Leadership as Mentorship with Kaleena Teoh and ChiSum Ngai

  
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If you’ve listened to this show before, you’ll know I love interviewing partners. Business partners, romantic partners, longtime friends and colleagues. I’m interested in the ways folks who spend a lot of time together reflect on each other, on their relationship, and on how they’ve both changed and grown in parallel.

Think of it like tasting a bunch of different coffees in a row. Alone, a coffee might exhibit one set of flavors. But when you taste multiple coffees side by side, the contrasts offer greater insight into what’s in the cup.

Likewise, partnerships have the power to clarify and sharpen individual traits, skills, and ideas. That’s certainly true of Kaleena Teoh and ChiSum Ngai (who goes by Sum), who are the co-founders of Coffee Project New York. Originally started as a small shop in the East Village in 2015, Coffee Project has expanded, and now comprises a number of retail stores, a roastery, and a Specialty Coffee Association-certified training lab. Sum is a Q grader, which means she’s passed rigorous tests to evaluate and taste coffees, and both Sum and Kaleena take their role as leaders seriously.

In this episode, we learn more about how their relationship to coffee, each other, and themselves has changed over time. Both Sum and Kaleena believe in the power of education, using Coffee Project as a space to bring customers into the coffee world. They also strive to build meaningful careers for their staff, which is why they’ve grown their business. But they still know the value of leading by example, and are always looking to learn and expand their knowledge base. Here are Sum and Kaleena.


Ashley: I was hoping to start with both of you introducing yourselves.

Sum: Hi, my name is Sum and I'm the co-founder of Coffee Project New York.

Kaleena: Hi, my name's Kaleena. I'm the other co-founder of Coffee Project New York.

Ashley: I was wondering if both of you could share some of your earliest memories of coffee. Let's start with you, Sum.

Sum: OK. My earliest memory of coffee. This has to go way back to when I was in Malaysia. Coffee in Malaysia is very cultural. It's not so much about drinking the coffee itself—it's more like an experience with your parents or going to hang out with your friends.

My first cup of coffee that I was dying to drink was actually when I was five. I literally had to beg—“Hey, can I get a cup of iced coffee?” That was the earliest memory I have of coffee. And ever since then, I've been hooked.

Ashley: What about you, Kaleena?

Kaleena: Well, my great-grandmother used to, back in Malaysia too, run a small little cart that sells rice dumplings. I remember we always had the rice dumpling with a cup of instant coffee, just black with sugar in it. I remember that's just how I ate them. I guess I started about the same age, about five or six.

Ashley: I love hearing stories of people drinking coffee in childhood because it almost seems mischievous in a way, like, “Hey, I want to drink that thing that the adults are drinking.” Then it just becomes a lifelong love.

Kaleena: Absolutely.

Ashley: How did you two meet?

Sum: That was also back in Malaysia. So Kaleena and I are college mates. We both were psychology majors and we were both enrolled in a mentorship program under UNICEF that mentors teenagers at schools that are a little bit underserved. So that's how we met over there, and I did two cycles.

What about you Kaleena?

Kaleena: I think I did two as well. This was way back! (Laughs) This was what? 15, 20 years—wait, 15 years ago.

Sum: Yeah, 15 years!

Kaleena: This was about 15 years ago. So we were both volunteer mentors. We met back then, but we were more like, “hi-bye” friends.

Sum: Then we met again in New York City because I came here for work, and she graduated from school, and since then we started seeing each other and now we are very much together.

Ashley: How would you describe the other? I feel like I admit this in every interview I do, but I love partnerships. I love people who are in some sort of either creative, romantic—whatever partnership, because I think that there's so much that one person can say about the other and I'm always interested in how people describe each other. So I was wondering Kaleena, could you describe Sum?

Sum: I was so scared you were going to direct that question to me, Ashley! (Laughs)

Ashley: Oh, you're going next.

Kaleena: You’re not running away from this!

Sum: Kaleena first!

