For Your Consumption
We don't just consume food and drink—we devour the people who make the things we love
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I’m working on an article right now about the 2011 Hipster Barista meme. The barista in question, a guy named Dustin, still works in coffee. Unsurprisingly for a small industry, I actually knew him peripherally, and we floated in the same circles. I was surprised to learn later that this person I had met was the subject of one of early meme culture’s most popular images.
What I intend on exploring in the article (which will be for a print publication out soon—watch this space) is how the meme, while featuring a picture of Dustin, really isn’t about Dustin at all. His photo was taken from an employee photoshoot and then became an internet sensation, but none of the text overlays speak to Dustin the person. Rather, they tell stories about the assumptions we make regarding baristas and coffee culture.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this article is because I think a lot about Boss Barista as a podcast and newsletter—and then I think about Ashley, the person who makes the podcast and newsletter. Sometimes, I’m anxious that the line between us isn’t very clear.
In fairness, I do nothing to draw that line. I almost solely use my Boss Barista Instagram account as opposed to my personal one, and my work as a podcast host and writer is an inescapable part of my online identity. Because I’ve helmed this project so long by myself, Boss Barista feels hyper-specific to me, and I’d find it challenging to depersonalize it. But while the podcast and newsletter are just two things I do, I worry people will start to think of them as me—mostly because I sometimes think that way as well.
In the latest podcast episode with Tio Fallen of Three Keys Coffee, we talk about that tension. Three Keys Coffee is a small roastery that Tio runs with his wife, Kenzel, in Houston, Texas. Towards the end of our discussion, we got into the sticky topic of how one begins to allow room for others to be creative in a project that’s so personal and close to your being:
It’s a very true story. It is like literally an autobiography of you, of me, told through coffee. So that’s why it is difficult for me to sort of disconnect myself from it and let Three Keys stand alone, as much I’d love to…
When it’s your passion project and you think of it like, this is my baby. It’s hard to allow other creative visionaries to influence that. I think that’s just gonna take a little bit of opening up for Kenzel and me. And I think we can do it. We have the capability to do it. That’s not beyond our personal disposition that we can’t open up and let others in and let that influence take shape. But man, that would be so hard.
I also think this blurring of personal identity and professional ideals tends to happen in service work. Part of the experience is, in a way, selling yourself—customers are consuming your demeanor, your point of view. That applies even if you’re not talking to guests every day. We tout the visions of exceptional people: We idolize chefs on television through shows like “Top Chef” and “Chef’s Table,” and we make coffee choices based on the vision specific roasters or public figures present. When it comes to the things we eat and drink, part of what we consume is the people making those things.
But a duality exists, in service work especially. In some ways, it can feel like customers treat you as less-than-human, like you’re part of the furniture. In other ways, it can feel like your mood and demeanor are subject for public consumption, and you exist only in a very narrow framework. Anyone who has seen a regular customer outside of their workplace knows this: Suddenly they feel entitled to your space, and perhaps that’s welcome (it’s definitely possible to vibe with regulars). But sometimes it can feel like two worlds are blurring, and you only exist to be consumed by others. You’re not just a person out buying groceries: You’re Ashley, the neighborhood barista, out buying groceries. It can be jarring to realize that you only live in a person’s mind in a very specific context.
I’m not sure if there’s a solution to this that feels fair to consumers. Why wouldn’t they want to know about the people who make the things they love? Is that part of the price of living a public life? (And these days, you certainly don’t need to be a celebrity to feel like your life is happening under a microscope.) What happens when the vision of someone, fabricated through public-facing acts, isn’t actually that person at all?
Right now, we are seeing more people contending with the idea of public consumption and celebrity—we’re all collectively realizing how terrible we were to Britney Spears, or adding the word “parasocial” to our vocabulary after comedian John Mulaney announced his divorce from Anna Marie Tendler, his wife of six years who was often mentioned in his popular comedy special. The headline from this BuzzFeed article sums it up: “John Mulaney’s Fans Thought They Knew Everything About Him — Here’s How The Past Year Proved Them Wrong.”
In tandem, we’re also rethinking the relationships between the people who make and serve us things … sort of. Many of the folks who are part of the “Great Resignation” are service workers, but we haven’t had a fully realized collective moment of reevaluating how we interact with them.
We don’t create a rich backstory for the people who make our phones, or the person behind a desk working for your cell phone provider. But once an item we consume comes from a person we can see and interact with, the line between the person and what we think of the person blurs, and it blurs the more we see them. It happens the other way around, too—the person performing a role becomes more entrenched as they continue on. But the person we perceive is just that: a projection of a perception. I wonder if that knowledge will help us to be better to service workers or recognize just how fucking hard it is to make a thing for public consumption when in doing so, you’re also offering up a piece of yourself.
Before you go…
I got the chance to interview the amazing James Hoffmann for Taste, in which we talked about the miracle that is coffee beans living in your cabinet and what in the world juicers have to do with coffee brewing. James’ YouTube channel is always a source of knowledge and occasionally a source of giggles, especially this video where he tried Aldi’s espresso martini cheese.
To accompany the piece I wrote on unions for this newsletter, I also wrote about the implications of the Starbucks union for the future of the service industry. I uncovered a lot of interesting facts, and I hope this propels you even closer to starting a union at work.
I just started reading Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. This is book #3 of this year—slowly but surely, I’m working towards reading a stack of books as tall as me.
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