Millions of people flock to platforms like YouTube and Instagram everyday in search of advice from influencers and false-prophets on how to grow a brand or make money. Gary Vee, from New Jersey (by way of Belarus), is one of these prolific, celebrated business gurus, posting multiple videos a day that are loaded with repackaged common sense and hustle-culture jargon that folks can’t seem to get enough of.
In truth, Vee maybe needs only to make one singular 15-second clip to summarize the entirety of his advice, with a script that reads: “Go to high school in one of the most affluent communities in the country, get a degree from a private college, have a dad with a business valued at $3 million, enter the business world during the advent of YouTube, and insist that your hard work, and not your privilege, is the sole reason for your success.” A simple, five-step plan that anybody can follow—he started from nothing!
Mostly joking here. Vee seems like a positive dude, but generally speaking, it’s best to be skeptical of people and institutions who are pumping copious amounts of capital into peddling their self-help brand. To them, you are not an individual in search of help to make it in the marketplace… you are the marketplace.
So, stick with Gary if you prefer to fill up your day with mind-numbing clips about reselling sneakers on eBay and your side-hustle. But if you’re after something a little more earnest, a lot funnier, and more inspiring, there’s another guy in Jersey you ought to check out.
John Cozz, a young entrepreneur (a title he’d probably shirk) from Essex County, has his hand in plenty of ventures. With his music (including a band and record anti-label; he’ll explain that later), coffee business, skate videos and other content-creation, you’d think the kid would be slinging T-shirts adorned with vapid catch-phrases like, “Sleep when you die” or, unironically for the skater, “Grind every day” and preaching to his followers on how to “Hustle like Cozz.” But he doesn’t, at least not seriously. Every move Cozz makes isn’t according to some master plan with designs to amass an impressionable following, rather, his business/content organically develops from a desire to create and pursue his passions.
I talked with Cozz recently about those passions, his inspiration, roasting beans (and himself), and a whole lot more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Coffee, music, skateboarding, filmmaking, content-creation. Am I missing anything? What takes up most of your time these days?
Nah, I think you got it. Coffee and music are the two biggest things that I’m into right now.
How did you get involved with coffee and when did Cozz Coffee come about?
I was going to school for architecture and some of my friends worked at this cafe around the corner from my school, so I just ended up spending a lot of time there doing homework. Eventually, I started working there and I ended up really liking being in the cafe environment. I worked at various cafes throughout school and realized that it’s viable to have a career in coffee outside of being a barista. I got into roasting coffee and learned about wholesale, online retail or ecommerce and all of that stuff and then during COVID I ended up starting my own thing [Cozz Coffee].
While I’ve talked with coffee shop owners and baristas in the past, roasting is a part of the coffee business that’s still pretty foreign to me. Could you shed some light on how the whole thing works, how you make profits, etc.?
So, you’re buying a raw product and obviously it’s cheaper because it’s raw, but then you’re also buying it wholesale. Unless they are roasted [the coffee beans] you really can’t use them, and then I basically set my prices according to industry standard. There are bigger companies who sell coffee for a lot cheaper than I do—like, Folgers can sell their product for $4/lb., whereas I sell mine for like $15.75/lb., but they probably own the farms that they’re growing the coffee beans on and the product is of lesser quality and less sorted. There’s a far bigger variance of quality with a situation like that.
The coffee industry is a bit weird in that a lot of people are getting their beans from the same importers. In terms of specialty coffee, there’s not a lot of different importers—the same group of people own a large share of the coffee beans. A lot of people are getting beans from the same place so I already knew where I wanted to go when I started; I knew the level of quality I was looking for. It’s really easy to sort of look at your peers or other companies that you want to strive to be like and just find the green bean importers that they are buying from. That’s a huge part of the equation.
Where do you roast and what’s the process like?
I roast it all myself at a commercial space in Belleville, NJ. I guess, if you think about it, it’s similar to meat: at the end of the day, applying heat to something to reach a desired temperature. Certain beans react better to certain temperatures, you know? With a steak, you want high heat, cooked really fast to get a good sear and not overcook the inside of the meat, but with chicken you want to cook it low and slow. Coffee is sort of like that: South American beans tend to cater more to a nice medium roast whereas African beans tend to react better to a lighter roast, and then Asian beans tend to react better to a darker roast—but that’s just a guide really; that may not always be true.
So there’s a lot of experimentation you can do with different beans/temperatures?
Yeah, I mean currently I have three beans that I’ve been buying over the course of two years so I’m kind of on autopilot with them—I know how to roast them to the way that I want them to taste. I’ll still do weekly tastings of them to ensure that what I’m tasting now is what I was tasting six months ago or a year ago to make sure it’s consistent. When I bring in a new bean, it has to go through this experimentation where I roast it on a smaller roaster first, so I’m not wasting coffee, and just figure out what temperature I need to roast it at to bring out certain, desired characteristics. You can roast any bean to a light or dark roast but then you’ll bring out these different characteristics, so then it’s just about what you think a certain bean caters to.
