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If you want an episode that comes full circle, you’re gonna love this conversation.
Niki built her platform to talk about coffee, and to connect with other people of color in the industry. Her content is deeply inquisitive, yet open and welcoming—you don’t need to be an expert to talk shop with Niki, and curiosity is encouraged. In this episode, we talk about building community online, how to rally against the sameness of coffee, and why coffee reminds Niki of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
There’s a lot of really compelling twists and turns in this episode, but it eventually comes around to finish, unexpectedly, in the same place it starts. You know that the conversations that get reflective and crunchy are my favorites, and I feel like this chat is pure nourishment. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve looked out into the world and didn’t see the people or the spaces that you needed, please listen—and then get out a pen and paper and take notes. Here’s Niki:
Ashley: So I was wondering, Niki, if you could start by introducing yourself.
Niki: Yes, my name is Niki Tolch. I have an online platform, primarily on Instagram, called Not Caffeinated Enough where I really like to play around with coffee, experiment with brew techniques, and other coffee-related things, as well as connect with and talk to other people of color in coffee.
Ashley: Did you grow up with coffee in your life?
Niki: Not really, no. My main connection with coffee growing up was when I would visit my grandmother. Nana, I always like to say, would make the mornings itself smell like coffee.
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And so I would always look forward to that whenever I stayed over, waking up to the smell of coffee.
Ashley: I love that. I love that sense memory.
Ashley: How did you start working in coffee? What was your first coffee job?
Niki: My first coffee job was at a Starbucks in the suburbs of Houston. I had actually just come back home because of a family emergency. And so I was looking for a really quick and close-by job to start making money again.
It was not meant to be a long-term thing. I was just drawn to the idea of working in coffee, because again of the smell reminding me of my grandmother.
But the first thing I really noticed, or the first thing that drew me to the industry, was this was the first job in which I was working with people who seemed to be more themselves.
Coming more from the corporate side of work, I had never really experienced that, or worked with people who just seemed free to be themselves. So that was really interesting to me.
Ashley: What were you doing before coffee?
Niki: Before coffee, I was in the nonprofit world, mostly marketing and communications. I was helping kind of a lot of different nonprofits, but mostly, I was with this philanthropic foundation that was creating videos for hundreds—which became thousands—of nonprofits as a way for donors to get to know those nonprofits better before giving.
Ashley: I think that's such a salient thing to notice about working in a coffee shop, that people seem more like themselves. That's something that's come up on the podcast before. And I think for myself, a really transformative moment in the industry for me—I would say that I wasn't pulled into coffee because of coffee itself.
Not to say that I don't care about coffee, but I think I was pulled into the industry because working behind the bar felt like the most true and authentic expression of my personality in a way that I had never experienced before.
Niki: Yeah. Yeah. And it's funny, it didn't happen right away where I felt like I could be myself behind the bar. I just saw these other people around me just having fun, acting like themselves. And they were all just so different, but worked well together, and it really excited me about my potential for bringing more of myself out.
Even though it took a while, because I tend to be more guarded in public.
Ashley: Right, that makes sense. Do you think that working in coffee started to change that aspect of yourself? When did you start feeling like you could be more yourself or more outwardly yourself?
Niki: I think it really wasn't until I started my podcast or the online platform. I just started talking more about what I was feeling while working in coffee. I feel like just that act of talking about it, recording it, and putting it out there is what made me feel more comfortable, like, “Oh, I can talk about this in real life, like outside of my home in front of the camera.”
Ashley: When did you pick up the camera and start recording—or the phone? I don't know.
Niki: It was near the start of the pandemic. That's when I first got the idea. It took me, I wanna say, a handful of months of picking up my phone, putting it back down, changing my mind … because I have this real stage fright, or at least I did. I would start getting this sick feeling every time I started to record and my brain would tell me, like, “Why are you doing this? Like, this is pointless. It's dumb. No one wants to hear this.” And I would just like shut myself down.
So it took a long time for me to actually, from the idea to press record and get rid of those fears that were stopping me.
Ashley: What was the first video about? What was the first thing that you were like, “All right. I’m hitting record. I'm getting over the stage fright, or at least I'm coping with the stage fright and I'm gonna press record. I'm gonna put it out there.”
