Jan 19, 2021 • 46M

Chris McAuley Wants To Give You Things

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Ashley Rodriguez
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Let’s say you’re trying to get good at playing the guitar. Maybe you’re taking a class, or you have a tutor. How do you get improve? You practice—and a lot of that practice involves going home, sitting alone with your instrument, and taking time to work through every new skill or small snag: a couple of chords, finger placements, some tricky pieces of music.

Now imagine you don’t have a guitar at home. When would you practice? Would you get as good if you were only able to play at school, or with your teacher? It’s possible—but it’s not likely.

Now let’s apply this example to the service industry. How do you get better at cooking, or making pastries, or making coffee? You practice. And in an ideal world, you’d have everything you need within reach—the space, the equipment, the resources—in order to improve day by day.

Chris McAuley is the founder of getchusomegear, an organization that gives away free coffee equipment to marginalized baristas. The idea first dawned on Chris when he noticed a pattern: He knew plenty of baristas who were eager to learn, but who—despite their enthusiasm—were slower to gain new skills, simply because they didn’t have anything to brew with at home.

Since its inception, getchusomegear has shipped hundreds of boxes across the United States, expanded to Canada, and started a secondary shipping hub in Los Angeles. He and his team have worked with coffee businesses to fund grants, have helped folks with their resumes, and have created a system that normalizes mutual aid and redistribution of resources.

Perhaps what’s most telling about Chris and his mission for getchusomegear is that there is no expectation of reciprocity. You don’t have to give anything back, or commit to loan repayments. You simply state your need, and Chris and the getchusomegear team—which has expanded to educators and organizers across the country—will do their best to get you a box.

In addition to addressing the gap in equipment needs, getchusomegear also confronts the information gap. As Chris says in this episode, many have a tendency, across domains and disciplines, to hold information back, to hoard knowledge and not share it with others. In our hyper-competitive society, knowledge is often treated as its own commodity, an entity that can grant power and which must be protected. But when information is guarded, people—often people of marginalized groups—are left to scale the impossible barriers built by these gatekeepers. It’s unfair, and Chris is doing his best to break down those walls.

Just a quick note before we begin: I noticed a factual error on my part. About seven minutes into the conversation, Chris and I are talking about our early coffee jobs and I mentioned that my first job had a Mazzer Super Jolly—the source of those clack clack clack sounds you’ll hear Chris and I make later. I was misremembering: It was at my second job that we had a Swift grinder and a Super Jolly. At my first job, we had a Mahlkönig that I think was K30, which we were not allowed to change the dial-in on. Now, on to the show.

Ashley: Chris, I am so excited for you to be joining me on Boss Barista. I was wondering if you could tell me about some of your first memories of coffee?

Chris: Well, hi Ashley, thanks for having me.

My first memories of coffee are just how different people in my family prepared coffee differently. My mom is Puerto Rican, so she made a lot of her coffee in what I call the sock or a mocha pot. My grandmother made instant coffee and they put a ton of sugar in it, and that was a different sensory experience. My dad just wants his coffee to be as hot as possible and as convenient as possible. And so he has the Mr. Coffee going.

I remember enjoying coffee with individual people in my family differently. And it was just really sweet to share those moments with them. My mom is Puerto Rican, so of course I grew up drinking coffee and eating Maria cookies. If that sounds weird to people that are like, “Oh, why was Chris drinking coffee as a child?” It was just very sweet memories.

Ashley: I’m Cuban. So I have very similar memories of just drinking coffee from a mocha pot. Although it’s a little bit mixed with what your dad wants—my grandmother will take her coffee from the machine and then she has a little espresso machine and she'll take the steam wand and heat the coffee up more.

Chris: My dad puts it in the microwave! That's amazing. I love that.

Ashley: Like, this isn’t hot enough. Let's just go to 11.

Chris: I made—a neighborhood friend and former coworker and also just great guy who dropped an espresso machine off on our porch and was like, “We're getting a new one, you can have this one!” which was amazing—so my parents come for social-distanced yard hangs and we'll make them coffee. And I always make my dad an Americano because I can control the temperature of the water. Wow, and he still asks me to reheat it and I'm like, “Dad, this water is literally 210 degrees. This coffee probably tastes terrible. But you still want it to be hotter. Okay.”