For clarity’s sake, dark roast refers to higher heat over a longer period of time?
Not always a longer period of time for the roasting; you want to kind of stick within a 15- to 17-minute range with the roaster I’m using (some roasters can do the same thing in nine minutes). I want to get all of my roasts done within that 15- to 17-minute period. But, yeah, for a darker roast I want to bring it up to a higher temperature, so that means letting the heat run longer or putting the beans in the roaster at a higher temperature.
Where do you get the artwork for your packaging? Is that all your design?
Well, I’ve only done one of the bags. A big thing for me, coming from the world of skateboarding and music, I kind of have a really big pool of artists and creatives I can pull from and I’ve always wanted to do something that can highlight my friends. I’m always trying to think of creative ways to highlight the talented people around me, so when I started this thing, I knew I didn’t just want to have bags with the logo and name of the country of origin on it, I wanted the art to be the reason or one of the reasons to buy the bag of coffee. So all of the artwork you see on the bags is done by my friends or by artists I like. I’ve tried to reach out to random artists I like on Instagram but that hasn’t worked out super well yet.
How long have you been involved with music?
I’ve been playing shows since 2015.
How would you describe your music?
I listen to a lot of anti-folk music and really earnest music. Earnest is typically the word I use to describe my stuff because I’m not really good at coming up with analogies or metaphors. I always sort of question it when I do, so I try to stick to being as literal and hope that if I can be hyper-specific about things, people can find ways to relate it to their own hyper-specific situations.
I also don’t see the stigma around calling my music pop-punk. I know a lot of people try to stay away from that title because of the mid-2000s pop punk bands, but I don’t really know what else to call it because most of them are just like pop-punk songs in that A-B format and influenced by punk music. I mean, I think some of the bands that I aspire to sound like would be Weezer, Jeff Rosenstock, Talking Heads, Pixies, bands like that.
The comedic side of it is just to break any sort of fourth wall. I don’t know, it makes it less tense for me to perform music so I like to make things funny. When I first started playing music I tried doing the sad, honest thing but as I’ve gotten older and more content with my life and happy, I realize that I don’t have that much to complain about; so navigating around that, I just choose to try to make people laugh instead.
Is it just John Cozz or John Cozz & the Rippers? Is the band behind you a rotating lineup?
It’s funny, I basically change the name of the band pretty much every time I play a show. I put out a few EPs with different band names that I was kind of practicing with a lot and The Rippers was a semi-consistent lineup. The music, at the end of the day, is written by me and then my friend Max [Rauch] who records it—he has a big hand in the writing process of it, too. I’ll usually come to him with a song idea and we’ll figure it out, I guess he was one of “The Rippers.”
You played at one of Christ Gethard’s “New Jersey is the World” shows at House of Independents recently, how did that go? How did you get on the bill?
Two years, or maybe three years ago now, he [Chris Gethard, comedian] put out an album called Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese right around the time I released a song with the same name. So just joking around I sent out a message on my stories saying, “Everybody message Chris Gethard and tell him to take down his record, or else! Tell him John Cozz is the only person who can put out albums about Taylor Ham, egg and cheese!” A bunch of people started messaging him and my one friend said, “Take down the album and watch your fucking back!” So then he reached out to me and was like, “Who the fuck are you? Why are you having these people messaging me? You called a bunch of minions to fucking attack me, what the fuck are you doing?” To which I responded, “Hey, man, I’m really sorry, I honestly didn’t think you’d pay any mind or even be aware of it; I was really just joking around with my friends and sometimes I forget that bigger people are still people and you might react to that. I was just ball-busting, I’m really sorry.” After a little while he got back to me saying, “You know what, I get it now. Sorry I kinda stepped on you, I guess that is a little funny.”
Nothing else came of it until a year later he reached out again to let me know he was reminded of our conversation and that he went back through the whole thing and really saw the humor in it. From that point on he started following me on Instagram; apparently we have a lot of the same followers and he thought that if so many of the same people liked me, I can’t be that bad; so he started following and paying attention to my music and skateboarding and stuff.
The show was really fun, we hung out for like two hours beforehand just shooting the shit about New Jersey, he asked my whole band where we were from, he was just a really cool guy.
Are you playing in any other bands?
Right now I’m just focusing on my own stuff. I’ve filled in for friends’ bands in terms of playing shows but, yeah, primarily just doing my stuff right now.
Pizza Bagel Records is that your label?