Kaleena: Alrighty. So Sum is a really kind person. She’s probably one of the kindest people I've ever met. Our personality is similar in a way that we're both quite patient, but she's able to make decisions really quickly while I will take my time. I'll research. I'll do things rather slowly. So it's a nice little balance.

Sum: Hmm.

Kaleena: What do you think, Sum?

Ashley: Sum said some of this while we were waiting for you to finish up your phone call because I alluded to asking a couple of these questions and Sum was like, “Yeah, I make decisions fast and Kaleena stops and thinks about them.”

Kaleena: Yup!

Sum: For me, if I were to describe Kaleena, I think Kaleena will probably be all the parts that I'm missing. Like I mentioned, I do things really quickly. I'm really emotional. I like to do things with my emotions, like my heart. So she is the person who is going to help me think like, “Are you sure you really want to do it? Do you know the consequences? OK, you do? All right. Go for it.”

Kaleena: Yeah. That pretty much sums it up.

Ashley: I love that. So at what point did you two decide, “Hey, we want to open a coffee shop! Let's go for it.”

Kaleena: Well, that's going to be Sum’s story.

Sum: So we started Coffee Project New York in 2015. I think the final push [to open the shop was] because I was really tired from my previous job. I wanted to do something together with Kaleena that really belongs to us.

So our initial goal was just like, “Hey, maybe we can both quit our jobs and then start this coffee shop.” We're going to work six days—we're going to be closed one day [a week] so we can still rest. And then if we have to go back to Malaysia for vacation, we'll just close the store for three months.

(Pause)

Never happened.

Ashley: (Laughs) I was about to say—did that ever happen?

Sum: Yeah. It did not happen. The six days a week didn't happen. Vacation did not happen. We ended up working 365 [days], 14- to 16-hour shifts a day. But we were happy. We were very motivated to go to work. We had a good time and—I don't know. I feel like this is when I really truly lived. What do you think, Kaleena?

Kaleena: Yeah, no, absolutely. I feel like we were doing a project that we enjoyed, that both of us really enjoyed. And we got so much, I guess, advice from people saying that, “You guys are dating, you shouldn't be working together.” We just went against all that. We did it anyway. It worked, it worked—just so you know.

Ashley: I was about to say—so you mentioned that this was an idea that Sum had, so what was it like, Sum, when you first brought this idea up to Kaleena? Like, “Hey, this is a thing I want to do. Let's both quit our jobs and go do this thing.”

Sum: I was pretty surprised. Remember when I was saying that she's more of the brain, she's sitting down and thinking about things? But it didn't take as long to say yes. She was like, “Sure let's do it.”

Maybe she was also tired of me coming back from work and complaining about my life but doing nothing about it. It was very real for about three years or so. So when I finally made the decision, it's like, “I think I want to do coffee,” she's like, maybe in her heard she was like, “Finally you said it!”

Ashley: Kaleena, what did you feel when Sum came and said, “Hey, I want to do this thing?”

Kaleena: It was definitely a little bit of that [feeling of “finally!”], I'm not gonna lie. She would come home from her previous job really discouraged and really tired and really burnt out. She wanted to do something different and I really wanted to encourage that. And it just so happened that coffee is something that we both love. When she came up with the idea of opening a coffee shop, I just thought, “Yeah, let's do it.”

As we were planning, we realized that, “Oh, well I guess if both of us were working we can save on some labor costs,” and we were both in our twenties. I guess if this is a mistake, it's fine. We'll be OK if this fails and then we have to redo something else.

Ashley: You talked a little bit about those first couple of weeks or months when you were working 16-18-hour days and having this vision of, “Oh, we'll both work and have a day off and maybe one day we'll close up for three months and go on vacation.”

But it seems like you quickly learned that there was a lot more happening, a lot more that you had to do. So I was wondering what those first couple of months were like for both of you?

Sum: Pretty stressful. I think it's because of my nature, my personality, but I'm not someone who gets angry easily or gets agitated or stressed. I get stressed, but I'm not that loud [when I get] stressed. So it helps a lot with our relationship, especially [because] we’re so tired sometimes. So we might not be able to talk to each other much.