Ashley: Oh, he wants it to be evaporating off his tongue, apparently.

Chris: I guess. I don't know.

Ashley: Oh, that's wild.

Chris: What a dude.

Ashley: So when did you start working in coffee?

Chris: I started working in coffee when I was in college in 2005. I was going to Meredith College and was going through some shit, definitely. My grandma died and I wasn't feeling right at a women's college. And so I mostly just lived there and worked at the coffee shop up the street for a semester, which was ridiculous. I definitely paid for that. But yeah, that's where I started. I’ve been kind of in and out of coffee and the specialty grocery industry, but all service positions.

Ashley: So at what point did getchusomegear become an idea in your brain?

Chris: I was managing at the last cafe [I worked at] and I happened to be managing at—I don't know if I was managing it at two of the locations yet. But I knew some staff at the other store, like a sister location, and they were so interested in learning from the barista trainer that we had on staff because he was amazing and such a great teacher.

So [one of those staff members] came over and I realized and learned that she had been a barista and a bartender for a very long time, but didn't have access to coffee gear at home. And that's how it happened.

I was talking with Chelsea (Chris’ partner) about it on the couch at my old apartment. I was like, “Let's see if we can get some gear for the staff.” And we got more gear than we thought we were going to get—she showed it on her Instagram, I shared it on my end. And I think that's it. That's what happened.

Ashley: And here we are now.

Chris: It's weird. I don't remember where the shipping aspect came in. It just happened. Things just happen. But that's the story.

Ashley: Something I wrote down before we hopped on the phone, as I was thinking about what getchusomegear means, is I wrote down the relationship between passion and access. I think in the coffee world, we have this almost obsession with passion—that people go to different coffee shops on their days off and brew coffee at home all the time. But if you don't have things to brew coffee at home, how do you get to that passion? There are other avenues obviously, but when we value this idea of people experimenting on their own, if they don't have access to those things, then how are they able to do that?

Chris: Yeah, it's impossible. Your experience with coffee at home as a coffee professional is entirely different from your job or your career or whatever. It's more intimate, there's no pressure, there's no coffee bro that's like, “No, this is like, this is orange peel! This is what you have to taste!”

You’re kind of free to do what you want, but you have to have the gear. I didn't have anything to make coffee with at home besides a Mr. Coffee maker until—maybe a French press every once in a while—but until Chelsea and I started dating three years ago, and she hooked me up with my setup and it changed the way I felt about coffee at home. It changed the way I felt about coffee at work. Especially being able to take beans home and having stuff to brew them on instead of just giving them away as gifts. So that made me better at my job. And then I got to share that with other people. So yeah.

Ashley: That's wild to think that you didn't have access to coffee gear until three years ago, when you said that your coffee career started in 2005.

Chris: Yeah, it's weird. It was like a second-wave shop where we had the click clack grinder, the Mazzer, like the really, really old one. There was no dialing in, we weren't allowed to touch the grinder. I mostly just had that job to pay the bills. It wasn't very interesting and there wasn't space to learn. Yeah, three years ago.

Ashley: My very first coffee job was also a place where we had the clack clack clack clack clack sound. And similarly, we weren't allowed to touch the grinder. You weren't allowed to dial in, you just had to take it as it was. So, for all the kids listening…

Chris: So weird!

Ashley: I feel like even that sound, the clack clack clack sound, and people are going to be like, “What sound is that?”

Chris: Oh, here's another one. We didn't really have Toddy [cold brew]. We saved our leftover espresso shots and put them in a Lexam and put them in the fridge. And that is how we made frappuccinos on an Island Oasis machine.

Ashley: I have a similar story, too. I think we kind of knew cold brew was—we had heard about it, but I think we made it using these buckets from Home Depot and cheesecloth, like just straight up.

It was like, “Oh, this looks like what that is.” No. That’s not how you make cold brew at all.

I remember straining that first batch of cold brew and just being like, “This is wrong. We're doing something wrong.”

