Let The Need Be Known

The advice I always come back to from Erica Escalante

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Thousands of baristas are without jobs right now—and their financial future is uncertain. If you enjoy coffee, if you’ve ever spilled a secret to your favorite baristas, if they’ve ever been the hero you needed (you know they have), consider throwing some of your money to them. You can find a list of virtual tip jars here, or you can find your local coffee shop on social media and see if they have anything set up to help their staff during this time.


“You always need to ask for what you need from other people. You need to let the need be known.”

I recently did an interview with my friend, Mark Spence, for my day job. He tells beautifully personal stories about food and feelings and we talked about how universal stories—stories that resonate with everyone on some level—come from being personal.

So here’s a personal story.

Nick Cho graciously invited me to chat about how coronavirus is affecting baristas. Nick has been doing a series of talks inviting folks much more qualified than I to speak about how COVID-19 is altering the coffee industry at large. He asked me a bunch of smart questions focused on how coronavirus has changed the cadence and scope of the things I usually talk about.

I have shifted my podcast to address the current global pandemic. There are folks who have insights and perspectives I’ve learned a ton from and who have graciously shared their time on the show. I’ve talked to business owners who have shut down their shops, how folks can use technology to change the way we talk about tips, and how communities can take action to support their furloughed workforce. When Nick and I talked, however, I did not have answers to any of his questions—I have no idea what to do right now.

But this one thing kept coming up over and over.

I interviewed Erica Escalante, owner of soon-to-be-renamed Café Reina in Portland (still known as The Arrow PDX), almost a year and a half ago on the show. I didn’t know her too well at the time, but she was active on social media and I loved everything she had to say about owning a small business. When I invited her to record an episode of my podcast, I had no idea she would share outlooks on life that I would carry with me daily.

During my chat with Nick, I kept coming back to one particular phrase. “Ask for what you need.” I must have repeated it over and over. That idea—that one nugget of advice—came from Erica.

That idea came up accidentally during my interview with Erica. I can’t remember we were talking about, but I do recall saying to her that she was so self-possessed and that she came off like she knew exactly what she required in every situation. I was so impressed and asked her where that came from.

Erica shared a story about her parents, and how they instilled in her a duty to ask her community for what she needed.

My parents were always like, you always need to ask for what you need from other people. You need to let the need be known and then you actually need to fulfill other people's needs and that's how this works.

She then told a story about wanting to be a cheerleader as a kid.

I wanted to be in cheerleading, [but] it was 250 bucks and my mom's like, ‘I don't have that. But call your relatives, let the need be known. Tell them you want to do cheerleading and ask them for $20,’ and I would get on the phone and literally call my relatives and say, ‘Hey tia, I'm going to be doing cheerleading. Do you think you have $20 so I can do cheerleading?’

I remember her sharing this story and feeling like she was such a grown-up (Erica, while younger than I am, is definitely more of a grown-up for a number of reasons). “If you don't have something, someone is going to have it for you.” No one had ever said something so simply beautiful.

I make a lot of assumptions about the world around me and how I relate to others. I assume my intent is clear. I assume others can read my mind. When I write, I have to step backward and figure out the jumps I made in understanding.

Likewise, I fundamentally believe that most misunderstandings come from assuming you’re on the same page as the person next to you. In the past, folks have sent me messages about miscommunications with their bosses or coworkers. The advice I give is that the thing you think is important is maybe the 50th thing on your colleague’s list—that doesn’t diminish its importance, but it means you have to speak it out loud to give it room to be important to everyone.

So advice like Erica’s—about asking for what you need—shook me. Especially when a want seems obvious, it can feel silly to articulate it.

During my talk with Nick, I kept pointing to businesses that have been transparent with their needs, like All Day in Miami or Little Waves in Durham, North Carolina. Both businesses have been clear with how they’ve changed in light of COVID-19 and giving their customers a glimpse into what it takes to keep afloat during this time. Both have talked about their staffing needs, or shifting their profit model to fill lost hours, or quantifying how much they need to sell to keep everyone employed.

I mentioned these folks in my talk, and I also spoke of Erica and how she’s approached being truthful with her needs at her cafe. A few weeks ago, when the first slowdowns in business became apparent, she said she needed to make $875 in sales a day to pay her staff and to make rent—last night, on her cafe’s Instagram stories, she shared that she was able to meet that goal.

This isn’t a solution. You don’t just say your need out loud and it’ll be met. This is more to say that you never know until you say it out loud. I say this for others, but I also say it for myself. I constantly have to remind myself that I can’t expect my needs to be met unless I share them in a way that’s accessible and easy to understand.

I have no advice for this moment in time. I truly don’t know what’s coming next or what to say to my friends or the folks listening to my show. But I’m hopeful that most people have some understanding of what they need at this moment. From baristas to servers to business owners, I can only encourage you to let the need be known. You never know who might be able to meet your need.

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