“Take A Coffee Break With The Chocolate Barista” Transcript
Kerry Diamond: Hi, everybody, you're listening to Radio Cherry Bombe, and I'm your host, Kerry Diamond. Each week we bring the pages of Cherry Bombe Magazine to life through conversations with the most inspiring women in and around the world of food.
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Alright, we have some housekeeping. Radio Cherry Bombe is on tour. So far, we've been to Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas. It's been amazing to meet so many members of the Bombe Squad and hear from so many incredible women. But, the fun is not over yet. Tonight we are in Birmingham, that is November 15th, at The Essential, and we'll be talking to different women to find out what the food scene is like in the Magic City.
And, then, on Sunday we head down to New Orleans to talk to Kristen Essig of Coquette, Joy the Baker, and others at the Ace Hotel. If you live in those cities and want to hear an episode of Radio Cherry Bombe recorded live, now is your chance. Tickets are still available on cherrybombe.com, so don't forget, Birmingham tonight, and then New Orleans on Sunday. I'm very excited. If you can't meet us on the road, don't worry, we'll be releasing each stop as part of a very special Radio Cherry Bombe miniseries later this year.
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The very final stop, nobody knows this, yet, I think, but it's Seattle on December 1st. Well will be going to Book Larder one of our favorite places. It's one of the places we kicked off the Cherry Bombe Cookbook Tour, so I'm really thrilled to be going back to Seattle. And, we will have some very special guests. And, if you go to the Book Larder website you can snag a ticket, right now.
Today's guest is Michelle Johnson. Some of you might know Michelle as The Chocolate Barista on Instagram. Michelle's been working to shed light on the lack of diversity in the coffee scene. She started a special live event called Black Coffee where she and baristas and coffee shop owners discuss the specialty coffee scene and what needs to change. She's held them in Portland, New York City, and Washington DC.
I was really excited to have Michelle on the show, because she and I have kind of been email pen pals for the last year. So, it was really wonderful to chat with her in person and hear how she got started on the coffee scene and how she came to be doing what she's doing. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much I did. And, we will be right back after this word from Le Cordon Bleu.
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Kerry Diamond: I am so excited to be here with you, Michelle, because we have been pen pals for so many months now, I really forgot that we had never met.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. I haven't been in New York in over a year.
Kerry Diamond: Wow.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: And, what do you think? Has it changed dramatically?
Michelle Johnson: It's still just as busy. As soon as I land here I always immediately get stressed out, but like a good type of stressed.
Kerry Diamond: I'm stressed out all the time in New York.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: So, you spent time in Portland. I feel like Portland's as caffeinated if not more caffeinated, but they're way more chill.
Michelle Johnson: Way more. I think it's because of the recreational marijuana.
Kerry Diamond: I was going to say that. I didn't want to make assumptions, but I was gonna say-
Michelle Johnson: No, it's definitely that.
Kerry Diamond: ... is it the up and the down and the-
Michelle Johnson: And the trees.
Kerry Diamond: Okay.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: And, the trees. I mean, the air-
Michelle Johnson: It's beautiful.
Kerry Diamond: I don't want to lump Portland and Seattle. I know that's like an obnoxious, New York thing to do. But, the air in Portland and the air in Seattle, it's not the same. We do not breathe the same air.
Michelle Johnson: I like to call Portland my 'side piece'. I would never marry the side piece, so I will never move to Portland, permanently, but I will go there for like three months at a time and hang out just on the low, very quietly, and then leave.
Kerry Diamond: It's gotta be good for everything, the lungs, the soul, your brain.
So, you had said, we were having lunch, and you're like, "How did you find me?" And, I was like, "I have no idea." I think it might have been we were going to Portland on the Radio Cherry Bombe Tour, earlier this year, and I realized we did not have a single coffee person on the panel or speaking. And, I was like, "Alright, you can't roll into Portland and not have somebody representing the coffee scene." So, I just started looking up women in the coffee scene and fell down that Google rabbit hole and found you. And, then, I think I'd missed you by like-
Michelle Johnson: Was it a week? Two weeks or something?
Kerry Diamond: ... by a week or something.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: Real bummer. But, you had just been there, and was it the first of the Black Coffee programs?
Michelle Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-.
Kerry Diamond: So, we have so much to unpack here. Let's start with you, Michelle, no, let's start with The Chocolate Barista. How did The Chocolate Barista become a thing?
