What was the very first cup of coffee you remember drinking in your life?
My parents had a restaurant when I was growing up, and I remember making this drink that was a cup of coffee that had three sugars, three creams, a little slab of butter and a packet of hot chocolate mix in it.
How’d that taste?
It was amazing for an eleven-year-old, and the effects were even better. Maybe I was 12 or 13. I don’t remember.
What were the after effects?
They wanted to put me in a straight jacket.
Who are some notable mentors, and what would you say that they taught you in particular?
Well, the ones that I mentioned earlier that I met early on – Andrew Barnett, Peter Giuliano – it’s amazing to talk to people who’ve spent time in Papua New Guinea, or Brazil, or Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, and gotten to know the ins and outs of the industry, logistically, and gotten to know the flavors and what contributes and doesn’t contribute to the best coffees coming out of those places. Also, just the passion and positivity…even people who are working as barbacks at our shops have that same look in their eye, even though they might not have any idea of what a varietal of coffee is, or what coffee from Rwanda tastes like. I consider them inspirational at the same time, and if I can teach them something and learn something back from them, the world is full of mentors for me. That sounds so cheesy, but it’s true.
What’s your favorite aspect of working in the coffee world?
I think people. Connection. Feeling like I’ve got my finger on the pulse of the world, in a way, and it’s really based on a very positive industry. This drink makes us happy and it’s a thing to do while we sit and talk about other things. Or we can talk about coffee. I love the social connection of the beverage. Especially now with how transparent the supply chain is – at least on the level we’re trying to work on and a lot of other respectable roasters are working on – you can bump into the producers at some of these coffee shops, or events are held for the producers to celebrate their hard work. I never would have imagined – growing up in Montana – that I would cup coffee with a farmer from Kenya who grew that coffee. It makes the world feel like a small town, in a way. And then, a close second, when we find a special coffee that tastes amazing, that’s super special, super important.
Do you have such a thing as a top selling coffee beverage within the company, or does it vary from location to location?
It definitely varies from location to location. I work in every store. I would probably say small cappuccino. I want to dream that’s the top selling beverage. I think so, though. It’s just a good representation of the quality of the espresso, quality of the milk, craftsmanship of the beverage as a whole, on the barista side.
Would you say that brewed coffee has gained in popularity since you first started working in coffee?
Definitely. At out other shops, besides the Pro Shop, we always have the house blend – which people can come in, they don’t have to think about it, we try to make sure it tastes good in milk, pretty straightforward profile – we offer that right next to a single origin that changes. Even though we’re not necessarily as geeky as the Pro Shop at the other stores, we always have options for people. Again, it gives them a gateway to let them start thinking about coffee in a different way, but it’s not necessarily shoving coffee knowledge down their throats. If they want the knowledge, it’s there and we’re ready with it. Some people really – it’s almost as important for me if somebody tries a coffee besides the house blend and has an opinion on it – good or bad, and says, “I prefer this,” or, “I prefer that.” That, to me, says, “Mission accomplished,” because I don’t like every coffee that I taste…I definitely think it’s tasting better. You don’t have to put as much milk and sugar in it anymore, as you did back in the dark roast days.
What’s your personal preference? Would you rather have brewed coffee or espresso if given a choice?
It’s 8:30, and I’ve already had a macchiato and a brewed coffee. I go back and forth.
What’s a typical coffee consumption day for you, from when you wake up?
A pretty typical day for me is what I’ve done so far, and maybe one more cup later on in the afternoon, or a cappuccino, a bump in the afternoon.
If you could only have one more shot of espresso, who would you let pull it for you?
Ever? In the whole world?
Oh man, that’s a tough one. I would probably have one of the World Barista Champions pull it for me…I always wanted to taste a shot from James Hoffmann at Square Mile.
In terms of New York coffee – you’ve been here nearly since its infancy in terms of specialty coffee – what are some of the changes that you’ve noticed in the last six-and-a-half years?
There’s been a swing back and forth between really learning as much as possible about the product, and making sure the product is top-notch, and the equipment’s top-notch and practices are top-notch, and getting better and better and pushing that further. That’s one side of the pendulum. The other side is, “How do we turn that into awesome customer service and bring back all the customers we lost from being too geeky?” How do we slowly turn people who don’t think about coffee into geeks? Or not. How do we make them have a great experience in our coffee shop? When I first started in specialty coffee, it was really all about the equipment that was coming out, the roast dates on beans, the lighter roasts on coffees, and now we’re keeping all that, and we’re always pushing the boundaries of that, but now it’s woven into an amazing customer experience without turning people off. We want to bring them in.
Is the New York specialty coffee market saturated? If it’s not, where are areas of growth?
I think we figured out once that New Yorkers, a two-block radius is about as far as people are willing to walk. I don’t think it’s saturated at all. There’s a lot of room. In the press, there’s a lot of buzz about the few shops that are here, but really, any neighborhood could handle having an awesome coffee shop because it provides a place for the neighborhood to get together and hang out. There’s a lot of room left. Look at Seattle. There’s a café/roastery on top of another café/roastery and they’re both slammed busy.