I think during that point of time we were both very compassionate towards each other. If I know Kaleena is tired then maybe I'll take care of certain things [and get them] out of her way. Kaleena knows that taking up calls and doing certain paperwork—it's not my game. She volunteers to do it. There's a lot of compromise and there's a lot of respect between both of us. Right now, if I were to think about it—if we can go through that period of time with 14 and 16 hours of harsh work, worrying about money and things, I don't think there’s anything we can’t go through.

Kaleena: Yeah, you’re right. I remember when we first started we—of course, we could only afford a really small storefront in the East Village on a side street. And of course, without visibility for any business, it's not good, especially at the very beginning. You’re built up towards getting a constant flow of customers [and] it’s definitely way slower on the side street.

Luckily we had neighbors who were really supportive on that street. Like Sum said, we were on our feet 14, 16 hours a day. You don't see a lot of customers coming in, you know you’re depleting your cash flow, you’re stressed and you're tired, but having the support of your neighbors—we had amazing neighbors back then.

These are people who have lived in the East Village for like 30, 40 years. They would come by, they would buy a cup of coffee and they'll sit in the shop and they'll tell you, “Hey, it's going to be OK, darling. You're going to be all right. People just need to know that you're here,” and that kind of helped keep us going in the very beginning. Do you remember that?

Sum: Yeah, I do. Some of them are still here and we still keep in touch. I remember the first time we launched our loyalty card program—because everyone in the neighborhood was doing it. And I started punching, punching the stamp for the regulars to come in and literally they would give the card back to me and said, “I'm not taking this until you have made your first dollar.”

I was so touched. And I'm like, “You know what, if I ever make my first dollar, your coffee's going to be on me for a month.” But that is how we went through it the first few months.

Ashley: When did you start to see a turning point? Because you're talking about 2015 and those first couple of months and the struggle of opening a coffee shop, but we're in 2021 and you have multiple shops. You have a roastery. You have an SCA training lab. There's a lot happening at Coffee Project. So I have to imagine there was a point where the momentum started.

Sum: The turning point for the first shop happened pretty quickly, because we’ve had all these loving people who come into the shop and hang out. So people starting to notice us, like when they pass by, “Oh, it's a coffee shop,” and people started coming in.

But the real turning point for us to decide on how our expansion [would go] I think happened in 2016 when we had our first [wave of] turnovers. We had staff back then— three full-time, very good staff members, people we're still keeping in touch with right now. But at that point in time, everybody needed to do something else, like leave New York City, go get another job that pays better with growth, and go back to school.

So we realized that maybe for us both, we were content with just a shop and we're making money, but for a lot of people, they're looking to pursue more in coffee and grow.

I realized that things have to change. So I took my cue during that time because if I were to lead a group of people who really want and love coffee, then I have to lead by example. That's when I told Kaleena, “Maybe we can both start to get really serious about coffee education, brewing coffee, bringing in pour-over, and answering questions that our customers have…” I think that was a time we realized that things had to change.

Ashley: That's really interesting because I've only heard so many people cite the needs of their staff as a reason for growing and expanding. Because I imagine, you work in retail, you probably hear people talk about growth all the time, or what they need to do to turn over that next step.

But I think really responsible growth happens for a reason. You need to build better jobs for your staff or you have to address how busy your coffee shop is or something like that. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that decision because it's not evident that that would be the thing that you have to do, right? You could have just said, “Oh, this is a coffee shop that's for us. We want to keep it small. And we're OK with people staying here as long as they need. And that's all right.”

Sum: I'm so glad you asked this question, Ashley. So I'm going to start with both of us. Honestly, if we only had one shop and we really went with that direction of having [high] turnaround of human resources and we kept training and all—it is actually less stressful and a lot easier to handle.

But we met so many wonderful people when we were opening. When we were opening Coffee Project New York, the people who would come into Coffee Project to be a barista, they were all great people who really believed in coffee being their career and were not just there to pay the bills. It changed my mind a little bit about why I wanted to do coffee.