Chris: We can’t serve this!

Ashley: We can’t serve this you guys! Oh man, that was bad. Those bad times.

Chris: We've come a long way, Ashley.

Ashley: We have come a long way. So I was wondering, this seems like an obvious question, but I was wondering if you could talk about why is access to equipment important? And you touched a little bit upon that, but I was wondering, as you've seen getchusomegear grow and expand, how have you seen people benefit from having access to equipment?

Chris: Oh, geez. In so many ways, it's a confidence-builder, and I can speak to that.

Folks reach out and they're like, “Whoa, we didn't know that we could do this with this and now we're experimenting,” and there's that.

And then there's the folks that reach out and they're like, “Oh, hey, I went out for this position and I wanted to thank y'all because I built confidence because I had this gear at home and I was able to feel like a coffee professional,” whatever that is.

And then there's the coffee business owners that we've gotten gear to and they're able to bring in more income, hopefully, because of the work that they allow us to do for them. So I think having access to gear is important for all those reasons and probably a whole lot more. And I'm really looking forward to seeing what that is as getchu grows.

Ashley: Something that you hit on too was the idea of it being a confidence-builder. Even thinking of the analogy that you used earlier, where you can be in a cafe and you can be learning from maybe a coffee trainer or a coworker, and if they don't come in with kindness and understanding, that can be so intimidating—you could be trying to figure out the right answer. Like is orange peel the answer you're looking for?

And if I don't agree with you, what does this mean versus being able to brew at home, and really being able to discover coffee on your own terms—which I imagine is a huge part of building confidence?

Chris: I think so too. And I'm glad you brought that up because that's been my experience with coffee educators in companies that I've worked for. It's kind of weird that you go into a coffee company like I did. And the educator, besides the manager of your shop, the educator is one of the first folks that you get to meet from the company. If you don't vibe, it just doesn't feel good. My experience with coffee educators that I've worked with is that they want you to know some things, but not too much. And if you look different then it's harder for you.

Ashley: Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think I was reading an interview that you did, I think with Sprudge, that when you would show up specifically saying, “I want to learn,” or, “I want to do more,” you were met with that wall of, “Oh, you can learn a little bit, but don't learn too much.”

Chris: It was like, “Are you going to take my job?”

Yeah. Bringing some things to folks in leadership at places I've worked at and being like, “Hey, I really want to do this for the staff. I want us to make these educational materials about the different coffee processes and like, you're a [coffee] buyer. So let's talk about this. Let's make this a collaboration because you also buy the coffee that we sell, so let's get it, let's sell more coffee. So we can make more, so you can pay us more.”

But the dude felt very threatened by that in a way that the energy that he was giving off, he felt like I was after his job. And I'm like, “No, I don't want to work with you.” [laughs] Well that was maybe mean…

Ashley: No, that was perfect.

Chris: Like real talk. I don't want to work with you, man. I want my staff to feel fulfilled, you know? And like, not be bored.

Yeah. Pushback like that is so weird. Don't you want your staff and your coworkers and the people that work in your company to do better, so you could pay your people more? It doesn't seem like that's the case.

Ashley: Yeah. That's always an interesting…I don't know—no. Maybe it’s not interesting. It sucks.

It's a dumb thing that happens. I think people don't really understand why folks come to coffee shops, and it's because of baristas. And if baristas don't like their jobs, you can tell. You can tell who here is like, “I like being here and everyone treats me well,” versus, “No one treats me well here and this place sucks. And there's going to be new folks in the next two months.”

I think about that a lot in terms of turnover, because I think that people assume that barista work is a very turnover-type job, but I've been to coffee shops—I'm sure you have too. You've seen coffee shops where people have been there for a long time. It's possible. And we just keep fucking it up so much.

Chris: I think the last large team that I was on was a team of coffee veterans in that company, like three years, four years, one of the guys that was there that was a trainer had been there for like, 10 to 12 years.

And so I don't know—if you keep the staff engaged and happy and give them gear and give them incentives to learn more and help them grow to a point where it would be okay if they left the company, because your intent should be to help them get where they need to be wherever … that would be great.

