Aug 10, 2021 • 42M

Suneal Pabari on Competition as a Learning Tool

The co-founder of Leaderboard Coffee sparks curiosity through an international coffee competition

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Ashley Rodriguez
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Let’s face it: Learning about coffee is hard. There are so many things to know, from elevation and varietals to processing and more. Technically, all those aspects do contribute to a coffee’s distinct character, but they can be very hard to perceive and identify when you’re just starting out, and difficult to explore on your own.

From the moment Suneal Pabari got into coffee, he wanted to know why others didn’t share his excitement, and he came to a pretty simple conclusion: Coffee is hard! Baristas are busy slinging drinks, and it’s not like the coffee roaster is sitting and waiting to answer your queries about why Coffee A tastes like strawberries and Coffee B tastes like milk chocolate.

Suneal wanted to learn more, and he decided to start a game. Leaderboard Coffee is a seasonal coffee experiment where participants receive 10 unlabeled bags of coffee alongside a set of guiding questions to help them deduce where each coffee is from and what makes it unique. Leaderboard doesn’t just offer the opportunity to become an at-home sleuth, but also to learn about coffee in a way that a cafe environment can’t replicate.

Folks like Suneal represent the exciting potential of consumer education in coffee, harnessing moments of surprise and joy to share knowledge and expertise. Leaderboard, as well as number of other projects Suneal has been part of, have all stemmed from his curious spirit and desire to learn more. Here’s Suneal.


Ashley: Suneal, could you start by introducing yourself?

Suneal: Yeah, absolutely. My name is Suneal Pabari. I'm the co-founder of The Roasters Pack, Leaderboard Coffee, as well as a couple of other things. I'm up here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Ashley: Suneal, what are your first memories of coffee?

Suneal: That's an awesome question. I specifically remember my first year of university. I was going to school and my sister gave me this pro tip—an elder sister pro tip. She's like, “Suneal, you need to start drinking coffee. It's going to give you extra hours of studying time. It's such a skill or a hack for being able to study more.”

And that was my first memory of coffee, and I started drinking triple triples from Tim Hortons up here in Canada.

Ashley: Wait, what is a triple triple?

Suneal: Three sugars. Three creams. Yeah.

Ashley: I thought that meant espresso shots. And I was like, “Oh no! Suneal, did you die?!?!”

Suneal: No, it's like, how can we make this Tim Hortons coffee tastes like a dessert? So I began [drinking] extra larges of those and started drinking them at 6 p.m. Helped me power through the all-nighters for my really poor studying habits.

Ashley: At what point did coffee start to become something that you were actively interested in?

Suneal: Several years later. So I had graduated and I had started working my first job after university. There was a little roaster kind of close to my house and that was my introduction to specialty coffee. I started trying some stuff that I was like, “Oh, this is different. I don't need to add three creams or three sugars to this.”

And that kind of sparked that whoa moment. I think everyone in specialty coffee sort of has this moment where you're like, “Whoa, coffee can taste like this?” I lived an hour outside of Toronto and there really wasn't much good coffee around and that was the start. It was like, “Okay, I want to see what else I can get. How else can I learn more about coffee? How else can I discover other interesting coffees around?”

That basically led me to starting my first coffee business. I probably started it a little bit too early, meaning that I wasn't really a coffee pro, but I started a subscription called The Roasters Pack.

With that, we'd send people three different coffees every month. That was my way of fulfilling this need that I had of wanting to try more coffees and learn more about coffee. I turned that into a service through a subscription to hopefully help other people solve this problem that they may or may not have been having.

Ashley: I love that that was your idea—that you were hungry to learn more about coffee and not only did you design a system where you could try more coffee, but that you could disseminate more coffee to other people. How did that first look for you? What was it like to start a business like this?

Suneal: Yeah, so, super fun, super exciting. I kind of feel bad for the first few subscribers that took that leap of faith because I wouldn't say I knew a ton about coffee. So probably the first few products or shipments were a little bit rough around the edges, but it was such a cool experience for me. Because I was able to reach out to some of the best roasters in Canada and I was able to ask them a lot of questions about coffee under the guise of being a wholesale client.

It really accelerated my learning and it was a super unique experience that I think is actually the best way to learn about coffee, but it's just not the most practical for most people.

