From the Coffee Issue
Every day, it seems there are more options when it comes to ordering coffee. Drip or pour over? Espresso or americano? Cappuccino or cortado or macchiato or flat white? And don’t get me started on the whole milk selection (I’ll leave that conversation to Life & Thyme correspondent Carly DeFillipo’s exploration in our Coffee issue).
But for all the diversity with which we’re faced when placing an order, the faces behind the counter are often decidedly homogenous. The caricature of the bearded white male hipster roasting your beans and making his signature monk’s head on your latte so incongruous with the faces of farmers at the source. And as specialty coffee begins to spread through communities beyond the major metropolitan and upper middle class areas, it becomes increasingly stark that cafés—the cornerstone of so many communities—may not be a proper reflection of the neighborhoods they serve.
At Brooklyn’s East One Coffee Roasters, those representations are being challenged. The company, which opened in Carroll Gardens in 2017 and will have opened its third location in 2019 (two of which are in Manhattan), is a growing one, now with a wholesale business from which it supplies coffee to shops and purveyors.
But at its flagship location, the roastery itself is the centerpiece of the Eatery at East One—a glassed-in area in which the equipment is on full display, so diners and drinkers can get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how their coffee is processed. This gives a bit of a fishbowl effect—perhaps metaphorically apropos, consistent with the company’s efforts toward transparency. But for the two roasters behind East One’s celebrated coffee, their roasting program is about more than just giving guests a show; it’s about real visibility.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the two roasters at East One—Director of Coffee Selina Ulrich and Emily Wendorff, Production Roaster and Quality Control Liaison—both of whom identify as black, queer women. We spoke candidly over cortados about the modern specialty coffee business, particularly with respect to diversity, representation and challenges facing anyone who might disrupt the status quo.
Both Ullrich and Wendorff had circuitous—if characteristically ambitious—paths to their positions behind the Probat roaster. Ullrich was in the midst of a double major pre-medical program when she began working at a New York City café. While getting a job on bar was one thing, opening the door to the production side—something she realized was appealing to her scientific skill set—was a whole other bag of beans. “I was really trying to push into the production side,” Ullrich recalls. “But it’s really difficult as a woman to get people to understand that you’re not afraid of lifting things that are heavy—that you’re okay with getting dirty. There were so many gatekeepers to get into the roastery.”
When it came to her attention that the new roastery in Brooklyn was opening, Ullrich saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, even if it meant starting out in service, not production. Still, she doubled down to prove herself and her depth of knowledge. “I worked twenty-hour days making all the coffee on bar all the time, and simultaneously trying to train everyone else to make coffee that way—to really make to spec, to taste for extraction, to talk about what factors and variables you were manipulating and understanding the why of the coffee.”
Demonstrating a depth of knowledge would be critical to breaking through that glass wall around the roaster. While she credits a male mentor at a previous café for giving her a foundation for roasting, it fell largely on her shoulders to teach herself the ropes. “Having years of experience tasting really critically for evaluative purpose constantly—if you can do that and then have some guidance on how that machine physically operates, you can, in theory, guide yourself toward knowing how to roast coffee.” Ultimately, that independent study approach served to make up much of Ullrich’s education. “Of course, at first all the coffee was terrible by my own standards,” she laughs, remembering early batches.
Wendorff, hailing from Wisconsin, was also staffed in a coffee shop while working on a double degree (hers in psychology and music), and eventually relocated to New York. When she was hired at East One, Wendorff paralleled Ullrich’s natural inclination and curiosity about production.
Ullrich remembers, “I would go to the roaster on my days off when I was young in the game. You knew that if you were just in the space, you’d get answers to the questions you had.” She tells me Wendorff displayed that same dogged pursuit of information, showing up to package beans or stamp bags.
Coming from two such academically inclined individuals, maybe that tenacity and desire to deepen their understanding is no surprise. But in Ullrich and Wendorff found having access to information required more than just showing up; it also meant there would be a gatekeeper open to sharing it.
In Wendorff’s case, she says she found that willing mentor in Ullrich, who was generous with her hard-won knowledge. In previous jobs, she recalls a “vagueness” in which rules were made and systems put in place, but without any substantiation or explanation. She tells me Ullrich was transparent and forthcoming, welcoming questions and hopeful her staff would take an interest in learning the finer points of coffee, on both sides of the café. “I remember Selina was roasting and explaining the profiles to me,” Wendorff says, referring to a time before she became involved with production. “I was comfortable knowing what I was tasting, and [Ullrich] interrogating me about that made me feel okay to express what I felt was true. It was a totally different experience, and one I’ve never had before in coffee.”