Niki: The topic was essentially, “Is specialty coffee white?” And I was kind of going over some points that I had thought about that indicated that it was kind of a white man's game.
Ashley: What were some of those things that you wanted to highlight or you wanted to at least put out there so that other people could discuss, and at least have some breathing room for this idea to exist and have people discuss it out loud?
Niki: My thoughts on it were one: I, in my quick little online research, had told me that other people don't really see Black folks behind the bar much. And in a lot of areas, at least all of the Chicago area that I visited coffee shops in, I didn't really see Black people within the shops as well, at least not many, not as many as I saw just like walking outside.
So that indicated to me that one was potentially a cause of the other, because coffee shops either didn't or were struggling to hire people of color, so it didn't really make customers of color feel very comfortable to be there.
The other kind of subtopic under that was in advertisements. I didn't really see people of color being advertised to in coffee, which is very strategic. I don't know, I can’t blame the coffee industry exactly for that. It’s just kind of marketing in general has specific target audiences that they gear toward. And it's not always for the benefit of that community that's being targeted.
So I kind of talked about that a little bit and I also just, for my own personal experience, felt like as a woman of color I sometimes was talked down to, or it was assumed that I didn't know much about coffee even. When I was at like the, I don't know, seventh coffee shop that I worked at, and I'd gotten to kind of learn the best pieces from all these other coffee shops. I was still met with a lot of surprise when people saw that I could like, work an espresso machine.
Ashley: Going on that same theme of not seeing people of color in coffee shops or behind the bar, even though that didn't reflect what you were seeing just out in the world, out on the street, it also seems like you carried that idea to the video content that you were making.
I can point to a handful of content creators about coffee online, and the people with the biggest platforms are white people, white men. And I wonder for you if that was part of the reason that you wanted to start making this kind of content?
Niki: It was. When working behind the bar, I was starting to get really lonely, feeling like I had to code-switch while at work, because I just didn't, there were no other people of color there.
And then on the other side of that, as I started getting more and more interested in just learning about coffee and looking up coffee videos, all I would see were white folks, primarily white men making these coffee videos. And to me, they just all kind of had the same feel.
I wanna say like—what is that word where something's really clean? It was just all these videos had like a very clean look to it and very professional.
So I was really, really looking for something that felt more like me. Not to say I'm not clean and professional, but I wanted something that was more relatable. Something with a little color to it, a little spice, something that showed that I didn't have to know exactly all the verbiage or all of the language, know all of the things in order to learn from this person.
So that kind of just added to this loneliness I was already feeling in real life and just made me think I maybe should create this thing that I wanna see.
Ashley: I love that spurred you to create something for yourself and create the thing that you were not seeing because that's really hard. It's hard to create something totally new or to even synthesize all the ideas that you have and say, “These are the things that I'm not seeing. How do I take what I'm not seeing and what I'm craving—the content that I need to keep going and keep moving—and make it?”
That sounds like an intuitive step, just because I'm saying them together, but it's not.
Niki: Right. Yeah.
Ashley: Something that I wrote down as you were talking was that you wanted to see video content that felt more like you, or felt more like the things that you were looking for and made room for you to maybe not necessarily know every single word in coffee, or know every single brewing process.
What I'm struck by in your videos is you essentially take an aspect of brewing, maybe it's bypass brewing, which is just to add water towards the end of brewing, that's a big topic and you have almost hour-long video on it, so I'd encourage people to go look at that if they wanna learn more about it.
But you take this one aspect of brewing and you leave all this room for experimentation. You talk about different ways that one can try this brewing method. You talk about different ways that people can play with it.
And I think zooming outward on the coffee industry: this is a really important way to approach coffee, because coffee is so often seen as inaccessible and pretentious and hard to do and if you don't nail your brew that first time, then you failed.
It seems like you're just kind of like, upturning that—you're saying, “No, you can experiment and have fun.” That to me seems so much more of the way that we should be speaking to customers.
Niki: Yes. Yeah. One thing I was struck by, in all the coffee shops that I worked at, and then just when I meet new coffee folks, often I get the sense of, “There is only one right way to do things,” or “I'm a huge believer in doing it this way. And I think the other ways are evil.” And that's what I was seeing in all the videos I was looking up. “This is the best way to do this thing.”