Ashley: I just wanted to highlight this a little bit more because I was just on a phone call a couple of hours ago. I was telling you that I was on the phone at 8:30 in the morning, which is uncharacteristic for me. I would be in bed usually until like … right now.

But one of the things that this person was asking me was about my job as a freelancer, and trying to figure out different pathways in the coffee industry. And yours is a totally different pathway in coffee where maybe a barista or someone who's interested in coffee can start their own business and be their own entrepreneur in a way that feels very low-risk.

Suneal: Yeah, totally. When I started The Roasters Pack back in 2014, roasters weren't selling coffee online. That was a new concept. I think I filled this hole or this gap that was there in coffee that I think was really useful for roasters and really useful for people who wanted to learn more about coffee or wanted to try more coffees.

It was really challenging to do that back in 2014. So for myself as a coffee drinker, I solved that problem. And it turned out that there were other people around Canada that maybe didn't live in one of the hubs of Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, but also wanted to try good coffee from different craft specialty roasters. So yeah, it worked out really well. I'm super grateful for all these roasters that were patient with me when I would ask them ridiculous questions about coffee.

Ashley: What did you do after that? When I first connected with you, I think we connected in 2017 or 2018, you were doing Toronto Coffee Tours.

Suneal: Once you get into coffee, I feel like it's this rabbit hole that just sucks you in—I'm sure you can relate to this. So you start drinking specialty coffee and you're like, “Well, why don't more people know about this?”

And then you start going to local cafes and you're really impressed with some of the things that they do from all different angles, whether it's the entire culinary experience or just making really great espresso or doing really cool things like cuppings or pairings.

The local “media” here in Toronto, I didn't feel like was really giving the love some of the shops deserved. There were some under-the-radar coffee shops that were doing really amazing things in specialty coffee, but just weren't necessarily getting the love, maybe because they didn't have a ton of money to throw into making their design aesthetic great. They were just nerdy coffee people.

So I made this thing called the Craft Coffee Tour, and it was a self-guided tour of some of the best specialty coffee shops in Toronto. It was my way of being like, “Hey, if you're into coffee, this is a really cool way to try 13 different cafes around the city.”

And I kind of stepped on your toes a bit. I made little podcasts for, I think about seven or eight of the different shops, just because I know how much effort goes into making a really cool coffee drink or experience, whether that's the green buying or the roasting, or the dialing in and trying different things on the brew.

But when you go to a coffee shop, sometimes it's really busy. You don't get to hear that full story. So that was my thought behind the podcast associated with each drink was that we can finally tell the story behind all the effort that went in to making this delicious coffee that you have in front of you and get that primo experience that you maybe wouldn't get if it was a busy Monday morning service.

Ashley: I love that so much as a person who, anytime I go to a new city, I will take a walking tour. I will look for a podcast that explains the city—I actually tried to do that for Madison, where I just moved to, and I couldn’t find a podcast. But now I'm thinking, “Oh, that's a good idea. Maybe I'll do it.”

I feel like this is secretly a template for how to be your own entrepreneur.

Suneal: I will say, and I'm sure you can relate to this, but podcasting is a lot of work.

One of the biggest challenges I think with getting new people into specialty coffee is getting them over that price hurdle.

As much as we don't want to admit it, it is a challenge, right? For people, if they can go to their local coffee shop, that's serving some, I don't know, questionable coffee we'll say, for a really good price. [People can] put their three creams and three sugars in and they're happy. So how do you get them to try and take that leap of faith?

With the Craft Coffee Tour, we asked cafes to give a little bit of a discount, which doesn't feel great, but the hope was that it will grow the market.

It's kind of a chicken-and-an-egg thing. Once people try really good coffee, hopefully they'll learn to love it. You won't be able to go back. I think once you start drinking, like eating good food, if we use that as a parallel, it's really tough to go back to frozen dinners, you know?

So that was the hope. But I do know that as a project point of view, it was just really challenging to keep up with all of the coordination and the work, especially for something that we're not going to be making a ton of money on because we wanted to try and grow specialty coffee.

Ashley: I mean that's, number one, super benevolent to invest in the future of specialty coffee within your own space. I think you're absolutely right. Going back to the thing that you said about price, no matter how much we talk about how coffee is undervalued at the consumer end, it is shocking to see that a coffee might cost $4 or $5 versus what people are used to seeing in maybe not a specialty coffee shop.

