I was going with this third wave coffee story. Stay with me. But before we go further, I should make a statement for the record: I love the pumpkin spice latte. Always have, probably always will. I get a lot of grief for this, but it was the gateway drug for me into the specialty coffee world. The same way I started with cloying cocktails and slowly dialed back on syrups and mixers until I was just drinking whiskey neat, the PSL started me down a path of appreciation for all things caffeinated. But my scandalous truth is, sometimes I still order a frozen piña colada when I’m on the beach, and when September rolls around, I’m always standing there, in line with the rest of the herd for a hyper-spiced sugar bomb masquerading as a coffee drink—a little paranoid of having my food professional credentials revoked.
That is, until I moved to Los Angeles, where I quickly found a home hanging out at Go Get Em Tiger, a third wave café that takes their coffee program very seriously, and the idea of hospitality even more so. They do everything with a focus on quality, in-house, and from-scratch whenever possible, right down to a freshly made macadamia milk—which is reason alone to become a regular—and a buttery, chewy chocolate chip cookie which still rates as my all-time favorite. The place has a playfulness too, from the friendly, they-could-be-siblings vibe of the staff, to the Dodgers bobbleheads hanging around at each table.
Since its founding in 2012, GGET has grown to multiple locations, and you can find that spirit in each shop. But there is no more testament to the intersection between fun and fancy than on the third Thursday of November. With a lineup of holiday-inspired drinks released only on Thanksgiving, GGET allows coffee lovers like me to unleash the inner basic B in a way that still preserves our hipster, high-brow dignity.
The notion was born back when Babinski and his partner Kyle Glanville were operating as a pop-up out of L.A.’s now legendary breakfast and lunch café, Sqrl. “We thought we’d do something fun for the four or five people [we expected to show] up—a nice respite, or at least a way to charge up before eating a bunch of turkey,” he says, crediting Glanville with the original idea. Turns out, I’m not the only specialty coffee nerd who still craves a nostalgic, sugary fix. “We expected five people to come, and like fifty came. It was far more than we were able to handle at the time. It felt like a total madhouse.”
Babinski says they were experimenting on the fly that first day, but more than five years later, the drinks have come a long way. By the time their second Thanksgiving rolled around, Babinski and Glanville had opened two of their own cafés: G&B Coffee in Grand Central Market in Downtown L.A., and Go Get Em Tiger on Larchmont Boulevard. Having dedicated space and staff gave them an opportunity to be more intentional and strategic. Chelsea Scott also joined the team as Culinary Director in 2014, adding a dimension to what were becoming increasingly complex drinks. Speaking with Scott, she reveals that a hell of a lot more goes into their holiday menu drinks than a squirt from some bottle of off-the-shelf syrup.
“We try to make everything in-house,” Scott explains. “Every single drink, if you break it down, has somewhere between four and six components. It’s not like we’re just making a pumpkin spice syrup [and serving it] with some whipped cream. It’s a house-made syrup that simmers for at least an hour on the stove; [we make] a special caramel infused with nutmeg.”
And GGET’s new classics aren’t just about what goes into the liquid itself, but the way it is presented and paired. “Every single drink has some sort of baked good or confection component,” Scott says. For the PSL, the piece de resistance is an honest-to-gourd freshly baked miniature pumpkin pie that sits in the rim of the glass.
“Each year it becomes more elaborate,” she says of the menu. The peppermint mocha—another favorite from the holiday coffee canon—is served in a cup made of chocolate with a sugar cookie stirring stick. “That entire drink is completely edible,” Scott says.
A toffee nut latte is presented as a “Cup of Toffee” meant to mimic the Cup of Noodles many may recall from college dorm room dinners. “We wrap instant coffee into a little flavor packet so it’s very much like opening a cup of noodles. You open the packet and pour it in, and then you add the steamed milk and stir it up. It’s a fun, interactive drink,” Scott explains.
Instant coffee from a specialty coffee shop—how can that be, you might ask? The GGET team has made their own packaged instant coffee, purchasing a dehydrator to remove the moisture from their coffee and espresso for this express purpose. “There’s a part of me that’s a geek about larger scale equipment and I find that intriguing,” Babinski says of his experiment. “There’s an aspect of the coffee business where the idea of trying to replicate a mass market-style product is really fun.”