And then in the new coffee folks that I meet, if they have some sense that I have experience in coffee, it seems like there's always this assumption that I myself have really strong opinions on like, what exactly a cappuccino is for instance, or the right way to make it. And my thought is, “No, there's clearly a lot of ways to do things.”
There's almost as many ways, appropriate ways to make coffee as there are people who drink coffee. That's an exaggeration probably, but I don't really have these strong ideas that there's one way to do something when it comes to coffee. I might have preferences, but I really encourage people to feel comfortable, at least in exploring how they like their coffee.
Ashley: Right. And it seems like that space for exploration really gives people ownership over the cup of coffee they're brewing.
Niki: Yeah. Yeah.
Ashley: I think something that we do in coffee, and I don't know why we do it this way, is that we really limit the scope of experimentation, even though coffee is so easy to experiment with.
You can brew a cup of coffee and four minutes later you can brew another cup of coffee. Like, like how easy is that? If it's espresso, it's even shorter. So it's like, why do we shoot ourselves in the foot by saying these things have to be done this one way? I think that that translates to how customers feel about coffee.
Niki: Yeah. It seems like a huge roadblock when customers come in, actually wanting to learn something about coffee, or even just talk about what they know about coffee to the person on the other side of the counter. And often that person on the other side of the counter is telling them they’re wrong about something, for instance, or using all this language that a customer doesn't know.
And it just kind of shuts a lot of people down from either learning, thinking that they have to be bougie maybe, or it keeps them from making that conversation with baristas, which for a lot of people in coffee, I, at least from what I hear, they really like making connections with people.
So learning to open yourself up to more that you may not know about coffee, because I highly doubt there's anyone who knows everything about it, I think could be really beneficial.
Ashley: In one of the podcast episodes that you did, you talk about the flavor wheel, which is something I've been thinking a lot about. I just released an episode with a scholar named David Tortolini and we talked a lot about different flavors in coffee that we taste that are very Americanized, very Western flavors, and how maybe they don't translate globally.
But even going further than that, it's like the flavor wheel—which is, just for people who maybe don't know it, it's this wheel literally of all of these different flavors that one might taste in coffee, like berries or melon, moldy or whatever. Some of them are good, some of them are maybe not as desirable.
A lot of people base what they taste in coffee on that flavor wheel. I know that a lot of people, when they do coffee tastings, they'll even have the flavor wheel somewhere and refer to that as like a reference point. But the scope of the flavor wheel feels very narrow and that's something that you've discussed before.
Niki: Yeah. I know that, on the one hand for a lot of people, especially people who are familiar with most, if not all of the flavors on the flavor wheel, it can be a helpful reference point, and I assume that's what it's meant for. So, you know, that's cool for them.
I know for a lot of other people, it's very intimidating, to look at all those slices, or all those spokes on the wheel. And you're tasting coffee, especially if you are either new to coffee or you do not know those flavors. And you're like, “Oh my god, which one of these is the right one? That matches with this coffee…”
I think it's limiting both for people who are not familiar with all of those flavors and how to identify them and alienating for people who are just starting out in coffee and really want to be able to connect coffee with their own experiences.
Ashley: Even in that description of your podcast episode, you even mentioned that it doesn't necessarily need to be a specific tasting note as a way to describe coffee. It can be a sonnet or a sentence or a feeling. And I think that that's super powerful too, because as a new taster, if you're someone who's maybe just getting into coffee—I don't know that [even] now I can always articulate a specific note. Sometimes I'm like, “This is sweeter than the last cup I had,” or, “This reminds me of the color purple.”
It's just interesting that we don't make space for that, even though, like you said, being able to connect a customer where they're at with the coffee that they're tasting is a really powerful way to bring more consumers in.
Niki: Yeah. That's something that trips me up a lot too. Still I taste a cup of coffee and it, sometimes it just reminds me of a song. I've even gotten reminded of like TV shows, drinking coffee.
Sometimes I'm with people who are very technical about coffee, which I have nothing against—until you try to make that be everyone's way to appreciate coffee. But it might be they'll taste a coffee and list six different flavors on the flavor wheel. I'm like, “It tastes kind of sour.”