It's really hard for people to differentiate—what's the difference between this and that—especially if we don't give them the tools to understand it. So I think making some sort of audio kit, which is accessible and easy, and folks being like, “Oh, I can listen to this, learn more about what I'm experiencing or what I wish to experience without bothering a barista, without being fearful that I might ask a stupid question or maybe it’s really busy and I can't ask a question.”

So that's a really interesting concept and a way to tackle that barrier between customer and coffee industry that I think is really interesting.

Suneal: I honestly think that coffee shops or coffee roasters should do that. The green buyer is not going to be able to talk to every customer, but if you're making this coffee on pourover, I think it would be really cool if a barista could say, “Hey, if you scan this QR code, you can listen to our green buyer talk about how they sourced this coffee when they were down in Costa Rica.”

These green buyers have these really cool stories, and these roasters have really cool stories, but they just don't necessarily get shared. I fully think each cafe or roaster should steal that idea and make little podcasts about each coffee.

Ashley: I love that idea. It seems like the work that you've done in general has really focused on you as a consumer trying to get other consumers excited about the things that you like and bridging that gap between people who are excited and interested about coffee and the people who have these stories, but maybe just don't know how to tell them.

Has that always been sort of your vision or goal, or do you think that vision cleared up for you as you continue to do work in this field?

Suneal: Honestly, I just think there's so much cool stuff going on in coffee. Coffee is super fascinating to me. I always ask the question: What's going on here? Why don’t other people not see this as exciting or fascinating as I do?

Then it's just like, okay, how do we break down some of those barriers to entry for coffee? So some of that might be on storytelling. That's why I focused on that for some of the projects that we do. Some of them might be about branding or accessibility, some of that might be around education.

So yeah, I dunno. I think there's just multiple ways to attack the problem of sharing how cool coffee is. But I will say that it feels like we're trending in the right direction.

I think as scary and bad as the pandemic was, I think a lot of people had to learn how to make coffee at home. I think that opened up a lot of eyes for people to be like, “Oh, I can make really good coffee at home. And oh, this coffee could taste like strawberries.” That's really exciting. So I think that there's definitely been this perception of coffee that's growing.

I think craft beer had this happen maybe 10 years ago. And wine's always had this, I think coffee is … like, it's happening, which is really exciting and cool to see.

Ashley: What made you want to start Leaderboard Coffee?

Suneal: Yeah, Leaderboard Coffee, I’m super stoked about.

I've always been a huge fan of Cup Tasters. I really like that competition as a concept, but there are some things about it that I wasn't a huge fan of. Every time I would see Cup Tasters, it would excite me, but also scare me.

It was always in the back of my mind like, “What could we change about Cup Tasters to make it more accessible, educational, less scary?” Because I know I would be quite terrified to go on stage and have to taste coffees in front of my peers. Leaderboard is a culmination of all of those things that I love about coffee, trying to combine it into one cool experience.

Ashley: Just for context: Cup Tasters is a competition where you have three cups of coffee in front of you. And it's kind of a game of “one of these things is not like the other.” You have to taste these three cups and figure out which one is the one that's different. And you do this timed in front of people. They might be cheering you on. They might not be, it depends on what the crowd is like.

Then you get evaluated right then and there. So you're right—that is petrifying to think about. I don't think I could taste a single thing when I'm in front of people and [the coffees] get progressively harder too. So you might get an origin difference like, “Oh, this is from Colombia. And the one that's different is from Ethiopia,” but you might get something that's like, “This was roasted four days ago. And this was roasted two days ago.”

Suneal: Or like this is from the neighboring farm. Good luck!

Ashley: Let's see if you can figure it out! These two people are brothers and they own farms next to each other, figure out which one's which—which is wild!

So it's really cool to take the concepts that are very interesting and applicable to education from Cup Tasters and essentially make it safe to do at home.

I'm interested by the questions that you ask—how do you design questions or design guidance? I imagine that the questions [you ask] are used to guide people to think about what they're tasting. How do you think about designing almost a whole kit that you send to people because they have to figure it out on their own a little bit.

I know that there's guidance and there's emails and things like that, but you have to think about, how does someone experience this thing when they get it at home?