Michelle Johnson: Whoo, well, I started The Chocolate Barista in January of 2016. I was still working as a barista in Phoenix, Arizona at the time. And, Phoenix, it's a big city, but also kind of has a small town feel to it, so a lot of its communities are very intertwined and close to each other. So, one of the communities that overlapped with the coffee scene was the creative community. So, I had a lot of friends who were photographers, bloggers, influencers, and things like that. And, I was like, "I wanna do that, but I'm a barista, so I want to make this blog that's about my barista lifestyle." And, I was like, "Well, I'm the only black person here, so I'm gonna be The Chocolate Barista."
Kerry Diamond: The name just popped in your head?
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. I think it was someone else had said it sort of as a joke, but I was like, "That kinda has a ring to it, so I'm gonna keep it." And, at first, I tried to start it like a year before. And, I was in college, so I was like, "Oh, this'll be about community and coffee and college." Then, I dropped out of college, so I was like, "This'll just be about coffee and community."
I grew up in DC, in the DC area.
Kerry Diamond: Okay.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah, I was born in Northern Virginia.
Kerry Diamond: And, then, how did you wind up in Phoenix?
Michelle Johnson: It's sort of like a 'dart at the map' type of situation. I visited when I was like 18 or 19 years old. One of my friends I grew up with used to go to Arizona State, so I randomly went to visit her and had a great time. And, back then, there was nothing in Phoenix, so I have no idea how I latched on and was like, "Yeah, this is the place for me." But, I did. And, it took a couple of years for me to move there, but, in that time, I had gotten into coffee, become a barista, started to get really into that and I was like, "You know, no matter where I move - 'cause I didn't wanna stay in DC - I was like at least I can be a barista anywhere. This is a skillset that I can take anywhere."
Michelle Johnson: When I was just researching what was going on in Phoenix, there wasn't that much going on. So, I was like, "Not only can I just go there and be a good barista, but I can probably help build the community there, do something." So, when I got there, that's exactly what I did.
Kerry Diamond: So, how did you become a barista, because that's a big part of what you talk about, the coffee world is not really open to people of color.
Michelle Johnson: Right. I've always loved coffee. My mom drinks it. She drinks Maxwell House. It's like a little bit of coffee and mostly milk and sugar, but that's how I grew up drinking it. I remember being four years old stealing sips of her coffee, 'cause it just tasted so sweet. And, I have four younger siblings, so she would go away to tend to them-
Kerry Diamond: Oh, same. I'm the oldest of five.
Michelle Johnson: Well, here we go.
So, she would go tend to them and I would run in the kitchen and steal a couple sips and then run away.
Kerry Diamond: And, your mom is like, "Why is this kid bouncing off the walls?"
Michelle Johnson: Exactly. "Why is my coffee gone?" But, as I got older she used to make coffee for the both of use, especially when I was in high school. So, then, in high school I found out that Starbucks was a thing, tried to get a job there, they never hired me. Y'all messed up, you shoulda did that.
Kerry Diamond: They have time to make up for it, Michelle, we're gonna talk about that.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah, I do need health insurance.
After high school, I was living with my aunt in Maryland and me and my cousin were out in the part of DC and Maryland that's ... like the Chevy Chase neighborhood and we were just job hunting and I saw a coffee shop. And, I was like, "Oh, I kinda wanna walk in there." And, she was like, "Why don't you?" And, I was like, "I'm too shy." And, I was very shy back then. She literally grabbed my hand and walked me into the coffee shop and was like, "Ask the manager for a job." So, I did. I had an interview the next week, and I was just like, "Look, I don't know how to make coffee, but I love this, and I'm just super enthusiastic and ready to get dirty and figure out how to make this thing that I've been drinking my entire life." And, they were like, "Alright."
So, they hired me on the spot and I became obsessed. I made flash cards for all of the terminology, all of the recipes. I used to dream about it.
Kerry Diamond: Wait, you could sell that. Seriously. I feel like so many people-
Michelle Johnson: What? Coffee flash cards?
Kerry Diamond: Yeah, I feel like so many people either want to be baristas or just be better about coffee.
Michelle Johnson: Or, know how to order at a coffee shop.
Kerry Diamond: Yeah, totally.
Michelle Johnson: Because that is a lot of stress that people hold is like walking into a coffee shop and, "I don't know how to order." And, most of the time, the barista is gonna have an attitude about you being up at the register and not knowing what it is that you want. It's like, "That's not the customer's fault." I should make flash cards.