That encouragement was paramount to Wendorff’s transition into production. She feels the dynamic between Ullrich and herself was a departure from previous environments in which she encountered a pattern of protectiveness around information. “If I have a mentor that’s a man, everyone takes his word for it, and it’s a really weird and scary thing when you do the same thing and model your behavior on that person’s behavior and everyone has a totally different reaction to it,” she says. “I feel like it’s this learned behavior, that every time you do something you have to explain it to your male counterparts because people are going to question what you say so much more than they would with a white man.”
And Ullrich and Wendorff discuss a shared philosophy when it comes to the technical specifics of their craft, regardless of gender. It’s one free of posturing, a belief that their field requires an active pursuit of improvement and education, industry awareness, and adaptability to both product and tools. Wendorff draws a parallel between the music world (in which she is active as a trumpet player), and specialty coffee. “You’re in the warm-up room with all these other trumpet players and it’s like, ‘What kind of horn is that? How long ya been playing it?’ Who cares? You should be able to play good music on a variety of equipment, and you should be able to roast good coffee on a variety of equipment.”
The presence of women in coffee is growing, but slowly, especially in production. Ullrich tells me it’s far more common for women to be considered almost exclusively as front-of-house staff. “There was almost a ghettoization of women in coffee for a while where if you wanted to move up, you became a café manager,’’ she says, explaining the generalization that women were more well suited to customer interaction roles, while men would take on the manual work of roasting—an assumption she felt was at odds with her own personality, interests and abilities.
Of course, the question of women’s place in coffee is much bigger than the café or even roastery. “On the producer side, there’s been a lot of effort to empower women at the farm level who are already running their households, to get more involved in running the finances of the farms because it gives them so much more power,” Ullrich tells me.
Much of that power comes from the fact that women across the board are focusing not only on the manual work like sorting beans for defects (a task which Ullrich explains has long fallen to women thanks to their “detail-oriented” sensibility), but becoming educated in all facets of the business. Still, Ullrich tells me with some frustration that though many women, particularly of a younger generation, have earned degrees in agronomy or have a deep ancestry of coffee farmers, they’re still not being provided the platform on which to demonstrate that expertise. “They “have a ton of knowledge, but because of the cultural landscape of where coffee is farmed, they’re still not being listened to,” she tells me.
Perhaps even less representation in specialty coffee goes to people of color and the LGBTQ community. “There are a lot less deliberately POC spaces in coffee,” Wendorff tells me. And with reference to LGBTQ visibility, Ullrich explains, “It comes up a lot less because it’s not something you can look at someone and see; you can’t discriminate against someone for it unless you know it already.”
As a hiring manager within the organization, Ullrich strives to ensure “others” not only have the chance to see themselves reflected in the various coffee roles, but the opportunity to pursue them. “When I hire for barista and production roles, I am always looking to hire for diversity pretty deliberately because it can be hard in coffee to be a woman or a person of color,” she says. “And it can be especially hard if you’re working for a man and being ghettoized into administrative and human resources roles when you don’t want them, or are just not given any opportunities no matter how hard you’re pushing.”
She can help open the door to those opportunities, but Ullrich’s philosophy is also about making sure that once inside, the experience allows for quality of life and cultivates job satisfaction. She emphasizes that to create sustainable change, it’s not enough to hire across a spectrum, but to develop a working environment for engagement, one that returns a sense of value to staff, personally and professionally. “I try to train for engagement,” Ullrich tells me, “which means I want you to understand the why of everything. I hope that that helps to encourage more engagement among barista staff.”
In an industry famously transient and tough on employees both mentally and physically, in which it’s not uncommon to adopt a go-through-the-motions mentality, that feels especially significant. At East One, Ullrich and Wendorff believe that support, encouragement, and access to information are keys to creating an inclusive and stimulating environment that has a chance at enduring. And the throughline of the conversation with both women, from the first sip of my cortado to the very last drop, is one of education, curiosity, transparency with knowledge and a constant effort to improve. “If you give people information, you end up with people actively challenging me all the time,” Ullrich says. “Why are we doing this? Should we do it this way? That’s only going to make you and your program better. You should want the challenge. The challenge is good for you. It’s good for the organization.”
Speaking with Ullrich and Wendorff, there is a clear sense of responsibility in their roles as de facto leaders and representatives for a more diverse and inclusive industry. I’m curious if this duty is a welcome one. “When you taste the coffee you definitely don’t know what I look like and who I am,” Ullrich says. “If I had my druthers, I’d like to be respected first and then have that responsibility. But I’m okay with having that responsibility, because if I don’t, then who does?”
Wendorff agrees, again referencing her music industry experience. Of being called a “female trumpet player,” she tells me, “It always feels so weird to me. [Being female] doesn’t even occur to me, because [that industry] has already progressed. But it feels different with coffee—we’re not there yet. And until it doesn’t feel weird, there is a responsibility.”