It also changed my mind a little bit about how I can be part of the journey for them to make coffee as a career, because a lot of our baristas struggle to tell their parents or their family, “Hey, I'd like to do coffee. I think coffee is my thing,” but everyone is worried about, if you're a coffee person or you're a barista, you can't afford to pay bills or you can't afford this and that. I want to change that, Ashley.

I want them to be able to do the things they love to do, to be very proud on the competition stage, and at the same time afford a car, afford an apartment, eventually go on vacation. So this is my dream for Coffee Project. That's how I feel about it—the growth.

Ashley: I love that you also were able to talk about how that changed your mind too, because like you said, it's not evident. It's not evident, especially when you open a business for the first time and you have this vision of what it's going to be. “Hey, me and my partner are gonna open a coffee shop. That's going to be a place where we can quit our jobs and find a little bit more happiness even if we're working hard.”

And then to see things happen and be like, “Oh, I need to change my perspective. Or maybe the way that I thought about something isn't actually what I'm seeing in front of me. How do I respond to this?” And you responded really strongly—you have a training lab, you have a roastery, and I imagine that those things weren't in the plans when you first opened.

Sum: No, it was not in the plan. And one thing that I think Kaleena and I are really proud of for the team at Coffee Project is that as a company, up to now, every single [person who has a] position in the company that is not a barista, they all started as a barista at Coffee Project. So we have the tech person who was a barista—still a barista! We have our production lead, who is also a barista moving into learning how to roast from us. And then we have our operations manager, we have the store manager…everybody starts as a barista at Coffee Project and they know how to get things done and grow along with the culture, the company culture. So it's just something that Kaleena and I are proud of.

Ashley: As Coffee Project has grown, you've added more positions, you've added more branches, now you're roasting, you have an operations manager. What have you learned about yourselves as leaders? Was that a difficult transition for either of you?

Kaleena: I think, generally, not really. In the past, our previous experience, we volunteered in mentoring programs. I don't know about you, Sum, but back in school, I did a lot of activities, planning activities and stuff. I guess in my life, I've been doing things like this, but as a shop owner, that’s when it comes to the point where you realize that you have to be the leader of a company and this company no longer just comprises of you and Sum, like me and Sum.

I guess it takes me longer to let that sink in. But after I realized, “OK, now we have a team,” and now we just have to get things done. From that point onwards, it's just pretty much launched, and I don’t think it was a very difficult transition for me.

What do you think?

Sum: Sometimes I self-reflect a little bit about what is my style of leading a company. I think a lot of things have changed for me. I’ve learned how to listen a lot more compared to just leading. I’ve also learned how to follow. I think this is really important for me right now.

Back when I started Coffee Project, I had my ideals, I had my goals. I'm very persistent about certain things being done [a certain way]. But if I didn't listen to what the customer wanted, I probably would not be able to step out of whatever I’ve built earlier and I would be just so fixated on doing what I think, and visualizing what Coffee Project is—oh, it’s an espresso bar without drip coffee, it's just going to be pourovers, very strict, very pure. But I listened to what the neighborhood wanted. They wanted a shop where they can hang out and not be judged for drinking certain coffees and things like that.

As the team grew, I think for me, the listening part became even more important. Because once we had a team, Kaleena and I stepped away a little bit more from being in front of the shop. We were no longer stuck behind the bar pulling shots all day long because we had to be more of a planner. We’re not there as often anymore, but we don't, we're not there as a team anymore. So listening became even more important.

You have to listen to your team to tell you like, “Hey, this is how it should probably be,” or, “It would be helpful if we have this, dah, dah, dah…” Yeah. So for me, it just switched from being so fixated on what I want to do to just opening up and listening to what people want.

Ashley: That’s really interesting about mentorship, which I thought was a really interesting analogy to being a leader, because I don't think a lot of people would make that jump. I don't think people would say, “I've mentored people before and I've helped them be successful in their own lives or figure out a path for themselves. Therefore, I have experience in leadership.” I don't think everybody would say that leadership is in a way really like mentoring folks.