Kerry Diamond: You should. Also, it's just such a great training tool, because a lot of the people who apply my coffee shops and canteens, they aren't trained baristas, but they just love coffee. And, so, you're in this tough spot. As an owner you're like, "Okay, I need to find some actual baristas, but I love this kid and their energy and I would love to bring them onboard."
Michelle Johnson: Give me a year.
Kerry Diamond: Give you a year? Okay. Okay.
Michelle Johnson: But, definitely. But, yeah, I just became obsessed with it, and I left that job, I actually got fired, after a couple of months, but that's fine, 'cause, then, a year later I got another barista job and it was my first specialty coffee job. And, it was through a Counter Culture account, and, from then on, it was just like the rabbit whole opened up into a chasm and I went falling.
Kerry Diamond: In a good way.
Michelle Johnson: In a good way. A good way.
Kerry Diamond: Shout out to Counter Culture.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. Shout out.
Kerry Diamond: They are the Smith Canteen coffee provider, and they have been very patient with this newbie coffee shop owner.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: As I get my footing and they're getting used to the emergency texts like, "Do you have any baristas?"
This is the second thing you can start, there needs to be like a TaskRabbit for baristas.
Michelle Johnson: Do they not have apps for that here?
Kerry Diamond: I don't think so.
Michelle Johnson: They do in Australia. Where you can just pull up an app and like, "I need a barista to cover this shift this day, and they'll send somebody."
Kerry Diamond: Okay, could you please start that? Just start writing down ... Jess, write down all these ideas.
Michelle Johnson: Bring this to New York.
Kerry Diamond: Coffee flash cards.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: Yeah, no, we need that badly, because it's just the nature of the beast like bartending, being a barista, it does attract a lot of creative people.
Michelle Johnson: Right.
Kerry Diamond: And, they're going on auditions, they're doing all these things, and they don't really have control over their schedule. And, you don't want to stand in the way of a part or a cool gig or something.
Michelle Johnson: Right.
Kerry Diamond: So, we need that.
Michelle Johnson: I know it exists in the US, but we'll figure something out for New York.
Kerry Diamond: Okay. I would love that.
Michelle Johnson: Definitely.
Kerry Diamond: Okay, so, coffee, you fall down that chasm.
Michelle Johnson: Yep.
Kerry Diamond: What happens next?
Michelle Johnson: After that I found out that barista competitions existed. My boss told me that, and I was like, "So, you're telling me this thing that I know I'm already good at, I can go to a competition and get extra validation that I am good at it? Good. I'm on my way." And, at that point, I was like, "One day I'm gonna do barista competitions." And, I started out with latte art throw downs and those were really fun. And, that's when I learned that there was like a community around coffee, and I'd never hung out with other baristas from other coffee shops, and the DC coffee community is very tight-knit.
So, I started going to latte art throw downs and see people and meeting them.
Kerry Diamond: A latte art throw down?
Michelle Johnson: Yes.
Kerry Diamond: Tell us what that is.
Michelle Johnson: That is baristas going head-to-head pouring their best latte art. And, it's just like a knockout round, bracket system, all the way to the top. And, they do them all the time.
Kerry Diamond: Love it.
Michelle Johnson: It is such a waste.
Kerry Diamond: That sounds like fun. It's like why is a waste?
Michelle Johnson: It's such a waste of milk.
Kerry Diamond: Oh. It's a waste of milk.
Michelle Johnson: It's a huge waste of milk.
Kerry Diamond: Just think about sports, guys are bashing each other heads in, that's a waste of brain cells.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: So, no different.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. Right. Exactly. But, they are fun.
So, from there, after about a year, I decided I was gonna finally move to Arizona. So, I moved to Arizona and I start working at this coffee shop that was like 'the' coffee shop in the city and they took coffee a lot more seriously than my last job, so I was like, "Okay, this will be where I can finally do competitions." And, the community in Phoenix, at the time, was very like clique-ish and separated. It was like, "Oh, you work at Cartel, we don't really talk to people at Cartel.", or like, "Oh, you work at Echo. Hmm." It's like, "Oh, I think this is kinda weird."
It's not what I was used to in DC, everyone was super close. And, the other thing I wasn't used to ... DC's community is very diverse. I grew up in the community having black baristas as my coworkers, managers, people of all different shapes, colors, whatever. And, then, I moved to Arizona and it was so white.
Kerry Diamond: And, no one told you about that beforehand?