So I think that getting rid of the expectation that everyone must follow the color wheel or the flavor wheel would do wonders for people wanting to get into coffee.
Ashley: What coffee did you taste that reminded you of a TV show, and which TV show was it?
Niki: Good question. I believe it was my BlackNerd Coffee, and it reminded me of the show “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” because, it was—now I gotta be honest: The name, I think, probably influenced the show that it reminded me of a little bit, but when I tasted it, I was just instantly reminding me of kind of like … jolly.
It reminded me of kind of like, of a sense of community. It reminded me of a lighthearted Blackness that is just present, but not like, announced, if that makes sense?
Ashley: Yeah, that makes sense.
Niki: Okay. So yeah, the show was, you know, obviously it was a family of Black folks, but it's not like, “This is a show about Black people.” And that's kind of what the coffee reminded me of. I just thought of scenes in the show when I drank it.
Ashley: That's a really, I think salient point to make though, because, like, we make memories based on past experiences.
We connect taste and smell to memories, and we also are influenced by the world around us. So like picking up, like you mentioned, picking up that bag of coffee and you're like, '“Maybe I was influenced by the name of the coffee.” Like the name of the coffee is going to influence people too.
It's just like, I don't know. It just feels like a really fun way to approach coffee. And it's like, why would we ever wanna limit ourselves when we can have this fun spectrum of experience?
Niki: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I do—like don't get me wrong. I love numbers and data and technical stuff. I completely understand its place when you're trying to work in a professional setting and calibrate with other coffee people. But otherwise, I mean, it could open a little bit more up in the professional setting around the cupping table, but especially, it could be more open when you're talking to someone who makes coffee at home or whose career doesn't depend on calibrating with everyone else.
Ashley: Right. I was wondering if we could also talk about the second part of what your podcast does. So you do these experiments with people, but you also use that space as almost like a connector.
You mentioned earlier that one of the reasons that you started your platform, that you started Not Caffeinated Enough, was because you were feeling lonely and it seems like you were looking for community that you weren't seeing in other places. And you were like, “Well, let me go out there and like find other people that I wanna talk to and connect with.”
I was wondering—how did you start building this community for yourself?
Niki: Oh, good question. It started before I even picked up the phone to hit record.
I was looking for that online. So I didn't find it behind the bar in coffee shops. I didn't find it in the YouTube videos I was looking through. And so I started Googling “Black people and coffee,” because I didn't know what else to look for. Essentially for a while all I could find were just Google images of Black people drinking.
I think I was able to find one person. It was Michelle Johnson, the, I think in a lot of people's minds, the OG Black barista, and she had this blog about being Black in coffee and it was the only thing I could find.
And I was so excited to find it. And then I read to the last post and it was a while ago. I was like, “Well, what now?”
So I started the platform. And Instagram really like, as ornery as Instagram can be, it really became my primary [outlet] for a while. My only source of finding people of color in coffee, I just started putting these videos out on Instagram and kind of one by one, a few people started messaging me—and it wouldn’t even be like about being Black in coffee, but they were Black and they're like, “Hey, I like coffee too,” or, “Have you tried this thing with the AeroPress?” And just like started randomly giving me tips about coffee and it was really exciting.
I was chatting with a few people that way for a while, and, from what I'm told, there were people that shared my account with other people of color in coffee. And so it was surprisingly for me anyway, cause I didn't expect it, organic that I just started quote unquote “meeting” other Black people in coffee, really just through Instagram and through people sharing.
I started inviting a lot of these people onto my podcast and it just kinda grew from there. Other Black coffee people would introduce me to some other Black coffee people. And before you know it, I suddenly feel like I'm in a community.
Ashley: I think that that's really powerful that the community that you were seeking kind of came about from you putting yourself out there, in a way—but that's scary. Like that's hard.
Niki: Yeah. Yeah, it was. It was really hard because that fear I talked about—of recording myself—it didn't go away.
After the first time I recorded myself, it was … oh man, maybe the first, like, the whole first year I kept almost like giving up. I would have the same fear every time I picked up the phone.