Suneal: Totally. So we have the fundamental questions, our base-level questions, which is part of Section A. With each coffee we ask people: Where is it grown? We ask about the altitude, a question about the roaster, whether or not it's a decaf, what varietal, and how is it processed.

With each of those, we wanted to make sure that you don't feel like you're in the dark. We reached out to some of the smartest people that we know in coffee, and we asked them to put together coaching videos. So it kind of ties back to my experience in coffee when I was new to coffee.

Let's say I wanted to buy a Costa Rican white honey-processed coffee as a wholesale client. I could then ask that green buyer, “Hey, how does the white honey show up in the cup?” Then they’d be like, “Hey, do you taste that little bit of brown sugar in the finish? Notice how it's a little bit sweeter?” and then I'd be like, “Oh, wow. Okay, cool.” That was how I learned.

With Leaderboard, we're trying to tie the sensory question to coaching, trying to take that one-to-one experience I had and bring it to a one-to-many. So we've got some pretty amazing coaching videos. People like Tim Wendelboe, just to name-drop a bit here.

Ashley: This is the name-dropping section of the episode.

Suneal: Ben Put, former Canadian barista champ; Cole Torode, another Canadian barista champ; Sarah Ball—she won the Cup Tasters in Canada and she placed sixth in the world. A lot of really, really talented, amazing coffee professionals have put together coaching videos on different topics.

And so the goal is, if you're trying to differentiate between a washed honey and a natural, you can taste those coffees, but then you can also throw on a couple of videos diving into how to differentiate between processing and then hopefully that will guide your tasting.

The goal is we can hopefully teach people more about coffee in a guided manner. For myself, I find self-guided coffee education is pretty tricky. And so this was the hope to try and help solve that. I have a few coffee books and I love reading them, but I find it's hard unless you're pairing it with the sensory. The goal is to have the education tied directly to the sensory.

Then we also have our Section B questions, which is our way to highlight certain things in the coffee that we want to showcase. One of the things we asked a question about last season was one of these coffees was frozen in 2019—which one do you think that is?

That's just another really interesting thing about coffee. People are freezing green and then taking it out of the freezer and then roasting that coffee as a way to preserve freshness. That's a conversation that we wanted people to be aware of. We also had some really interesting anaerobic-fermentation processed coffees. That was another question: Which one of these coffees was anaerobically fermented? We’re trying to put our spotlight on some of the really cool things that are going on in coffee through the game design.

Ashley: [It’s so great that] you're making these things accessible to people, because when I think of going to a coffee shop and seeing an anaerobically fermented coffee—obviously I know what that is. Ashley, a coffee writer who's been in the business for 10 years knows what that is. But I have to imagine that Ashley, an alternate universe Ashley who never worked in coffee would be like, “What the fuck is that? What does that mean?”

So creating a way for people to learn about it, see it, is really special because I think the only way that most consumers would ever learn about it is that they were bold enough to ask a question in a coffee shop, which, like we were saying, isn't always possible or can be really, really daunting.

Suneal: I wouldn't even be surprised if some baristas too … I think to educate yourself as a barista, a lot of it really relies on whether or not you have a really good team around you or a manager who wants to take education as a priority in their coffee shop. But we all know how coffee shops are. They always feel understaffed and there's a million things to do.

So education may not necessarily be a priority, but if you want to develop yourself in your career as a barista, how do you set up these interesting tastings for yourself? Or how do you learn more about coffee on your own time? I think this hopefully can help solve some of that too, just for budding coffee professionals or people who want to learn more.

Ashley: What is the mix of people who sign up for Leaderboard? Has it been mostly baristas or consumers?

Suneal: It's actually pretty fun to see. So we've got a lot of, I would say nerdy home consumers, but then we also do have the most professional professionals: people who've won Cup Tasters in the past. To me, I think that's the beautiful thing about Leaderboard, is that every season we post the top 20 scores and the top five scores win prizes, and that could be anyone—it could be a former Cup Taster, it could be a coffee green importer, or it could just be someone at home who's super nerdy and loves tasting a lot of coffees. It allows you to compete against the best, which is kind of a fun thing to do as a competitor.

Ashley: Right. And it takes the spectacle out of it in a way. So you could taste the coffees over and over and you can kind of learn at your own pace. As a former teacher, that's something that I really like because people learn in different ways.

