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'Doing Things Differently' Means Nothing
Nothing, that is, unless you *actually* do things differently.
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By now, the language of disruption has become ubiquitous within the tech industry. To be innovative, any new product or app seemingly needs to flip the script and completely alter how things were done before to succeed. More recently, I’ve noticed the phrase leaking beyond a tech context, and morphing into a generalized, aspirational descriptor. “We do things a little bit differently here” might be the promise of a new job or a one-liner you’re given when walking into a new restaurant.
That’s all well and good, except most of the time, “disruption” feels less about making genuine, material improvements and more about knee-jerk posturing. Real disruption takes care and insight—and when it does arrive, it feels immediately striking.
I’ve been familiar with David Lalonde of Rabbit Hole Roasters for a long time, and I recently invited him on the show because he was roasting coffee from an origin I’d never before experienced: Haiti. As a companion work, Rabbit Hole also released a series of educational articles on Haiti, written by employee Roxanne Cornellier, specifically about how colonialism and U.S. intervention had affected the country’s coffee production over time. When I placed my order, I had to ask myself: Why was this the first time I was experiencing coffee from Haiti?
I’ve talked about the issue of sameness in coffee before, mainly in the context of aesthetics. When I say “coffee shop look,” you can probably conjure an image in your mind—think reclaimed wood, stark lighting, and bespoke aprons—that a quick Google Image search would confirm. (Under one of the photos, the headline is, I kid you not, “Most Unique Coffee Shops.”)
David pushed this idea of sameness a step further. He decided to co-found Rabbit Hole after he noticed deeper similarities among many top roasters:
At first I didn’t know what was bugging me about any of the roasters that I would see, but after a couple of years in coffee I think I just realized that the origins [people picked to offer] were pretty much all the same. People wouldn’t dare deviate from that.
So you had to have a Brazilian coffee or darker coffees for blends, you had to have coffee from Ethiopia, you had to have coffee from Colombia—these were the main origins—and then you would have to sneak a Kenyan or a coffee from Guatemala in there.
Because I was a baby barista, I didn’t know much in the beginning. I did my own research and I started to get interested in the world of coffee at large and then once you realize that coffee is produced in more than 30 countries, you’re just like, “Why do we keep buying from the same three or four countries all the time?”
It really intrigued me, and I was like, “Is it because the coffee is not good?” But it wasn’t that. It was just, “This is how we’ve been doing things for a while and this is how we’re going to keep doing things.”
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing something tried and true, but that’s different from oppressive sameness. Often, in industries like coffee and beer and food, we attempt to place value on difference without really doing anything differently at all.
I’m sure that’s in part because being different is hard—and it isn’t inherently good just for its own sake. David mentioned that it took him and his business partner six months of operating their roastery to realize that they weren’t actually doing anything meaningfully distinct, and needed to reevaluate what being different meant to them. But being different can also be as simple as asking a rudimentary question, like why many roasters source coffee from the same places, and being willing to—pardon the pun—go down the rabbit hole.
Beyond the surface disruptors, there are many folks doing things differently in ways that are meaningful. I encourage you to seek them out, and take into account how awesome they are—and how much it takes—to really challenge the status quo. The growing movement of Starbucks baristas who are unionizing their workplaces are one example. So is Loom Coffee in North Carolina, which commits to working with cafe partners who work to pay their baristas a living wage. Former podcast guest Michael Schroeder of Oddly Correct Coffee in Kansas City, frustrated with the limits of citywide minimum wage guidelines, guarantees every barista will walk away with at least $18/hour through a combination of wages and tips.
This is the kind of disruption that’s worth celebrating—the kind that makes conditions better for workers, that seeks to shape a better industry, and that isn’t just pursuing change to follow some arbitrary trend.
Before you go…
I’ve been very inconsistent with including this section in past newsletters, and I’d like to be better about this in 2022.
I published a story about Cuban bread for Taste, which, like Grammy Award-winning Cuban artist Jon Secada, feels like a thing only I care about. (Does anyone reading this know who Jon Secada is? I’m beginning to think he was only a big deal in Miami while I was growing up.) I also tested and wrote my very first recipe (for Cuban bread, obvi), which was very exciting for me. There was Cuban bread in my house for days.
If you haven’t watched Insecure and admired just how perfectly beautiful this last season was, stop reading this and go watch it immediately.
I made a list of seasonal goals for winter 2022, a tradition I’ve sporadically kept up with over the last nine years. Two relevant to this platform are to consolidate Boss Barista (It exists in too many places! I need it to live in just one place!) and to make a mug.
Another one of my goals is to ask for more, and at some point—when the idea doesn’t make me want to barf—I’d like to offer a paid option for Boss Barista. Boss Barista will always be free, but I’d like to give folks who would pay for this content a way to do so. At this point, Boss Barista costs me money to make, and I’d like to change that soon.
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