Probably the platform wouldn't exist if not for my boyfriend who kept saying, “Yes, you do have a voice. Yes, you do have something to say that other people want to hear.” And so it's really thanks to him that I kept picking it up—after putting it down—but yeah, it was scary, and still sometimes is.
Because now I've almost gone in the opposite direction. Sometimes like, I now go kind of back and forth in a more extreme way from, “Okay. You now see,”—like I'm telling myself—“you now see a lot of Black people in coffee doing videos.”
And I don't know if I just missed it before starting up, but I had this sense of, “Okay, your work is done. You're seeing more of what you wanted to see. You don't need to do these videos anymore. So stop.”
And then on the other hand, I sometimes—I don't know, something triggers me and I wanna make a video about it. And so I start rambling on a video and then I'm like, “Is this too much? Are you putting too much of yourself out here now when it's not necessary?”
Ashley: This speaks a lot to me because I think about this a lot with Boss Barista. Sometimes I think, “When is this over? When does this end?” It's like both a personal question and a community question, I think. And I think that what your answer kind of spoke to was that like, how do you have a platform that is about crafting community or looking for something that you didn't see before?
And then once you start to see it, you're like, well, what do I do now? Or like, do I keep doing this thing? I found that the more personal I got with Boss Barista, like the more that I made it about the things that I cared about, the more universal it became and the more it felt like it evolved because I feel like I evolved. So [the podcast] is going to be a reflection of the way that I change.
Everybody's opinions will evolve too, or everybody's ideas will evolve. So I don't know. I think you should keep doing it. Even if you start to see the things that, like you said, you were seeing what you wanted to see, this is still a personal project, this is still about you.
And people will always wanna hear what you have to say.
Niki: Well, that's really nice. Thank you for saying that.
Ashley: How do you think about this as a personal project?
Niki: Well, you know what? I don't think I have thought about it as a personal project.
And maybe I should. That's a very good question. I'm glad you put that outta my mind. I think that's why I've been struggling for kind of a while now as to like, should I keep doing this? Because I just saw it as a way to bring more people of color out in the coffee industry.
So I saw it as like, I guess more of a community thing, not for myself. But as a personal project, yeah. You know what, I think I have to think about that. I'm not sure.
Ashley: Maybe we come back to this on another recording or something like that.
I feel like, I don't know. When you reflect back on some of the conversations that you've had in the past, do you find the more personal ones are the ones that really stick with you, or maybe the ones that are more personal or feel like they went in a direction that maybe you didn't expect?
Niki: Yeah. that holds true. And then along that same vein, I guess kind of brings me back to the personal projectness of my platform. I did actually use it as a way to, at least in my mind, to be selfish so that I could just talk to these people that I wanted to meet. But through the guise of just, “Will you be on my podcast where I have one viewer?” just because I wanted to talk to them. And yeah, when the—it was the conversations where, really where I could be myself and not filter myself or what I was saying. Those always result in, I think, better conversations when at least both parties feel that way and feel comfortable.
I think that those emerged more with people that I was communicating with in some way already, mostly through Instagram. Like one of us would like a video that the other put out or whatever and, you know, start talking about it.
Marvin Duncan, for instance, in that video you referenced where we talk for almost an hour—well, in reality, more than an hour—about the bypass method. That started because I was just going through his posts, which is what I was doing with every single Black person who had an account that I could find who posted about coffee. I saw that one of his posts was some notes [about] the bypass method.
That was kind of the first time I had heard about it and it really interested me. And so we just started—I asked him a question about it on Instagram, and a lot of my good connections started that way, where either I or the other person would ask a question about a coffee post.
I guess it was different for me than like from other coffee conversations, because what I was used to before was someone telling me what was best. Or telling me a tip or like, something I should try instead of asking, and then asking a question, and/or me asking and them being really transparent about not knowing everything, just what they know.
It did wonders in helping me to feel more comfortable about being myself because neither of us, it seemed, were putting on airs. That was, I think, probably the start of all of my deeper, more interesting conversations with folks.
Ashley: It's almost like full-circle, in a way.
Ashley: Coming back to that first experience at the Starbucks where you observed that people were being more authentically themselves.
Ashley: This is my favorite thing in the whole world is to do this kind of connect it all, make it a circle.