Suneal: Totally. Yeah. Going back to having 10 minutes on stage, that would be so terrifying. Hopefully this is an opportunity for people to even maybe try cupping, learn about cupping, practice their brewing with the coffees to figure out how to make it the most expressive. Yeah. I think there's a lot of cool things that people could do that'll help further their coffee education with Leaderboard.

Ashley: So you mentioned that you've done this in seasons, so you're on Season Three right now, I believe. Or you're prepping for Season Three.

Suneal: Yeah. We're shipping out Season Three in six days. I don't know when this podcast will go live, but July 19th is when we're shipping out Season Three and we're doing seasons every quarter.

Ashley: Oh, cool. Yeah. This probably will go live after that. I was wondering—what are some of the lessons that you've learned from season to season?

Suneal: It's been interesting. At the very end of the quiz, we ask people for feedback. It's a new concept, Leaderboard. So we want to continue to make it better. We think we're onto something, but we don't know how each person is truly experiencing this in their home. So we want to get as much feedback so that we can improve on it.

Some of the feedback that we got was, “Hey, I wish there was more room for notes.” So we included a little notepad with each box for Season Two. People have asked for more resources, so we reached out to more coaches and we got more resources on specific topics that people were asking for. Yeah.

It's honestly though, Ashley, it's been pretty crazy. I've done a few different coffee projects, but the amount of love that we're seeing in the feedback form—maybe people are just really nice—but it's super heartwarming to see how much people are loving Leaderboard.

We've gotten a lot of people say like, “Hey, this was so much fun. Please don't ever stop doing this.” Or like, “I loved it. It's super hard, but this was awesome.” I don't know. I think it's really cool to see it. It makes all the hard work that we put in on the back end worth it when we see comments like that.

Ashley: Has anyone gotten them all right?

Suneal: I think the highest score from Season Two was something like an 87. That's the thing about coffee, is coffee is pretty tricky.

Ashley: It is!

Suneal: I feel like there's been times where I've tasted Colombians and been like, “Oh, that's definitely a Kenyan.” And then you're like, “Whoa, what's going on here? Why is this Colombian tasting like a Kenyan?”

When we're designing the coffees, we try to make sure that there are coffees that fit the terroir and our expressive representations of what a coffee from that region should taste like. But there are curveballs.

We included a Chinese coffee last year. I don't know how many people have tried Chinese coffee, but by including it in the game, we feel like it really forces people to taste that coffee, to think about it. What are the sweetness characteristics? What's the acidity like? What's the body like? Hopefully that taste experience of that Chinese coffee will be one that they remember because they'd had to really think about it and really analyze that cup.

So coffee's tricky. So 87, I think, is the top score so far, but hey, you never know. We've only done two seasons. I think anything's possible.

Ashley: Do you design the box to address different levels of coffee know-how? I imagine that there are some coffees that you want to include because you want people to have some, not necessarily easy wins, but you want people to feel successful as they do this so that they're not like, “Oh, I got zero right, I feel like a jerk.” I'm sure it's never happened before. How do you think about difficulty levels when you’re designing these?

Suneal: There's a lot of coffees that we could include that are curveballs. Just with the way that interesting fermentation is becoming a thing or varietals being planted in different origins.

For us, we do want to make sure that there are some coffees that are figure-out-able, hopefully very expressive of their terroir. I think that makes for an interesting learning experience for someone who maybe isn't as nerdy, but it also does force the people who do know a lot about coffee to really stand firm with their beliefs. Can they pick a Kenyan out from 10 coffees? Can they pick a Guatemala out from 10 coffees? I think the challenge in itself is quite tricky regardless of the coffees.

I think if we tried to pick the 10 easiest coffees, I still think it would be pretty tricky.

Ashley: I agree.

Suneal: For us, we do make sure that there's, okay—we test ourselves, Grant and I, we do cuppings and we see, okay, can we figure these ones out? So we're kind of a gauge. But we want to make sure that there's coffees in there that people can figure out. Even though we say this, there's been times where Grant and I have been like, “Oh, that's definitely a Brazil.” And then when we look at the feedback, not everyone thinks it tastes as much like a Brazil as we thought. So coffee is just tricky in general.

