We got the chance to talk with barista pioneer Michelle Johnson. The first time we heard about her was through her talk at a coffee conference in Seattle this year. It was The Intersectionality Panel which she will get into below. She was gracious enough to answer some questions about the coffee industry, diversity, and gentrification. She started the blog The Chocolate Barista. As the Coffee Club it's important we keep our pulse on what's happening in the coffee industry.
Can you introduce yourself & talk about your coffee journey?
Hi! My name is Michelle Johnson and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. I write and post some things on my website, The Chocolate Barista and run marketing at Barista Hustle, the educational brainchild of Matt Perger based out of Melbourne, Australia.
I started in coffee in 2011 at a second wave shop in Washington, DC. I always wanted to be a barista and I took it so seriously when I started out. (I still do!) It wasn’t until the next year that I started working at my first shop that served specialty coffee in Virginia called Bayou Bakery. That changed everything. We were a Counter Culture account, so that opened the door to tasting single origin coffees for the first time, going to cuppings, and taking classes that dove deeper into the process of coffee. I was fortunate to have really awesome managers who encouraged me to get as deep into it as I wanted.
In 2013, I moved to Phoenix and soon after, I started working at Cartel Coffee Lab’s Sky Harbor Airport location. I worked as a barista and an assistant manager at that store and also the flagship location in Tempe. During my time at Cartel, I competed twice, attended Barista Camp, and became SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) Level 1 certified.
I took a little bit of a break from working behind the bar to pursue a career in creative marketing, but eventually started picking up shifts here and there at Futuro in Downtown Phoenix. I competed a third time earlier this year for Presta Coffee Roasters out of Tucson but didn’t qualify for USBC(United States Barista Championship). It worked out though because I’ve been able to do a bunch of other cool things in coffee. Now, I’m at Barista Hustle and moving to Australia very soon!
Can you tell us about The Chocolate Barista?
The Chocolate Barista is a blog site that began as a lifestyle blog through the lens of my life as a barista. I wasn’t the typical barista you’d think to see at a specialty coffee shop being a Black woman. I wanted to create a space for me to express how I did barista life through music and fashion, but I also focused on what was going on in the Phoenix coffee community since I was so heavily involved in it.
A very real part of my life as a coffee professional is navigating through an industry that’s predominately white and male serving a similar customer base as a Black woman. I posted a blog called, The Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black In Specialty Coffee that called attention to a lot of the experiences I had on both sides of the bar and it blew up. Since then, I’ve written multiple blogs about how the industry, internally, is not as progressive as we like to think, and it’s inspired a ton of discussion online, at events, and helped to give people space to talk openly about their experiences working in the industry, as well.
Where do you think coffee is in terms of diversity?
We still have a long way to go. I’m happy to see there are conversations happening more frequently to make the industry more inclusive for everyone. Now, it’s trying to get some concrete action to take place so that we can actually move along.
What are somethings that consumers should know about being a women of color in the coffee industry?
I wrote a whole blog post on this! I spend a lot more of my time explaining to people my history in coffee and credentials than actually getting around to talking about coffee. Folks have a tendency to question information I offer, or don’t even ask me at all. Also because of The Chocolate Barista, most people think I only want to engage in conversations about racial diversity, forgetting that the “Barista” part is also in the name. I’m a coffee professional too, y’all! Let’s talk about water chemistry or different approaches to coffee education for consumers and professionals. I’m passionate about those things, too.
What do you think about coffee shops that go into underserved neighborhoods?
I’m not terribly concerned with whether a coffee shop should go into an underserved neighborhood (though, neighboring landlords will absolutely take note and pricing more often than not will be affected by businesses moving in). What I will always question are the motives behind placing said shop in that neighborhood. Was cheap rent something you were seeking? Do you think you’re able to “turn the neighborhood around” by moving in? What about the needs of the community you’re moving into? Do those matter to you?
Coffee shops have always been “community” spaces, or at least we like to market them as such, but many don’t really have the walk to match the talk. What I see the most are only certain communities being welcomed and encouraged to come together while others aren’t nurtured to do the same.
Can you talk about the SCA Panel you were part of centered around intersectionality?
I was more than a part of it — it was my idea! After attending The Coffeewoman’s inaugural event last year, I’d been feeling like a part of the conversation was missing: the unique experiences of Black women and women of color in coffee. I’d been talking to Tracy Ging, one of the founders of The Coffeewoman along with Laila Ghambari, via email about some ideas I wanted to try and take action on this year. I suggested teaming up with them to bring forth the conversation of intersectionality at SCA to provide that extra layer of depth to the experiences of women in coffee specific to race and obviously the rest is history haha.
The audio of the panel is available on I Brew My Own Coffee (along with a recap episode with me) and Sprudge also posted an abridged transcript. We had some fire people on the panel: Jenn Chen, Tymika Lawrence, Phyllis Johnson, Liz Dean, and Meister, with Tracy and I helping lead the discussion. It’s definitely a conversation that’s far from over, but it was an excellent starting point. I highly suggest getting into the podcast episodes about it and reading more about intersectionality itself! There are a ton of connections to be made with the coffee industry.
What are next steps for you, what are you going to be doing at Barista Hustle?
Next month, I’ll be packing up to move to Melbourne to join up with the Matt and Michael at BH. We have a lot of cool ideas and projects in the works. A lot of my focus will be on marketing, communication, and sales, but I will also be getting pretty deep into researching, producing educational content, and helping develop the next great innovation in coffee.
As far as The Chocolate Barista goes, more written works are on the way! I have a few ideas to expand the platform a bit, but I’m hashing those out. We’ll see where it goes, but I’ll always be a voice on the internet for the people.
What’s one coffee tip you can give to our members?
Make your own coffee brewing water!! Water is ~98% of coffee, so it has a HUGE effect on how your coffee tastes. You don't need to drop a ton of dollars to do it, either. Just get some distilled water, Epsom salt, and baking soda! We have a post on Barista Hustle listing different recipes to make and how it'll affect the coffee you're brewing. :)
Follow Michelle Johnson around the web
Instagram: @meeshalrj + @thechocolatebarista
Twitter: @meeshal + @thechocbarista
Facebook: Michelle Johnson