As we're starting to wrap up our conversation, I was wondering—what are some things that you're thinking about right now?
Niki: You mean like where I wanna take my platform kind of thing?
Ashley: Yeah, let's start there, and then maybe extrapolate outward.
Niki: Mmm, okay. So there is this thing I've been thinking about for a while, and I haven't really told anyone about it because it's like, one: really scary for me to think about actually doing, and two: it feels really out there, feels like a stretch for someone like me to be able to do, but it also feels like a really good idea.
I wanna keep it close to the vest, but I really wanna get more into consulting for cafes. So I had this idea where I use my show to do that. Like maybe I find a team of some really good trustworthy coffee folks. And we just reach out to cafes or allow cafes to submit their shop and we go out and we consult with them on their community needs.
We find out more about their community and how they can best serve their community, train their staff, and just really customize the consultation or training for them, but we video it and we use it to help other shops and people learn more as well, sort of like “Kitchen Nightmares” kind of thing, but maybe not as yelly.
Ashley: Yeah. Like, not mean.
Niki: Yeah. A not-mean version.
I guess the main idea or the main point, besides taking off the bells and whistles, is really helping coffee shops to meet the needs of their community and not just the community that they see in their shops already, because chances are, it's just a certain—at least for a lot of shops that I've been in—it's just a certain kind of person that goes into or frequents that shop.
Opening your shop up even more to the other people that live in your area, I think, is really what is drawing me.
Ashley: Yeah. That's something that I wanted to talk a little bit about too: this idea of coffee shops as community spaces, which I don't think you can avoid if you're a coffee shop. It seems like a lot of spaces insert themselves in communities and kind of assume that's all. That's needed to be part of a community, but there's a lot more that's involved.
There's a lot more about knowing who you're serving, who actually lives in your neighborhood, are you employing people in your neighborhood versus, like you said, kind of selecting a sample cut of some people and the people behind the bar don't reflect the community.
It seems like a lot of that conversation starts at a very top level of just like, we need to be more community-invested, but there's not a lot of conversations about how to do that. So it would be really cool to see you and other baristas go in and kind of tackle that problem head-on.
Niki: Yeah, it's a really exciting idea to me, especially if I get to work with more people I respect.
Ashley: I would love to see that—I'd watch that.
Niki: Well, cool, good. One viewer down. We got one.
Ashley: That's the starting place. So we talked a little bit about what you'd like to do with the platform in the future. What would you like to see in the coffee industry as a whole in the future?
Niki: I'd really like to see, honestly: more events that were run by people of color. I just think that there's so much potential in how we can open up education in coffee if we just hear from different people.
I know not all white people in coffee are the same or give the same information, but we are kind of, at least from what I'm seeing, ignoring large groups of people that could have totally different perspectives and things to bring to the table.
I haven't been to a lot of coffee events, but the ones that I have been to, I feel like I hear a lot of the same information, or I'll go to a breakout panel or something where the topic really interests me. But when I actually attend, I'm hearing things that I've heard before. I know from personal conversations, from other people of color that there are totally different perspectives out there.
And so bringing people who maybe haven't been quote unquote “sullied” by attending a lot of the existing coffee events, I feel like they could just bring something totally new. And I'm really looking forward to seeing more of that.
Ashley: What would you want people listening to this to know about you?
Niki: Mm—as little as possible.
Ashley: That’s fair. I get that. I totally understand that. Do you feel like you ever have to balance that, as a person who's online? Because I feel like I do.
Niki: Yeah, I do. I'm never really sure how much of myself to give. I generally err on the side of not really giving much of myself, but honestly it's not because I'm so opposed to it. It just—it doesn't come naturally to talk much about myself or what's going on in my life or anything like that.
If I thought that all of my followers were really interested in—I don't know, that kind of thing, then maybe I would work on it, on presenting more of me, but really, I feel like it's enough to be authentic as long as I'm not trying to be someone else. I am being the real me on videos.
I’m just not talking about myself much.
Ashley: I see what you're saying. Well, Niki, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. This has been so lovely, and I'm thrilled and honored that I got to spend time with you.
Niki: Yeah. Thank you, Ashley, for asking such thoughtful questions.