Ashley: It's interesting to almost compile this data and see where we stand as an industry. Obviously this is never going to be a perfect sample size because it's going to be the people who subscribe to Leaderboard, but it's interesting to get that feedback and see like, “Oh, where am I calibrated? What do I think tastes like a typical Brazil versus maybe the hundred or so people I sent this box to?”

Suneal: Totally. It's still early, we've only done three seasons of this. But our goal is that hopefully we’re able to take some of that data for people and be like, “Okay, you're really good at identifying decafs, but varietals is maybe something that you should work on. So here's a couple of coaching videos that you should check out on varietals and maybe think about those next time when you're tasting,” and just try and give people that feedback loop that helps them develop their palate or their career in coffee.

Ashley: One of the things as a teacher that I think about a lot is: Do I give students a test that they can figure out? Not necessarily in a straightforward way, but does the answer tie back to the question?

I was wondering if you think about that when you think about the coffees—obviously you were saying some coffees are curveballs and they throw you for a loop, but do you try to identify one thing in them, like this [flavor note] speaks to the varietal and you could have figured this out—not could in a pedantic way—but this is the thing that ties it back to a known entity. Does that make sense?

Suneal: Totally. And that's where our resources come into play. Do we feel like we have equipped our players with enough information that they can figure this out, even if it is a tricky one?

We've reached out to a lot of people to get some really interesting videos and I'm super excited to release the Season Three videos that'll be coming out soon, just because they're really great deep dives on certain origins. And so the hope is that it may be a tough question, but the resources are there that they can taste the coffee, watch the videos, and feel more equipped to answer these questions.

Ashley: Why do you think that your businesses, the ones that you've done, the podcasting and the tours and even Leaderboard, they seem to be not necessarily solitary things—there may be a couple of other businesses that do similar things, and I'm thinking about Populace Coffee when they do their Flight of Fancy which is kind of similar, where you get four different coffees and you have to figure out and they give you guidance.

It's all very, very interestingly designed. But [these kinds of games] still seem to be far and few between. It seems like there's not a lot of investment done in this bridge between coffee folks and consumers. I wonder why you think that there's this gap between us?

Suneal: I don't know what the answer is, but my guess would be if I was a coffee roaster, my main source of income is coming through cafes. Coffee shops are where they should probably be spending their focus and their energy. I think that's where roasters have been spending their focus and their energy: making sure that they have really good training for baristas. Making sure they're checking in with their wholesale clients, making sure that everything's going well and coffee's still tasting great. And that's because 90% of their volume is going through those channels.

They need to make sure that those people are successful. Now, I think for me, I don't sell to cafes. So my focus is on the people that I do communicate with and talk with and send coffee to, which are the consumers and understanding what are they going on? What's the challenges that they're having in their day to day with their coffee?

I think that forced me to just think a little bit differently than most roasters. That being said, I know I've seen some really cool things come from roasters over this past year. I think they are starting to realize some of the stuff that I was realizing just because their focus has switched over the past year: They weren't able to spend as much time on their cafe partners because of the pandemic. They're putting a lot more effort into their consumer-facing stuff, which is cool to see. I think it's really interesting to see some of the product development stuff that's happening by roasters.

Ashley: What are you excited about?

Suneal: What am I excited about? I'm really excited for Season Three to see how people respond to it. We've added another element to the game, just to throw a little bit extra in there and change things up. We gotta keep people on their toes.

I'm really excited for cafes to reopen up in Toronto. We've been very much doing takeout and as someone who's self-employed, I'm that guy who sits in cafes. So I can't wait to do that again. I'm actually really excited to see where coffee goes over the next few years, just because I feel like there's been this exponential growth in coffee and specialty coffee, at least up here in Canada specifically. I've noticed a lot more people be interested in coffee and specialty coffee. I've noticed a lot more coffee roasters launch and I've liked it. I've noticed a lot more interesting coffees being sourced. I think that's only gonna push coffee as an industry forward. I'm really excited to see where the next few years take us.

Ashley: I think aesthetically, Leaderboard Coffee is really interesting. I'm looking at your Instagram page now, and it feels like a 1980s arcade game where you're trying to get your name up on the board. You're playing and playing and playing until you can put your three initials into the top 10 of your board. How did that come to be?

Suneal: My partner on this project, Grant, he's got a fun aesthetic that he likes to use in his project. He's actually known for putting on some of the best coffee events in Canada and that's his thing.