Michelle Johnson: And, I did not realize it until I got there, and I was like, "Ooh, okay. But, this is fine." So, that was when I first started to realize that there may be a diversity problem. At first, at the time, I just thought it was Arizona, but as I started to do more events that required the whole national community, I was like, "Okay, it's not just Arizona." But, that was the second thing.
But, I started with just trying to get the community together. And, I would go to all of the latte art events and different community events, and I just started hanging out with people at all the other coffee shops. I was like, "You know, I don't need to just hang out with the people at mine. I wanna find out what everyone's doing, because we can help each other and we can build each other up and encourage each other. And, I don't understand why you wouldn't wanna do that." So, then, after a while, I just became like, I don't know, a beacon of the community. It's weird talking about it and talking about myself in this way, but it's true.
I just became the community advocate for Phoenix, especially when I finally did my first barista competition. Actually, this weekend, four years ago, my routine was about community and about how Phoenix was such a great place for it and that people need to stop overlooking Phoenix. And, I was like, "Just you wait, in a few years this is gonna be the spot." We're still waiting for it, but I know Phoenix is on its way.
Yeah, it's just, I started to help put together events. And, there was this guy named Braden that I worked with putting together a huge Coffee Swap where we just had everyone come. And, it's like, "Bring whatever bags of coffee you want and just swap with people." We were all brewing together. We did cuppings. I was always visiting coffee shops.
Kerry Diamond: What's a cupping?
Michelle Johnson: Oh, a coffee cupping is just a big tasting and you have a very special soup spoon, and you do a very obnoxious slurp when you taste the coffee so it like aerates and covers all of your mouth so you can get all of the tasting notes. I feel a way about tasting notes in coffee. I think people take it too seriously. And, they sound like wankers when they're just like, "Oh, this tastes like, I get hints of elderflower and lychee.", or is it lee-chee? I don't know. I don't even know what that tastes like.
Kerry Diamond: It's like wine, right?
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: I'm sure there are a lot of parallels.
Michelle Johnson: There are a lot of parallels with that. And, wine's fine, 'cause at least it gets you drunk. But, with coffee, I'm just like, I understand and I get it, obviously, I am a coffee professional, so I understand that language and I'm about it. But, when it comes to trying to meet people where they are, the general consumer, they're just gonna kinda look at you like, "Girl, what are you saying?" So, I'm like, "You know what? This coffee tastes like if you were just waking up on a Saturday morning and the sun's out and it's like 70 degrees and you're chilling on your balcony and you're just chilling with your cat. And, it's like really nice. This is the coffee you're gonna want for that."
Kerry Diamond: I can relate to that, minus the balcony.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. Right.
Kerry Diamond: Totally.
Michelle Johnson: Or, it's just like, "Ah, this coffee is like it's wintertime and it's cold and it's a little bit rainy out and you want something a little bit heavier, a little bit chocolaty, something that you can snuggle up with. This coffee tastes like that." That's how I like to talk about coffee, because there are a lot-
Kerry Diamond: You go right for the emotion.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah, exactly. Straight for the emotion, using relatable things, because there are a lot of tasty notes that I don't know what they taste like. I grew up in a specific socioeconomic class where it's just like, "I don't know what elderflower tastes like or smells like." I didn't know what passion fruit tasted like until I moved to Australia. And, it's just like you can get a bag of passion fruits for two dollars. And, I didn't even know they looked weird on the inside, but they're delicious.
Kerry Diamond: I love passion fruit.
Michelle Johnson: It is so good.
Kerry Diamond: I didn't have passion fruit until I was, I don't know, 30-something.
Michelle Johnson: And, this year, I think passion fruit is the tasting note of the year in coffee, 'cause I see it on every coffee bag. And, I'm like, I don't know if it was Drake or ... But, that is my favorite song, such a good song. But yeah, ...
Kerry Diamond: I wanna go back, because when you started The Chocolate Barista you did not have a social mission in mind.
Michelle Johnson: I did not, yeah.
Kerry Diamond: You were not about social justice or racial equality or ...
Michelle Johnson: It was just me doing my thing, which I ... So, I always had the plan of eventually talking about my experience being black in the coffee industry, 'cause that is a part of my lifestyle. That's something that I can separate myself from. But, it wasn't going to be my entire thing. So, when it came around time for me, when I did post that blog, it's called the Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black in Specialty Coffee, I'd spent ... I was on a business trip in Dallas and at this point I had stopped being a barista and I was working for a creative agency. So, we were on a business trip in Dallas and I stayed up for three nights from 10:00 to 6:00 AM just writing this blog.