Kaleena: It is. I personally think it is because like, for example, in the company, when we are doing certain things or coming up with certain roles or having to fill certain positions, we always try to align our goal with the individual’s goal.

If you're heading in the same direction as your team members, then I feel like it's a win-win situation. They enjoy the work that they're doing and you, on the other hand, you know you're growing your company in a direction that you wanted it to grow.

We're still—I don't know if Sum mentioned to you—we're working with You Boston, which is sort of like a youth group. We're just sort of continuing that mentorship thing. We're not working as mentors, but now we're training young individuals on coffee skills to hopefully help them launch an early career or get a foot in starting in the coffee world. That’s just what we do, huh?

Ashley: Education is a big part of your business model in general—you opened that SCA training center. When I talked to Sum for the Matchbook Coffee Project podcast, we talked a lot about customers being able to enter the coffee shop and not feel like they needed all this experience in coffee or this knowledge about coffee to come order something from you folks and to learn about coffee. So has education always been part of your model?

Sum: When we started, maybe not—because ultimately, I just wanted to serve a cup of good coffee. But as we grew, I realized that education is important in a way that it provides us a platform to standardize a lot of things.

Kaleena will be able to explain a little bit more how education has helped us train our baristas for consistency. I think it's just having a ground for us to train, even if it's not the SCA standard. It gives us the protocol on what to do with our training.

Kaleena: Ashley, when you're asking about the question, what came to mind was a little different. I was thinking more on when we launched our deconstructed latte, we wanted to be able to share—I guess our love for coffee in a very friendly way.

A deconstructed latte is just like the word suggests: There is a shot of espresso, there's steamed milk, and then there's a latte at the end. We realized that a lot of people who are not in coffee are not very familiar with espresso. We had people who will drink lattes for days and never had a shot of espresso. So it's very hard for people to appreciate [that] a good shot of espresso comes from good-quality beans and good skills from the barista. I guess that was our first step in trying to not educate, but more to share knowledge, to let people know that, “Hey, if you have good-quality beans, you have good baristas, you’re going to be able to enjoy a really good cup of coffee.”

It’s not always been a bed of roses. When we started the shop, we would have people come in—or rather open the door, since it's a very small shop—they opened the door and they saw two Asian women standing behind the bar, and then they just closed the door and left, and it didn't just happen once.

At that point in time, what we felt was if we want to say something about coffee and have people, I guess, respect what we’re saying, the first thing that we can do is to educate ourselves. And like Sum said, to lead by example, which encouraged her to take the Q grading exam, and she became a Q grader. I feel like that's how we launched into education. And then we realized that people will come in, a lot of team members from different coffee backgrounds have different standards because different shops are doing things differently.

And that's absolutely OK. But what we realized was, if we can create a space that provides a certain standard—like we have an SCA lab and SCA has their standards. But that will work as a basis for [saying things like,] “Let's talk about espresso, and these are the things that you need to know because these are SCA standards, but if you want to do something else, you also have the background knowledge of explaining why you're not following the standards or why your specs are out of the standards.”

It's just creating a language where we can communicate with everyone.

Ashley: It’s almost like learning the rules so you can break them later.

Kaleena: Exactly.

Ashley: I was wondering—I'm gonna ask you a very broad question, so feel free to answer it any way that you see fit—but how do you approach coffee?

Sum: How do you approach coffee … so what do you mean by how do I approach coffee?

Ashley: In a way, because you folks do kind of everything—you roast, you source, you have retail shops, you have a wholesale program—so I imagine with such a big umbrella, you have to think about some pretty big ideas.

Sum: Oh, so I got you now. So I think I'm very flexible with what I get for coffee. When I have my hands on any coffee, I want to be as creative as possible with it, which is why with my Matchbook release, Ashley, I picked a coffee I've never had before, haven't seen before, because I felt like it will allow me to be really creative with that.

