Cool Screed, Bro: Or, How do We Overcome The Fixation with Coolness?

Back in 2008, I was just getting my start in the serious coffee industry; I had worked for Peet's for some years in college, and after spending some time at Monmouth and other shops in London I felt compelled to dive deeper into the industry. Barefoot Coffee Roasters was my first "serious" job; I was doing wholesale for a company that was doing some very good sourcing, and some very good coffee, out of a strip mall in Cupertino and a renovated house in a semi-industrial/residential neighborhood in San Jose. It was an exciting gig, both for seeing the inner workings of a small company, but also for getting introduced more seriously into the industry. So when Tony K mentioned on twitter that he was putting together the team to do the coffee at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco, I reached out and put Barefoots name in the game. What better way to get introduced to the industry than to get to work with players like Counter Culture, Ritual, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and others in a veritable hotbed of foodie interest? (At the time, it also seemed like a perfect opportunity to sell a wider public on the "coffee culinarism" that Barefoot prided itself on and a great wholesale pitch.)

The event itself was an education in pop-up operations, flo-jets, and interacting with producers, but also representation within the coffee community in general. Because the thing that struck me was, in some cases, the attitude that was given to folks who worked for Barefoot and showed up by folks who worked for other firms. A certain manager for Intelligentsia made a comment, in passing, that he wouldn't pull coffee from the company because, and I quote, "they don't do serious coffee" (he would later only be found pulling shots for, or making coffee from, Intelligentsia the entire weekend). There were lots of lovely folks there, but it was easy to remember moments like that, where by virtue or stint of (a) not being in San Francisco, (b) operating out of a strip mall, or (c) serving beverages that used home-made syrups or anything beyond the 6-item menu that was the model for much of the early "Third Wave" of coffee (for lack of better descriptor), there was a lot that seemed to disqualify Barefoot from being taken seriously by parts of the industry. 

I learned quickly to get over it and not care about it, but it was a lesson: people could be drawn in, very easily, to the notion of gatekeepers, cool kids, or that there's a hierarchy of achievement in the coffee industry. It was also very easy, I noted early in my consulting work after leaving Barefoot, to see how people mimicked or replicated the trappings of those popular cafes or roasters without every understanding the systems underlying those cafes and how they worked. (i.e. how many cafes modeled themselves after Intelly Silverlake or Venice?) (Also, I swear, I'm not trying to rag on Intelly! There was this window of time where a lot of its staff were loud and its shops super trendy amongst owner-operators.) The same came to pass when I transitioned into hospitality more generally; whether it was farmers, bakers, or restaurants, there were whiffs of where people got angsty because they wouldn't get to hang with the Josey Bakers, or wouldn't get the invite to such and such event. So when the random good coffee dude instagram/twitter scramble happened last week, it wasn't necessarily surprising; I've seen a lot of new entrants to the industry flail and fail based on the fact that (a) they model their businesses on impressions instead of structured plans, (b) they do so with a chip on their shoulder and (c) I don't think they ever seriously got involved or interested in the industry for their own interest/sake, but because they're effectively the culinary equivalent of stock market or tech bros. 

When reading the coffee guy story, there were so many details of their own practice that were jarring, like expecting to be able to do viable wholesale off of a 5kg roaster (narrators voice: you won't). There are a lot of mystifying decisions people make based upon observations of and nods to the stylistic choices of major players in the industry, and not based on sound propositions on paper. We exist in a time and place where people don't open businesses based upon an interest or capacity of enjoying the work, but because they see the measure of it as a lifestyle or an income flow; "cafe owner" is, like "chef" a category that many cast aspirations on but don't actually understand what it requires, or actually enjoy the work attached to it. While a lot of folks move up the coffee ladder to get away from day to day barista-ing -- the early hours, occasionally shifty pay, and so on -- I don't think you'd find many who don't fundamentally have an INTEREST in the work they're doing, or a compulsion, philosophically, morally, or otherwise, to IMPROVE the practice of the industry they are in. The returns are not just financial, in the sense of a business doing well, but also intellectual, and feed on the notion that, notionally, most of us want to do work that is productive, thoughtful, interesting, and fulfilling to ourselves and hopefully useful for others. It's part of the reason I stay in the food world generally -- it's a great medium for being able to introduce people to all variety of newness and lessons in much bigger things in our world (like nutrition, policy, agriculture, economics). 

It would be wrong to ignore, though, that in-crowds do exist in the industry -- I don't think part of this discussion would feel so weird if it weren't for the fact that there is a sort of bro-core to parts of the coffee or food industry, or the way we have to create enclaves in order to feel ownership in the industry in response to it. Professional orgs, media, and other vectors also amplify this, based around who gets profiled, how our professional media gets distributed, the types of events and spaces that get promoted (and those within them). And unless there's that degree of personal conviction or satisfaction around the work one is doing, it is easy to get sidelined into resentments about the industry, especially if one feels as if they are following the right trends, the right marketing, the right model, as those sources have promoted or otherwise set the expectation of "successful" shops. 

In restaurants as in coffee, there have been moves to correct for a lot of the hazy and unquestioned promotion of certain types of peoples and practices as being exemplars of the industry. Some of this has been internally driven by some fantastic people who have stayed in the industry because of their interest in seeing it made better; some of this externally by those who have created new mediums for assessing value in both business plans and media work. The latter camp are the people who quietly do the work, often not seeking acknowledgment, other than people appreciating what they bring to the table. Both groups are important for the same reason: they bring attention to the good work because of their investment in seeing myriad things outside of themselves improve, not just the success or viability of their shops or operations (or as is the case many times, the owner-operators need for self-validation). 

While it is satisfying sometimes to drag people for rants like last weeks, it's also important that we talk them through it. Getting people to that moment where they pivot out of the industry or pivot into better working norms and behaviors isn't noble if its all done through hitting rock bottom; it does neither a service for the industry, or for our respective psychological health (because Lord n Lady know, these types of folks can be exhausting). But it's important that, within our industries, we chose to be supportive and constructive (and when the need arises, really really real) with folks who have elected to be part of the industry. If they choose not to listen, that's on them; if they chose to remain cynical, its also on them (and in the grand tradition, if someone choses not to listen, then it's also instructive on us, to never help again). 

Breaking the cycle on these things is important; getting people to orient themselves towards personal rather than profit motivated behaviors is one (and don't get me on how they're one and the same -- they can be, but rooting ones values in profit is different than rooting ones values in personal or community improvement). I'd rather hospitality writ large weren't about who gets more printed about them or who gets better reviews; i'd rather a lot of the support structures of our industries were more attuned to doing better rather than doing what clicks. There are many great examples of this happening right now; the question is how do we get there, to build an industry where people have reasons to contribute to its continual improvement, and encourages a mindfulness around why we're engaged in these projects, beyond just making a buck.

I got to writing about this because in (maybe) anonymous coffee dudes attitude I saw where I was over a decade ago, 22 years old feeling slighted because some industry "vets" didn't seem to care for the company I worked for, and therefore myself. I learned quickly to ignore it, and focus on the reasons I was in the industry to begin with: to work towards improving livelihoods in coffee work, to make people excited about food stories, and to see coffee as a culinary product, not a commodity. And being able to reorient towards working on that mission made clear that there was better work to be done than being sore about not being popular, and better ways of going about it that some of my "cooler" peers were able to do themselves.