coffee world faces its own reckoning

Angela Weiss/AFP

As the US, and now the world, is forced to face up to the injustices and structural racism which confront black people on a daily basis, it’s no surprise that the coffee industry is dealing with shocks of its own. The past week in particular has caught up key players in the specialty coffee world, as well as the gargantuan icon of the global coffee industry. Let’s weed through a few examples.

Counter Culture website

Counter Culture is one of the best regarded brands in specialty coffee, as a roaster, educator, and voice of the coffee community. If you’ve spent any time on this blog you know that it’s one of my favorite roasters, and I’ve attended a tasting and a class at their DC education center.

On June 1 there was a series of posts on their Twitter feed a couple weeks speaking out against racism, which I took as an earnest expression of support for the Black Lives Matter movement as many corporates are doing. Six days later, they ran these:

Clearly something in response to the June 1 messaging had shaken the company.

What happened in the intervening time was that D’Onna Stubblefield, a noted coffee professional, shared her experiences during her time working for Counter Culture’s training center in Philadelphia. It’s a disturbing story of being victimized by racism and sexism which she sees as deeply embedded in the company DNA. She’s also not satisfied by the responses to date from CCCC and its Founder and President, Brett Smith. Ms Stubblefield’s accounts have been backed up by Chelsea Thoumasin, a former coffee buyer who tells of suffering similar abuse in her dealings with the company. For a detailed telling, including links to the social media posts that have driven the story, please go to sprudge.com.

I’ll note that Ms Stubblefield’s public comments have also hinted at major problems with Pittsburgh cafe operator Tazza D’Oro, which I’ve visited and song the praises of here.

Barista Hustle web site

In a story sharing some similarities, leading coffee personality Michelle Johnson has also shared publicly her experiences with racism which led to her abrupt departure from Australian gear supplier, educator and Barista Hustle. In this case, the abuse was at the hand of founder Matt Perger, who on two occasions used racially insensitive language in Johnson’s presence, which led to a negotiated exit by Johnson from the company.

Much like the case of Ms Stubblefield and Counter Culture, this situation played out on social media. Perger seems to have made the situation much worse by going forward with his story in a way that showed a tin ear for the current climate and how the situation with Johnson evolved. Not only do Ms Johnson’s and Ms Stubblefield’s respective stories have similarities, there is overlap as Ms Johnson’s contemporaneous private communications with Ms Stubblefield back up her version of events.

Barista Hustle has taken a big hit, as clients have severed their relationships, including the high end equipment manufacturer Fellow which pulled its product portal from Barista Hustle’s e-commerce site, effectively ending the BH coffee gear line for the time being.

For details, again please turn to sprudge.com.

La Marzocco website

Iconic Italian manufacturer of espresso makers La Marzocco’s US twitter account on June 1 issued its support for the protest movement and announced a series of related charitable donations. Things quickly blew up when coffee industry pro Alex Gable responded with a series of allegations of endemic racism at La Marzocco HQ in Florence, where he had worked for a brief time.

Another bit of overlap was that one of the accusations included a La Marzocco manager disparaging Michelle Johnson.

La Marzocco has responded publicly with a series of apologies and promises to investigate and do better, though to this point it seems neither Ms Johnson nor Jenn Chen, the other coffee industry leader targeted in the reported comments, seem particularly thrilled with the responses.

Again, sprudge.com has the story.

Starbucks website

Finally, this week industry behemoth Starbucks suffered a major self-inflicted PR wound by publicly taking a pro-Black Lives Matter stance, while at the same time reminding employees not to wear apparel or pins on the job that support…… Black Lives Matter.

Not surprisingly, this lead to a swift backlash online, as the Evil Empire was accused of blatant hypocrisy. Today they reversed course, announcing team members will be free to display their support of BLM.

PS: #BlackLivesMatter

PPS: I’ll usually link to companies’ web sites in my posts, but to be honest I didn’t feel like it this time. I’m a blogger, not a journalist, so I can be inconsistent and not worry if I seem to take sides if I choose.

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