So my push for coffee is I want to usually just learn what this coffee is first, by taking whatever measurement I can, learn the terroir and the farm. After that, we will go totally crazy on it. On my last birthday, my team got me a rum barrel, a used rum barrel, because they thought that, “I think Sum will appreciate this.” So what I'm going to do is I might throw a bunch of coffees into it and I'm going to age them, and I'm going to be roasting it with the team, just for fun and to see how it tastes.

Ashley: I love that people were like, “Oh, Sum is going to like this rum barrel, this is the present that we've thought of for Sum.”

Sum: Yeah. I literally walked into the barrel and then they were like—I think they were trying to surprise me, but the barrel is so big and I saw it right away.

Ashley: How did that coffee end up tasting?

Sum: We haven't done it yet. In fact, it's still in progress because I think we have to age it for at least three weeks to see if it's going to absorb anything from the rum, if there's anything left in the rum barrel for us to take actually.

Ashley: So let's talk a little bit about the future, because I think we've set a pretty good foundation for why Coffee Project started, how Coffee Project has changed, but that there's still so much happening with you folks. So I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what the future looks like for you?

Sum: Short-term goals, I think for me, I just hope that our wholesale program can expand, because we would really love to see more coffee shops carry us and share our story with their people. That being said, when we have more wholesale clients, I will have the ability and the purchasing power to support farms and producers that I would love to have a relationship with. So this is my short-term goal.

The long-term goal, obviously, as I mentioned earlier, I wish that everyone who is here with Coffee Project can afford a vacation, afford a car, afford an apartment, or do whatever they want to do at the same time as being in coffee. Small steps for us. Do we want more coffee shops? I think the answer will be yes, because we have a training facility. So we are hoping that we can create a training program that also does part of what Kaleena mentioned, mentorship. Like when you graduate from our program, we can send you to some of the retail stores that we have, and then you would continue to be a barista there, sharpen your skills.

And eventually, if you fall in love with handling that shop, maybe you can even be a partner or things like that. So it’s all in the plan, and I hope that it would happen.

Kaleena: I don’t know if we should mention it, but Project Noir is happening.

Sum: Right, I totally forgot about that.

So let's talk about Project Noir. So our team of baristas are really creative. They always like to do creative drinks, but we don't really have a liquor license. So they can't really play around too much with alcohol. But some of us are actually interested to compete in Coffee in Good Spirits.

So to create that stage for them, we were lucky enough to partner up with Chris Dunlop—I'm not very familiar with their previous title but he is very well-versed in bartending and has been in this industry for a very, very long time. So we partnered up and started Project Noir, and it's going to be coming hopefully in a month and then we'll have a liquor license. We'll be able to have a ground for our baristas to train for Coffee in Good Spirits, and maybe we can send some people to compete.

Ashley: So I'm going to come back to some of the things that we talked about and maybe push you a little bit further again—because I'm very, very interested in partnerships and how people change and grow and evolve as time passes.

I was wondering how your relationship with each other has changed, or maybe deepened, since being business partners. I have to imagine it's very different to go from, “We're together! We're partners in one way,” to then jump into a totally different relationship with each other. I wonder—what does that look like for either of you? I'm gonna start with Kaleena.

Kaleena: I think after we worked together, I think we trust each other a little bit more. I mean, we generally are quite trusting. I feel like working together really did build that trust a lot. I think it helped nourish that trust. We're quite mellow in personality, so we don't argue much, but we can be really honest with each other in terms of if I think something is a bad idea, I will let her know. And then, of course, we will each defend our points and then come to a conclusion. We’re able to come to a conclusion on most things.

Ashley: What about you, Sum?

Sum: (Pause) Being in the same location for work and at the same time, living together, makes me understand her personality even more. I get to gauge what are the things that she likes to do and what she is good at. There’s a lot of respect, even though we're at work or at home, being respectful has always been something that we don't take for granted, and we respect each other's time.