Kerry Diamond: I thought you were gonna say 'cause you drank so much coffee.
Michelle Johnson: I was drinking wine. Drinking a lot of wine and writing all night, for three nights straight, writing this blog post. I wanted it to be good and I wanted it to be thorough. And, I didn't just talk about my experience, but I pulled opinions and stats about why there weren't a lot of black people in coffee or why people thought black people didn't drink coffee. And, I want to do a part two now that I think about it. It's been a couple years.
But, when I finally wrote it, my friend was editing it and he was like, "Well, now you know that you're gonna have to talk about this all the time." And, I was like, "No," it was like, "What are you talking about?" He was like, "If you're going to do this, you're going to cross into a threshold that this is something that you need to talk about. You are the best person to do it."
And, I was like, "Mmm, I don't know, I'm kinda scared." And, I was very scared. I was even scared to post it. But, I did and it blew up. It just completely, within a day, so many people were sharing it. A lot of people were talking about it. A lot of people reaching out to me, and that's how I met a lot of the friends that I have today. And, I was just like, "Oh, my God, this is not what I was expecting." And, I was like, "I guess I do have to talk about this, now."
But, over time, it offered a lot of opportunities for me to talk about it more and to get more comfortable with it and to be reading more and learning about what activists are doing in other industries and just in general. And, then I was like, "Well, I guess I can be an activist in coffee. That's fine."
And, since then it's just kinda evolved into this whole ... I've done talks all over the world. I just got back from Norway doing a talk about this. I went to this event called The Nordic Roasters Forum and it is a roasters' competition for roasteries in the Nordic countries. Usually the talks are very technical in talking a lot about roasting and green coffee buying and things like that, but, this year, the theme was sustainability and it wasn't just producer sustainability, sustainability with roasting and things like that, but also a workplace sustainability.
So, me, and my really good friend Tameka, we both were the workplace sustainability talks and ours played very well off of each other where I just kinda gave an intro into why ... How do we change accessibility to coffee education and sharing information. And, not just the typical like, "This is how you make a cappuccino information.", or, "This is how you roast coffee.", but how can we equip and empower our coffee staff to learn about marketing or to learn about operations, 'cause those are positions that a lot of coffee companies are starting to hire for, but can't necessarily afford to hire marketing professionals from other industries. But, coffee is so unique in a way where it's like you kinda need to know what's going on within the industry to be able to market it, because its client base is so specific. And, just the way the industry works is so different than everything else.
So, I gave a talk on that, and then she gave a talk on why diversity's just gonna be so important for people to really make a priority in your business. Not just for the bottom line. And, you're making money, but you wanna keep people. And, she made a very valid point where it's like a lot of women, women of color, and other ethnic minorities will leave companies mostly because the environment just wasn't empowering to them and it was not good for them. And, they're not gonna tell you that, but nine times out of ten, that's the reason. That's been the reason that I've left every one of my jobs, except for the one when I moved to Phoenix.
Kerry Diamond: So, you have The Chocolate Barista.
Michelle Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-.
Kerry Diamond: That's evolving.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: But, then you decide you're going to do Black Coffee.
Michelle Johnson: Yes.
Kerry Diamond: Tell us what Black Coffee is.
Michelle Johnson: So, Black Coffee is a live podcast and I gather several black coffee professionals and we just get together on a stage and talk about our experiences working in the industry. And, the first one was in Portland in April. And, it's produced by Sprudge, who have been very supportive of me and The Chocolate Barista for years now. And, yeah, we just gathered and had such a fun time. It felt like having a conversation just like with my friends, which is the point. It was less about teaching the audience anything, it was more just, let's just have this cathartic conversation about our experiences. Very uncensored. Very candid.
And, people will learn something from it, but that's not necessarily the point. It's really for us. The conversation is for us and by us. And, now, I have two more Black Coffees coming up, one in New York and one in DC, and they both have themes with them. So, the New York one will be about longevity in the industry and why we don't see a lot of black coffee professionals stay long. Or, for the ones that do stay a while, what is it that you've had to go through or what has kept you in it for this long? So, everyone who is in it has been in the industry for like eight or more years.
And, the DC show is specifically about the DC coffee community. And, like I said before, it's very diverse. It's very tight-knit, and I didn't realize there was a diversity problem until I left. So, it's like what is it about DC that has set it apart? Why is it that the coffee community actually reflects the population that's there? What's something that other cities can take from it? But, also, what more can DC be doing to help continue to cultivate this?