The Thanksgiving tradition is as much a testing ground for both the coffee and culinary sides of the business as it is a party; a chance to have fun developing flavors, but also figure out best practices to serve crowds efficiently. “We love retail systems,” Babinski says. “We love figuring out new flows and ways of getting drinks out. Thanksgiving has been an opportunity for us to try out new stuff, incorporate new things into our drinks, and try out new systems.”
Some of those experiments are more successful than others, but the team tries to stay creative and inventive, and the menu isn’t static year over year—even in terms of the mainstay drinks. “The pumpkin spice latte has been refined year in and year out,” Babinski says.
The GGET team doesn’t spend their time staking out the local Starbucks for ideas. Scott admits, “I’ve never tasted those drinks; we just look at the names and try to imagine what that means to GGET, and try to make a super complicated, really fun, tasty, sugary treat,” she laughs. “We try to do something that we’re excited about or interested in at the time.”
As evidence, Scott explains the unusual inspiration behind one of GGET’s iterations for 2018. “This year we’re doing pumpkin spice latte two ways: one is our take on a ‘cheese tea,’” something that was new to her recently at local L.A. boba shops. “It’s basically a liquid frothy cheesecake on top of a boba drink,” she says, and this year customers will get to try her take.
The recipe testing begins as early as the summertime. “The ideas build off of each other,” Babinski says. “Chelsea is a really incredible thinker about these things. You can imagine something and she generally will have a good sense of how to make it happen. That’s always a fun exercise—to have some absurd idea and then try to cover the gulf between idea and reality.”
With the evolution over the years, some hits have been phased out too. “We had a chestnut praline latte, a boba drink I really loved,” Babinski remembers, as well as a creme brûlée latte that appeared the last two years and has since been retired.
Updates have aimed to make more available to non-dairy drinkers, too. “The idea was to have both a hot and a cold pumpkin spice latte and peppermint mocha, and to have one of those beverages be dairy-free and vegan for each one,” Babinski says. “That was our challenge for the year.”
GGET’s mission is to make the holiday experience as inclusive as possible—for their regular customers, and for those who might be from out of town, or can’t find a coffee fix for the holiday. There’s a bridging of the gap between serious drinkers, and those just looking to have a coffee and a little fun to start their holiday season.
But is it possible to both have fun and quality at the same time in the specialty coffee world? “It’s a testament to the refocusing of priorities in specialty coffee that people see anything where you’re having fun, bringing people together as being on mission,” Babinski reflects. It’s not a deviation from the intention of the specialty coffee world, but an extension of it. “The values for us are clear. This is an opportunity for us to do things using great ingredients or really involved prep, or offering other aspects of the service. It never feels like we’re turning our back on anything,” Babinski continues.
“It is definitely our one opportunity a year to really go for the over-the-top, sugary, dessert coffee,” says Scott, but she’s quick to note that coffee is still the heart of each drink. The limited-time-only event isn’t commentary on the inspiration. “I throw no shade on fancy holiday drinks,” Babinski tells me.
But given the work involved, it’s clearly a labor of love for the community, and not one that would be sustainable for the business on a regular basis. “[Monday through Wednesday of Thanksgiving week] are the craziest days of the entire year for [the team] because not only are they doing a bunch of prep for these drinks, but they’re also doing a ton of Thanksgiving pies. They all work really, really hard, and it’s incredible to see how much they crank out in such a short period of time. They’re awesome,” Scott says of the GGET staff.
And customers respond in kind. “For the first four or five hours [of Thanksgiving morning], it feels like a relatively infinite amount of people. There was a moment last year when we had maybe a hundred hundred drinks in the queue,” Babinski says.
While they manage the mayhem behind the scenes, customers are treated to a holiday scene they can share with the ones they love. “The coolest thing is when people bring their families,” Babinski says. “We’re trying to make it a community, gathering party vibe.”
Scott echoes that sentiment. “It’s a holiday about coming together and spending time with community or family. And in L.A., not everyone is from here; you’re not necessarily going to be able to spend time with your family on that day.”
Don’t expect these special drinks to make it to the daily GGET menu, but Babinski and company are committed to giving other reasons to come by all year long. “The value you provide in a specialty coffee shop is impossible to scale. It’s about that connection,” he says, continuing to emphasize the work and care that goes into each cup at every stage of the process.
That means that every day, we get the chance to share a cup of coffee with the ones we love—that’s something we can all be grateful for.
Go Get Em Tiger only serves this special holiday drink menu on Thanksgiving day at their Highland Park location, 8AM-2PM.