So I guess for me, what has changed is just me understanding Kaleena a lot more compared to when we were not working together. Yeah. And I know when she's saying “Sum, buzz off,” as well. (Laughs)

Ashley: I think something that's interesting about listening to the two of you speak to each other is how often you both check in with each other—how often you asked for the other person's opinion or, “Hey, what do you think?” Which I have to imagine is partially just due to the strength of your relationship, but probably also comes from the fact that you do own a business together and you have to check in with each other all the time.

Sum: We’re also very comfortable sometimes just making a decision on each other's behalf if it is not something that's related to a lot of money or what's for dinner. (Laughs) Because that is something that we have to discuss. I'm very comfortable with Kaleena making decisions for me, just as sometimes I would just make a certain decision for her as well. I think it's just a level of trust that we've built throughout.

Ashley: That makes sense. I think that one of the places that I worked at a long time ago, one of the things that just hampered any growth or progress was a lack of trust. So no one could make small decisions without checking in with everybody because no one trusted each other. So I like that you pointed that out too. Partially because trust is super important, but partially because there are some decisions that are really not that important. What you eat for dinner is maybe not that important. Do you know what I mean?

Do you want this cutting board or this cutting board for the pastries in your coffee shop? Maybe not that important—I don't know. Maybe that is very important. But I think that there is a power to being able to say, “I don't need to weigh in on this. That is fine.” And knowing when the other person maybe is like, “OK, I think Kaleena would be OK if I did this,” or “I think Sum would trust me to make this decision and know that I'm going to make the best decision for the business, even if maybe that's not the decision that they would make at that moment.”

Sum: Wow. I love the last part that you said. A lot of times, a lot of people will sit on trying to make a decision—they’ll hesitate. I make decisions very, very quickly because I feel like any of the decisions that you're making at that point in time, it's always going to be the best decision you've made given the circumstances at that moment—you will never try to make a decision that's going to jeopardize yourself.

I will not beat myself up if my decision is not as good, and I realize it two days later because, at that point in time, it is the best decision that I've made.

Kaleena: I think you also apply that principle, not just in business, but to our team members too, because if someone were to make a mistake, we trust that they didn't do it on purpose and that they were making the best decision they can at that point of time.

Ashley: That's incredibly important to think about when you think about having employees too, because I think it's easy for leaders to be like, “Oh, you did a thing that I would not have done and now I'm mad at you,” but instead you're like, “You made a decision that you thought was best and that's OK if it was a mistake because I know that your intention was right. So how can we talk about this so that the next time your decision is maybe different, or I can try to understand what you were thinking about, so that we can come together and make a decision together that makes more sense?”

I think that that's super powerful and that's a trait not to be ignored.

Sum: If that were to happen, we shouldn't leave them alone to take care of their circumstances. We have to go with them because essentially, they failed to do their job because you failed to guide them.

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

Sum: I think maybe Coffee Project New York can jump out a little bit more than just being a retail shop. I would like people to learn a little bit more about us as a roaster. We have a wholesale program, we are trying to expand our wholesale accounts and share our coffee story. What about you, Kaleena?

Kaleena: I was just going to say we're a pretty cool company.

(Pause, then laughs)

If we have any openings, and you’re looking for a job, join us! We’re very inclusive!

Sum: That’s true!

Ashley: Thank you both so much for joining me. This has been such a fun conversation and I really appreciate your time.

Sum and Kaleena: Thanks, Ashley.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity. Photo courtesy of Emilee Bryant.


This Boss Barista episode is brought to you by Urnex.

One of Urnex’s latest advances is a range of environmentally friendly cleaners called Biocaf. Biocaf products are made entirely from plant- and mineral-based ingredients and are fully biodegradable. They're available for both commercial and household coffee equipment.

Urnex is also partnering with coffee pros—like me!—to highlight some of the best sustainability efforts in the industry with the Biocaf Sustainability Series. You can read my most recent piece on Onyx Coffee Labs’ switch to oat milk in their latest café, and learn more about Biocaf here. And be sure to read the dozens of pieces focusing on sustainability in coffee and beyond.

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