Ashley: I feel like people don't think about their employees as alumni of their coffee shops. They're the people who go out in the world and they're like, “Oh, I loved working at this place,” or “No, I hated it. And I will tell you why…”

Chris: Yes, that definitely happens. Companies and coffee business owners really underestimate the advertising value that your staff has. Your staff can build quite a following if they're at a coffee shop for a long time and that comes with good stuff and bad stuff.

But once that barista leaves, it's likely that that customer or that customer base will leave. We've seen that happen locally and it's wild to see it. And it's wild to see those customers that were like, “Oh yeah. So about that place … this person's gone, this person's gone, this person's gone. So like, why are we going there now? This is our community. And it doesn't feel that way anymore. You know?”

Ashley: So on Instagram you asked folks to talk about moments that radicalize them working in coffee. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you asked that question, and what was the response like?

Chris: Wow. The year anniversary of the thing that pushed me over the edge to leave an abusive work environment—it's coming up on the anniversary of that. I talk with Chelsea and Sally and Cydni (members of the getchusomegear team) sometimes and we joke about it, but it's like, “What was the thing? What was the company that radicalized you in this industry?”

And it's funny, we all say this same company. Well, except Chelsea, but I felt like I wanted for us to engage with the community because we've all gone through some really traumatic things working in service, in coffee, out of service jobs and it sort of felt like it was the right time to connect.

The response was kind of emotionally overwhelming, but also wonderful and kind of beautiful to see that folks that have gone through such horrible things were just willing to share. And it definitely helped me feel less alone in that service industry trauma, whatever you want to call it. We hope that other people felt that way too.

Ashley: There's something I've been grappling with in my own brain about validation and how important it is for people to both hear your stories and see them and say, “I see this. And that sucks.”

Like, just even giving that moment of, “Your story is real, and it is hurtful.” And just to be able to see from that perspective, because I think for a lot of people sharing their stories of trauma in coffee shops, you're often the only person experiencing that trauma juxtaposed to someone telling you that you're wrong.

So you oftentimes end up in a place where you're like, “Wait, am I wrong? I know I'm not, but everything around me is telling me I am.” And that's awful. I think that can be—I don't know, I don't know what it can be, but I have to imagine that just being able to see other people's stories, even though they're emotionally overwhelming, has to feel like, “Oh, I'm not alone in this.”

Chris: Oh yeah. And sometimes I forget, sometimes we all forget, and I think it was an unexpected reminder that we're not. But we also wanted the folks that follow the getchu Instagram to see what the hell is going on, to see what's really going on and not have a space to deny that.

Because if someone hit up the DMs, we would shut that down immediately, any kind of denials. But it was there in their faces. And for the five seconds that a story's in front of your face, I hope that it had their attention. I hope it's just the first step, the listening and the saying, “Oh, you know, that sucks.” Like solidarity, whatever. It's time for people to start really acting and really doing the things that they claimed they were going to do when they posted those little black squares in their feeds.

Ashley: I have to imagine as an Instagram account that does so much of the work that you do and being really visible about calling other coffee companies to action, you've also been watching people pretty closely and saying like, “Okay, it's December now. What does that actually mean for you?” And I don't really have a question for this as much as I have to imagine that that sucks.

Chris: Yeah. A lot of people on the getchu team spent a good bit of time meeting with folks when all this was happening in June, July—the meetings would be like an hour or two hours. And a lot of those folks that we talked to committed to being a part of this change, this thing that's bigger than everybody or bigger than all of us.

They ghosted. They're gone, for whatever reason. Maybe we said something too controversial or maybe the commitment actually just wasn't there and it was completely performative. But we're not going anywhere. We're pushing forward just fine. And I think maybe better off.

Ashley: At least you have confirmation of who's in it and who's not.

Chris: Oh yeah.

Ashley: I wanna talk a little bit about your Re:co conversation. And I was wondering if you could talk to folks about what was the inspiration behind it and what was it like giving it.

Chris: Oh, okay. So I am a very serious Capricorn person, Ashley.

Ashley: This is my favorite, thank you for telling me your sign.