When I reached out to him with this idea, he put his Grant spice on it and made it this fun, ’80s arcade theme. I don't know if you've ever been to a coffee event up here in Canada, but it was likely held by Grant. He's got a really good eye for how to put together fun experiences and events. His creativity shone through there with the brand vibe.

For us, I think with the coffee competition, there's a few angles you can take. You could make it a very serious coffee competition and experience. That's what Barista Competition feels like—it's the most serious competition out there for us. We really care about accessibility and we want to make sure that people can learn and it'll feel comfortable to learn. By wrapping it all around in this fun game vibe, I think it really hits the feeling of what we're trying to create with Leaderboard.

Ashley: Where do you see Leaderboard Coffee going in the next couple of years? What does growth look like for you?

Suneal: That's a good question. For us, I feel like we're doing a really good job of getting the word out locally. We've done a good job getting Canadians involved. I don't know the exact numbers, but I'm going to guess 50 to 75% of our participants are within Canada. The rest are international, which is cool. We have about 30 different countries participating, which is kind of mind-blowing to me, to be honest—we're shipping coffee to Mexico, Scandinavia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Slovakia—it's all around the world, which is really cool for us.

We'd love to find a way to have this become more of an international competition. I think with Grant and I being in Canada, we've done a really good job of letting our local network know about what we're doing, but I'm still trying to figure out how to get the word out there to let baristas know internationally that there's this really cool coffee competition that will help you learn and you can taste some cool coffees.

With Grant grounded in very much physical events—that's his whole background—that's definitely something we've kicked around as a potential concept for us [in the future]. Can we turn this virtual competition into something in person? Maybe we bring back all the seasons’ winners and we do an in-person competition, or maybe we do a qualifier in person.

I think there's some creative ideas around there. But for now, we just want to keep working on, how do we make Leaderboard the coffee game a really cool experience? How can we make coffee education easier? And how can we make this game just a ton of fun?

Ashley: I think what's always interesting for me when I'm doing these interviews is trying to tie back the thing that someone does to the person that they are. I wonder for you, how has Leaderboard been an expression of you? How do you see yourself being reflected in this?

Suneal: That's a good question. I've always loved the idea of Cup Tasters strictly from the competition point of view, so that excites me. But coffee isn't really a competitive thing, and it feels quite subjective anyways, right? Some people might enjoy some coffees, other people might not.

But Cup Tasters is an objective thing. You can either taste it or you can't. So that's super fascinating to me. The challenges with that were, I think, very much my challenges—I would be terrified of going up on stage. I can just picture myself grabbing a spoon and my hand just trembling and all the coffee spilling out of a spoon, me trying to bring it to my mouth to taste. I would be terrified. I was like, “How can we fix that and bring that into Leaderboard?”

Education was such a key part of my coffee career, and I wanted to find a way to bring that to other people who are maybe not as deep into coffee as we might be. I think it's totally a reflection of my experience in coffee and some of the things that I enjoy personally.

It is fascinating to look at Leaderboard as a project, through that lens of being like, “How is this me?” But to be fair, I think it's an ever-evolving project, right? I had the concept, I reached out to Grant and Grant threw his Grant spice all over it. And then after Season One, we heard from all of our participants—how could we make this better?

Now it's taking their feedback and building it into the product and trying to find ways to use their input as well into the game. It started off as me and Grant, and now it's very much a thing of the people who participate because we're totally taking in their feedback, trying to figure out how we can make this project even better.

Ashley: Is there anything else you want people to know about Leaderboard or about you?

Suneal: Well, we'd love for people to participate. If you feel like trying 10 really tasty coffees and learning more about coffee, check us out on Instagram at @leaderboardcoffee. We try to make it a pretty fun experience. We have coaches, but we also have each roaster do the reveals. You get to see 10 different faces of people around the world.

We also have a pretty interesting community that's developing. So when we're doing the reveals too, it's really fun to hear how people are finding the coffees, whether they were like, “Oh, I nailed the variety on the processing, but I totally thought this was not a Kenyan. I thought it was from Uganda.” How people are interacting with the game itself, I think is really fun to witness.

I would love for more people to play and I would love to hear like what their thoughts are on the game.

Ashley: Suneal, thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I appreciate it.

Suneal: Thank you for having me. This was awesome.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


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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