Yeah, so, Max [Rauch] who I mentioned before does all of the recording for my music, it’s our label. We reluctantly call it a label, I guess, because we just don’t know what else to call it. We kind of like the idea of being a content-farm of sorts, just having an umbrella for all of our friends to be a part of something—maybe not putting out everyone’s music but working on bigger projects that we can involve a lot of different people in. Like, last year we did a compilation where we invited people to send us songs about soup and we raised money for the community food bank through that. Then last summer we did a covers compilation: we did live sessions, filmed and then recorded them for the Index Art Center [Newark]. So we’ve done some different things but it’s mostly just the music from my band and his band that we release. I kind of like the idea that we are this tight-knit thing that, if someone likes what we’re doing, it’s apparent they are aware of us and what we do then, [and they can choose to be a part of it]. We aren’t like scanning the internet for the next big thing and trying to put a record out for them; it’s not a traditional label in that sense.
Humor seems to be the common thread in everything that you do. There’s a lot of self-deprecation, which I think people really appreciate, for example: in a recent story on Instagram, you responded to someone calling you out for spelling/grammar errors by polling your followers, asking if it’s nice to make fun of someone who is illiterate.
Haha, well there’s actually more to that: I always thought I had dyslexia because I had a lot of trouble with reading, and then three or four years ago, I met with a doctor who specializes in dyslexia and I had to take a test. At the end of the test she was like, “Yeah, it looks like you have it. If you want to start this course, we meet for a week straight, seven hours per day and it’s a workshop that will help you learn how to deal with this… and it’s going to be $7,000.” At that point I had already graduated college so I figured I didn’t really need to read that badly!
I guess a lot of what I do comes back to the idea that no one can make fun of you for something if you make fun of it yourself first. I was always the youngest kid in my friend group growing up so, yeah, I’d get bullied but I liked it at the same time. I learned how to make myself a joke, but in a confident way, before anyone else could make fun of me—roasting myself the hardest so that anything you could say was just nothing by comparison.
There are a bunch of clips of you skateboarding on your Instagram page. I was expecting them to be comical at first because of your other content, but you’re actually really good. Has skating been a lifelong passion for you?
Yeah, I mean everything I’ve gotten or done in my life, it probably all comes back to skateboarding. I’ve been skating since I was like 11. When I was younger I played music before I started skating, but then in like fifth or sixth grade, music kind of went on the back burner for me because my friends and I would always be outside hanging out in parking lots, skating. That was always more fun to me and I was never really involved in the music scene until 2015 when I became a little jaded with skateboarding; I took it a little less seriously and didn’t want to really be a part of trying to “make it” in any sense. I was definitely treating skating in the way that a lot of people treat music, though: going around to different cities, trying to meet different crews, selling videos, getting involved in all of these scenes, things like that.
Skating was kind of the foray into filmmaking and content-creation then?
Yeah, I mean, I have a friend who went to film school and he said it’s honestly a pretty common thing for someone’s first attempt at filming anything to be a skate video. I guess a lot of it is influenced by that early era of skate videos and Jackass and kids trying to make their own versions around the same time that YouTube was coming up. Making skate videos with my friends, that was like my first introduction to event organizing, too: planning premieres for the videos and having parties.
You released a full-length skate film Absolutely Miffed earlier this year, any plans for follow-up in the future?
Well, with a skate project, especially when everyone is working all the time, it’s really hard to find time to skate everyday. Usually, if we go out skating right now we just go to a skatepark to practice more than anything else; whereas, if we’re going street skating, sometimes it can be a month straight where it feels like you’re not progressing at all because 3 seconds of a skate video can amount to 2 hours of trying out a trick sometimes. Then driving 2 hours to go skate a spot… it can add up to 5-7 hours of your day, all for 7 seconds of footage. It’s very hard to make skate videos when you have to factor all of that into it and you don’t have the free time to skate everyday. But, me and my friend who I made [Absolutely Miffed] with, we’ve been talking about [making another film], we just haven’t really been able to make our schedules link up right now, but we’re still out skating.
I also think its pretty common, after putting out a video, to kind of want to take a break because you just become so jaded by the end of it, like, “What the fuck am I even doing? I’m 30 years old and filming a skate video? Why am I doing this?” But then enough time goes by and you’re like, “I think it’s time to make another video, boys!”
Of all the things you do, what would you say brings you the most happiness right now?
Hmm… I don’t know, I enjoy them all for different reasons. Some days they are all frustrating me, and then other days they are all amazing. I think right now, I’d say the coffee probably is [bringing me the most happiness] because no matter what, I’m doing something coffee related; whether it’s just making coffee for me and my girlfriend in the morning or going to a market or running my online store, I think coffee is always there for me and its resonated with the most people. Most of the strangers who know who I am, especially from my presence online, when they come up to talk to me they talk about coffee. Which is cool because I don’t want it to be this faceless company, I want people to buy it because it’s mine, which is why I put myself in front of the camera a lot.
You can visit John this summer and purchase made to order coffee drinks or bags of Cozz Coffee every Tuesday and Sunday at the Bloomfield Community Farmers Market or Nutley Farmers Market, respectively.
For all things John Cozz: Instagram