Chris: I dunno, I'm mostly serious and sometimes like a little bit of a goofball, but I like to plan stuff.

We wanted the presentation to be in the front yard because we figured that people would be using their offices or like a stuffy classroom, whatever. We wanted to sit outside. The wallflowers were really pretty. But I had this plan, I had a script and there were these things that we were going to say. I held it up, I was talking with Cydni about it and Chelsea (my partner) was there because she was filming. And I think Cydni and Chelsea looked at each other and they were just like, “No, you're not going to have a script for this. You don't need, we don't need a script. We can just kind of wing it and brew the coffee and have a conversation.”

So they made me throw my planned script away and we just went for it. I don't really like speaking publicly very much. I just feel very awkward. But I felt like this was an important opportunity to talk about the things that are important to us.

Ashley: For anyone who maybe didn't get to see your Re:co speech, could you give a quick and dirty overview of what you folks talked about?

Chris: Oh yeah. Give your staff tools and resources that they need to move forward wherever they want to be.

Don't be racist was one of the takes.

Cydni just, she speaks so beautifully. She was talking about how no one in her family—and I'm probably going to screw this up completely—but no one in her family would not teach her how to take care of something in their house, you know?

And that's how business owners should think about educating baristas and equipping them with tools, giving them gear, and giving them access to information instead of hoarding it and gatekeeping it like it's money. I don't know.

Ashley: I like that analogy that Cydni gave because there's the implication of like, you're in your home and your parents or your family members wouldn't teach you how to do something in your house, but likewise, your family wouldn't expect you to stay forever either. If you leave, it's not like, “Oh, we taught you these tools just for you to leave.” Do you know what I mean?

Chris: When Cydni talked about her parents teaching her how to take care of the house and that prepares you to do other things in life, coffee business owners really could have looked at that and been like, “Oh, okay, this is a great analogy. If I take care of my staff and I give them what they need and I teach them how to take care of everything in this cafe, and I compensate them fairly for doing so, they're either gonna stick around and be great for the team or they're gonna move on and be great somewhere else.”

Ashley: I think that just speaks to the bigger idea of an industry. If we care about coffee growing and being better for everybody, then we all have to do our part in the small ways we can.

So empowering staff is part of the system, it's part of the making coffee better. So it's interesting when … maybe I'm going to throw roasters under the bus a little bit, but I feel like they're kind of the easiest target—but no, not roasters.

But you know when you look at a roaster's website and they're like, “We care so much about meticulously roasted coffee…” It's like words like that, that always kind of seemed like a red flag to me.

It's like, “Oh, if we care so much, we clearly care about the future of coffee, but we don't seem to consider all of the things that go into that.” It's not just about meticulously roasted coffee. It's not just about sourcing the best green coffee we can— and that's a whole other rabbit hole, but it just seems like we forget all the other stuff that makes coffee better and the stuff that makes coffee better is people.

Chris: And yeah, we forget to take care of the people or just maybe don't take care of the people. And thank you for bringing up—we've got a lot of work to do, but if we all try to do the thing just a little bit, you know, we can accomplish a whole lot. Because that was also the end of the theme, the end of the Re:co chat that we had.

Ashley: I wanted to talk a little bit about you and I'm glad that you brought up that you're a Capricorn because I love trying to figure out how people's personalities fit into the work that they do. And I was wondering, this might be a big question, but how do you see yourself in the work that getchusomegear does?

Chris: I thought about this a little bit. I really, like tbh, I really like to give people stuff and I have no money, so this is a great way to do that! And that ties directly into just really wanting the people that I care about to have the things that they need.

Ashley: Yeah. That seems to be a theme for getchusomegear in general—the idea of reciprocity, because there is no expectation of reciprocity. You get a box, and that’s for you.

Chris: That's for you. You can have it.

Every part of this, I want folks to know that there's no expectation. With the original getchusomegear application for baristas, I think there's like, eight questions and one of them is, “What's your name?” And another question is, “What's your address?”

Those are the hardest questions that you really need to answer. Because I think some programs that I've seen outside of coffee have just asked so much from people and just wanted them to bare their souls, to get a thing that they should already have access to. And I don't like that. And I think that's ridiculous.