Kerry Diamond: How are you planning and organizing these events? It's not ...
Michelle Johnson: Girl ...
Kerry Diamond: As someone who's like a professional event planner now, I know how hard it is. And, I saw a lot of the footage from the Portland one. I watched the video. If anyone's truly interested in what Michelle's talking about, and I hope you all are, there's a great YouTube video of the whole conversation that I really think you should listen to. But, then, I saw some other footage from it, and it just looked great. It looked like everyone was having a good time.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah, it was so much fun.
Kerry Diamond: It was not a small thing that you put together.
Michelle Johnson: Mm-mmm. And, the added difficulty was living in Australia and trying to plan an event that's going to be in the US. Everyone who I'm talking to is in the US. Getting up at 6:00 AM to have video calls and doing phone calls every few weeks. Sprudge did a lot of the legwork on the production side of things and getting sponsors and making sure we had all the equipment we needed. And, me, as the creative director, I just focus mostly on building the panel, building the content, what are we talking about, and then other fun things like this is the photographer I want to have to come take pictures of the event or this DJ and stuff like that. It worked really well together.
But, doing two of them at the same time, and Sprudge just dropped a book called The New Rules of Coffee-
Kerry Diamond: Which I can't wait to get my hands on.
Michelle Johnson: It is so good.
Kerry Diamond: Sprudge, for people who don't know what that is, it's sort of, if you know Eater, Sprudge is like the Eater of coffee.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. I also write for them. You should read my articles.
Kerry Diamond: Oh, you do? I didn't realize that. Okay.
Michelle Johnson: I have several feature pieces on there.
Kerry Diamond: I missed that. I got some catching up to do.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: We are going to take a short break, and we'll be right back with Michelle after a word from our sponsors.
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Kerry Diamond: It's time for our Bob's Red Mill Minute. We're here with Jess Zeidman, our intern and associate radio producer. Hi Jess.
Jess Zeidman: Hi, Kerry.
Kerry Diamond: Tell everybody what we are talking about today.
Jess Zeidman: Today we are talking about cornbread.
Kerry Diamond: Because, Gabby at Smith Canteen made some maple walnut cornbread recently and Jess could not stop talking about it.
Jess Zeidman: I am obsessed with this cornbread. It is the best cornbread I have ever had in my life and I ate a lot of cornbread growing up.
Kerry Diamond: You did? Did you make if from scratch?
Jess Zeidman: Yeah, we made it from scratch. We would make big sheets of it and have it with chili and soup.
Kerry Diamond: Yum.
Jess Zeidman: Yeah, it's great. Cornbread's delicious.
Kerry Diamond: Well, Gabby made our cornbread with Bob's Red Mill stone-ground organic cornmeal. If you don't wanna make it totally from scratch, Bob's Red Mill also has a wonderful cornbread muffin mix. It's made with a blend of stone-ground whole-wheat pastry flour, stone-ground cornmeal, cane sugar, sweet cream buttermilk powder, sea salt, and baking powder.
Jess, if you need to get some organic stone-ground meal or the cornbread muffin mix from Bob's Red Mill, what do you do?
Jess Zeidman: Oh, I would log onto bobsredmill.com and at checkout I'd use the code CHERRYBOMBE25 for 25% off my order.
Kerry Diamond: It's a great deal, so make sure you do that. Like Jess said, go to bobsredmill.com CHERRYBOMBE25 for 25% off your order, because you know with Bob's Red Mill you're not just getting quality you're getting flavor packed food that tastes amazing.
Kerry Diamond: So, I have so many things I wanna talk to you about. Why is coffee so white? What happened?
Michelle Johnson: Colonization. Like, honestly. It's funny. It's one of those things, one of the many things in food and beverage where the origins of it may be in black and brown communities, and then, just over time, white people just take it and we're just gonna gentrify it, basically, whether it's on purpose or not. And, now it's sort of seen as just this status thing. It's like, "Oh, to go get coffee every day. Go get your daily lattes. Just become this."
I think in some ways it stemmed from or maybe the stereotype has stemmed from it of the white girl in the yoga pants going to Starbucks, like that's sort of the whole thing. And, that's just a stereotype that's blown up. So, when you think of specialty coffee, you think of like the white guy and the beard and the plaid shirt and the suspenders. And, I was just like, "That's not me." And, that was why I started The Chocolate Barista, 'cause that's not me.
And, I wanted to show people a view into that world from my perspective. So, these are the outfits I like to wear to work. I used to dress nice to work and just look cute all the time, and people would be like, "You are dressed way too nice for this coffee shop." I was like, "I don't care. I'm wearing brand new sneakers. I'm just going to where them." I still like the music that I like. Coffee did help bring me to The Talking Heads, thank you, love them, but I also like Rihanna and Migos and all these other hip-hop and rap, and like to wrap that into all of it.
But, my route in what I do in coffee is very different than a lot of other people, so I just wanted to show that off. But, it's still something that isn't mainstream, like a lot of people still, outside of this coffee industry, don't know that people like me exist in it. So, it's like, "How can I be a bridge? How can I show that it doesn't have to be so white. It doesn't have to look this specific way. You can come in and do your own thing." I still don't know how, but I've managed to carve out my own space within the coffee industry.
Kerry Diamond: You are unique in this industry.
Michelle Johnson: I am extremely unique. But, whether it's if someone wants to come in and do the same thing, where they carve out their own space, or if someone just wants to come in and be a barista or a roaster, I wanna make sure that they can come in and have the same opportunities as everyone else, be able to have the same learning resources, have that information shared with them, opportunities to go to Origin if they want to, go to these other industry events and network. They're all so important to someone's career development within it. Or, if you just wanna be a consumer and just not have to feel bad about going to a coffee shop and not know what's on the menu, that's fine. It should be fine.
Kerry Diamond: That's why we need those flash cards.
Michelle Johnson: And, that's why we're getting the flash cards.
Kerry Diamond: Because there is so much confusion and the few times I have worked the register when someone's like, "I want a cappuccino, but, no, I want it in that cup.", 'cause the cappuccino paper cup is kinda small and the latte one's bigger. People think it's a size, like, "No, I want a large cappuccino."
Michelle Johnson: Right.
Kerry Diamond: And, you don't wanna be the jerk who's like-
Michelle Johnson: "That doesn't exist. That's a big latte, man."
Kerry Diamond: Exactly. Exactly. 'Cause you are in the customer service business, you want to educate gently.
Michelle Johnson: Right.
Kerry Diamond: When you and I started talking a few months ago and I had watched the YouTube video, one of my big takeaways was, and I forgot which of the people on your panel said this, but it was about sharing information.
Michelle Johnson: Oh, that was Dee.
Kerry Diamond: That was Dee.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah.
Kerry Diamond: And, just how information is not passed down. And, you and I were talking at lunch about how it's not just information like when you look at so many reasons people have been held back it has to do with inherited wealth. You look at the statistics about home ownership and if your parents owned a home what that means for you. And, I just started thinking about inherited wealth and inherited knowledge the same way. What is being passed down and inherited? And, if we're not sharing information on how to do things, if we are guarding that information, that's just as bad.
Michelle Johnson: Exactly. Something that the industry, in my opinion, is sort of having an issue with right now is, I feel like we're going to find ourselves stagnating sooner than later, and we have a lot of very pressing issues to deal with like climate change and how that's affecting production, coffee producers and farmers themselves and their livelihoods, And, the C-Price has gone below a dollar, so it's like we have a-
Kerry Diamond: Wait, what's the C-Price?
Michelle Johnson: The C-Price is like the baseline price for coffee that isn't ... Specialty prides itself in paying more than that, usually double or more. And, even fair trade organizations pay at least that, but try to also pay more than that, but it's now dropped below a dollar, which is under the cost of production.
So, we have all these issues that we're trying to figure out and solve the problems for. And, I feel like we have had, at least, we have definitely had the same type of people in the positions of trying to solve these problems for a really long time. And, I'm like ... We've just kind of been running around. Everyone's asking the same questions and we're getting the same answers. We now need to start opening up the floodgates to let other people come in to offer their experiences, their knowledge, to the situation, different types of people to help us solve these problems.
But, before we can even get there we need to get some of the most basic information to them first. We need to teach them what's going on and help build their paths so that they can get to that point to help us solve problems. And, we haven't been doing that, as an industry, for a long time. In the last few years now that these problems are being brought up, people are more aware of it, so I feel like we'll get going and it'll start to come. But, I'm like, "We need to do this now."
Kerry Diamond: Wow. Do you have a specialty drink?