Ashley: I just had this conversation with Mansi [Chokshi, of the Specialty Coffee Association] who you and I have actually also both texted or DMed about before and something that Mansi mentioned in her interview—I'm going to assume that Mansi’s interview will be out by this time because if it’s not, I'll cut this.

Mansi mentioned, and I forget what the program was, but she mentioned that for the first time, the SCA decided to not require an application for [a scholarship for the program]. They were like, “Do you need this thing? Cool. This is how much of the thing we have and we're going to put everybody in a lottery.” I think it was for Sensory Summit.

Chris: Oh dope! Cool!

Ashley: Mansi was like, “We have 50 boxes to give people for Sensory Summit,” or something like that. I might be making the number up. But instead of this application process, she was like, “Why am I questioning people's needs? What proof do they have to give me to say that they need a thing? If they need the thing, they need the thing.”

Chris: Yeah, they should just have the thing!

Ashley: So I think that that kind of mimics a lot of the understanding behind getchusomegear. And it seems to also speak to the larger theme of what we give people in coffee shops. What do we give our employees? And I bet you the idea of reciprocity comes up in coffee shops a lot. Like, “Oh, if I train you, then you will be a good barista for me. You will be good in this shop.” But if we remove that, if we just say like, “I just want you to be the best version of you,” then … wouldn't that be better?

Chris: It would be so much better!

And when I think about getting, in particular, gifts from coffee shops at around the holiday times, or as a Band-aid when something weird happens, it just feels like there's strings attached to that. I don't want there to be any strings. Our getchuagrant application was very open-ended and similar to the gearbox application. It's like, “Do you need the thing? Okay. Tell us whatever you want to tell us in your video.” Okay.

Ashley: How did you make decisions on that?

Chris: You mean on the grant?

Ashley: Yeah.

Chris: We had a sweet team of getchuagrant … I don't know what you call that, the application review squad?

We had 49 applicants and we picked folks that were doing mutual aid work in their communities, like Mina’s World. We try to focus on gearbox recipients with the LLC boosts. Just folks that align with our ideals because Cydni has smacked me upside of the head with a lot of truth lately. And she's like, “Just because my identity, our identities intersect with other folks, it doesn't mean that they're necessarily for what we're about.”

And yeah, so those are the folks we went for. And the first five recipients from Seattle Coffee Gear were all Black women. That's the least-protected person in this industry and we've got to do whatever we can to protect and uplift Black femmes.

Ashley: When you look at getchusomegear, what do you think are the goals? I have to imagine that you've thought about this before, but the idea that it'd be great if getchusomegear wasn't necessary.

Chris: It would be really cool if coffee shops and coffee business centers, whatever, would provide their staff with the tools that they need to learn more. It would be great if they all wrote taking care of the community into their budgets. It would be great if they all had policies in place to protect the best interests of the staff.

So there's a lot of layers, I think, to what getchu has ended up doing and being, so I don't know what the goals are in that way. It would be nice for all of those things to be fantastic and not a problem. But they're going to be, and so I think we'll be around. I don't know if that was like a rambling answer…

Ashley: No, that wasn’t rambling at all.

Chris: Seemingly everything happened by accident with getchusomegear. And so we’re just gonna kind of wait for more good accidents to happen.

Ashley: What else would you want people to know about you listening to this?

Chris: Oh, Lord. I don't know. I'm working on being less of a like, not in the shadows might not be a good way to put it, but I haven't always been the most outgoing person or the person that's had a good community of people around them, especially in work environments. I just want to thank the people that are involved with getchu and the folks that have signed up to get a gearbox, all the people that applied to get a grant. I have a community around me now and I've literally never had that before.

Cydni and I wouldn't have been friends without coffee, Sally either. I don't know. I don't know how to put into words how much that means to me or how much I appreciate that I have felt like a very lost person for a long time. And because of coffee, I don't feel that way anymore, because of the people that I've met in this community. And that makes me so happy.

Ashley: Chris, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I really appreciate it.

Chris: Thanks for having me, Ashley.

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