Michelle Johnson: I can make one up. Every time it came time for competition, and it was I had to create a signature drink, I always did it last minute, and it always tasted great. The first time I competed I hadn't tasted my signature drink until after competition was over, and I was like, "Oh, this is pretty good. I just put these ingredients together and hoped it worked." It's like I knew what the espresso tasted like and built everything else off of that, but I can come up with something.
Kerry Diamond: What is your signature drink in terms of what you order when you go into a shop?
Michelle Johnson: Well, in Australia I order flat whites all the time.
Kerry Diamond: You do?
Michelle Johnson: I love flat whites, but flat whites there are equivalent to going to Toby's Estate and getting a cappuccino. It's like the American 8 oz cappuccino or 6 oz cappuccino. It's the same thing. Otherwise, I'm just a black coffee person, like whatever's on the pour over bar or something special or drip coffee.
Kerry Diamond: You're true to your brand.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. I like to be low-maintenance.
Kerry Diamond: Are you gonna go back to Australia?
Michelle Johnson: So, yeah, I'll be back in Australia in six weeks, in the middle of November, and then I'll only be there for maybe two months tops before I move back here.
Kerry Diamond: And, then we get you back.
Michelle Johnson: And, I don't know where I'm gonna move to yet.
Kerry Diamond: Wow. Wow.
Michelle Johnson: It's still up in the air. We'll see.
Kerry Diamond: Okay. Well, very exciting.
The last thing I have to ask about, because you are the third guest in a row who has tattoos, and I would love to know what those two tattoos are all about.
Michelle Johnson: This is two of three. I have a big one on my shin. But, this one is a matching one with my best friend. I got it right before I left Phoenix. It's just a cactus and a little sunset going into the mountains. And, then, this one is a dagger going into a heart with my last name, Johnson. It's my maternal family name, and it's sort of like a memorial to my aunt and my grandfather who both died of heart attacks, so yeah ...
Kerry Diamond: Aww.
Michelle Johnson: And, then, the tattoo on my shin is a cardinal on a prickly pear cactus, 'cause I'm born and raised in Virginia, it's our state bird. And, then I didn't realize that cardinals are also huge in Arizona, 'cause that's their football team. So someone was like, "Oh, you must really love Phoenix." I was like, "Oh, I didn't think this through."
Kerry Diamond: Oh, my God, that's so funny.
Michelle Johnson: I was like, "I should've got a dogwood flower or something else to represent Virginia, 'cause the cardinal's not it."
Kerry Diamond: Oh, my God, I mean, that's an intense tattoo on your arm.
Michelle Johnson: Yeah. It's my favorite one.
Kerry Diamond: Were you close with your aunt and your grandfather?
Michelle Johnson: I was very close with my grandfather even though he died when I was young, but I still have very fond memories of him. And, my aunt, she was the youngest in the family and she was just fun. She was fun. She was cool. When I first moved to Phoenix and started doing all the coffee stuff, she used to just write on my Facebook and was super encouraging. Yeah, I miss her. But, yeah, I need more tattoos, though. I don't have a coffee tattoo, yet.
Kerry Diamond: Not yet. Not yet. Well, that one is a beautiful memorial.
So, Michelle, you are a busy gal, so thank you for taking the time and come to see us.
Michelle Johnson: Absolutely.
Kerry Diamond: I'm thrilled we finally got to meet in person.
Michelle Johnson: Yay.
Kerry Diamond: And, you've been a great pen pal. Glad we got to connect and kick ass with all your Black Coffee events.
Michelle Johnson: Thank you. I'll be back soon.
Kerry Diamond: Awesome. Bye.
Kerry Diamond: That's it for our show. A huge thank you to Michelle Johnson. It was amazing to chat with her about all things coffee, and I can't wait to see what she does next. Make sure to follow her on Instagram @TheChocolateBarista and keep an eye out for future Black Coffee events.
Don't forget Radio Cherry Bombe is on the road as part of our Future of Food Tour brought to you by Kerrygold. We will be in New Orleans on Sunday at the Ace Hotel with some very special guests. And, then, on December 1st, we will be at Book Larder in Seattle. Tickets for both are on sale right now. You can go to cherrybombe.com or go to booklarder.com.
A thank you to our sponsors, Vital Farm's pasture raised eggs, Bob's Red Mill, and Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School.
Thank you to our associate producer, Jess Zeidman, and to the band, Tralala, for our theme song. This episode was recorded at The Wing in Dumbo. For more information go to the-wing.com
Radio Cherry Bombe is a joint production of Cherry Bombe Magazine and The Heritage Radio Network. Thanks for listening, everyone, you're the bombe.