Apr 27, 2021 • 33M

The Boss Barista Takeover with the Updose Podcast

Listen to the first episode of this coffee history podcast, "Baby, You Can Run My Cart"

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Welcome to the Boss Barista takeover!

A few weeks ago, I put a call out to coffee folks, fans, and drinkers across the globe to pitch ideas about the podcast they’ve been dreaming of making—and today we’re turning the mic over to the second in our series of guest creators. 

Today we’re airing the first episode of the Updose Podcast, a show that chronicles American coffee in the 20th and 21st centuries. This project is near and dear to my heart because there are so many strange, incredible, and pivotal stories in recent coffee history—and there aren’t a lot of places where those stories are set down and recorded for future coffee consumers.

The Updose Podcast comes from Amanda Whitt, a barista and historian who explores in-depth questions about the way we view and drink coffee. In their first episode, they investigate the drive-thru coffee shop—a phenomenon that seems commonplace today, but was invented and first proliferated in the Pacific Northwest. Why the Pacific Northwest? Whose idea was it to serve coffee from a lonely kiosk off a two-lane highway? Amanda digs in and finds out.

You can find a full transcript of this episode at bossbarista.substack.com. Be sure to listen until the end to hear more about this takeover project, and to learn how you can get involved!

CW: Workplace sexual harassment—we do indicate when the moment is coming and how to fast forward.

Amanda: OK, let's set the scene. It's 1991, so you're about four years old, your parents, who generally don't like to go into the city, have decided to finally go and you're amped. You get to go to Portland, and this time you get to do something really exciting, which is to watch Tonya Harding skate. This is before I, Tonya. This is before we knew anything. She was just this tiny blonde girl zooming around the ice. And as a tiny blond child, I was very excited. I even thought about ice skating for a while and then remembered that it might interrupt my future plans of becoming a rodeo queen.... and also that there are no ice-skating rinks in Olympia.

On the way back, you're getting a little hungry and your mom just cannot imagine trying to park the car again. And then she sees a drive-thru espresso stand ... which, because you're not quite ready to eat, is very exciting. So you pull off, she gets a mocha, you get a hot chocolate with whipped cream, and drive back towards Olympia.

It almost seems that this concept follows you home and that by the time you get there and you turn around again when you leave your house, that there are seemingly these drive-thru espresso stands everywhere.

Hello, this is the Updose Podcast, the coffee history podcast about American coffee in the 20th and 21st centuries, covering coffee from special to specialty, the people who make it, and the places where we drink it. I'm a barista and historian based in Brooklyn, New York.

I decided it was only natural to begin the journey of making a coffee podcast by doing an episode about the place where my journey as a person working in coffee started.

Episode One: Baby, You Can Run My Cart

The Pacific Northwest is the likely birthplace of the espresso cart—when I say espresso cart, what I mean is a small kiosk, usually, that has a drive-thru window on either side, but sometimes has a lobby on one side and a single drive-thru window.

These carts are pretty ubiquitous there even today—they'll be in a lot of grocery store parking lots, strip-mall-type areas, basically anywhere off the highway where one might get thirsty and want a coffee. And sometimes they're in really unusual places you wouldn't expect—you'll be driving down a small, two-lane highway out, you know, nowhere near any town that you can think of. And suddenly you'll see this nice flag with a coffee cup sticking out of the ground and just beckoning you. Like, honey, this drive is going to be long. Pull off, get an iced mocha. You're going to feel so much better. And I usually do.

The likely birthplace of the espresso cart is the Pacific Northwest. The history of these businesses is difficult to track. And it is possible that some happened before this, but they really got their footing starting in the early ’90s. There are parts about this that make sense and that put the Northwest as a likely contender for the first drive-thru—period.

It really does rain in the Northwest all the time—and outside of Seattle and selected downtowns, development of the state is incredibly motorist-centric, meaning that the ability to stay in your car and not get rained on, and pick up a coffee, is just really enticing. Well, there is a part of me that studies history that is worried about making a definitive claim. I feel like we're pretty safe in saying that there is no very obvious detail that I am missing here.

But skepticism aside, the popularization of these carts starts in Portland, Oregon, with a little cafe called Motor Moka. Motor Moka was founded in 1990 by Jim Roberts as an offshoot of his company, Coffee People. The space was a converted Dunkin Donuts drive-thru that he was able to take the lease on. The logo was very much inspired by a Shell gas station colorway, and kind of that bright, visible-from-the-highway look, via the logo, is really gorgeous. It's a yellow cup on a red background and the cup is kind of spilled off to the side and has these very graphic wings shooting out of it. It calls to mind the crown of the Greek god Hermès (pronounced the French way) and just sorry, Hermes (Anglicized pronunciation). Hermes is the French fashion designer ... and was apparently a pretty interesting place to be employed in Portland. At the time, the coffee shop boasted a literary zine.

Jim did have a background in poetry and was pursuing an MFA in Portland before opening his cafes. And also they, for a while, had a radio station out of the cafe. So that seems pretty amazing. Most of the information for Motor Mocha came from the Willamette Week article titled, "Portland Invented the World's First Drive-Thru Coffeehouse: Here's The Story" written by Jay Horton, which is one of the only resources I could find about this place.

Again, this is why I wanted to start this podcast. The number of dead clips, links that I discovered that were for a bygone blog hosting forums, really showed me that there was information to be preserved here that maybe the Wayback Machine wasn't attaching, and maybe I could have my own amateur effort. Jim didn't have Motor Moka for too long before selling to the Canadian company Second Cup. It sounds like it was kind of a heartbreaking deal gone wrong. And what it resulted in was the entire company folding by 1997.

Only a year after the first Motor Moka opened, there was already a great many business owners looking towards building drive-thru espresso stands all over the Northwest—perhaps, as is the slogan of the now-defunct Olympia Beer, it was just in the water. One of those founders was Terry Ziniewicz. Before starting in the coffee industry, Terry worked as a self-employed contractor and was quickly hooked on coffee through his mother-in-law, leading him to seek out espresso as he worked on projects around the state. He joined as a partner in Piccolo Espresso, which had started primarily with coffee carts often located in the parking lots or entryways of Bon Marché department stores.

The first Piccolo Espresso locations that were drive-thru were a result of a large-scale lease takeover where Terry Z took over these locations that had previously been Fotomats—a Fotomat being a little hut that you could drop off film that was then taken to a secondary location for developing, and then you could pick it up the next day or the next week.

So according to Terry, the first location to actually give him the permits to open was Centralia, so Lewis County. That's funny to me because I did spend a lot of time in Centralia as a child. And to think of them as being the first people to do anything makes me really happy. It's a pretty sleepy place, very quiet, very sleepy. I do have a lot of love for it. If you live in the state and you're not going there to buy your vintage or your antiques, you are kind of screwing up, I just have to say.

But anyways, this is not my antiques podcast. I was lucky enough to speak with Terry for well over an hour through this. He was a huge resource, someone whose voice you’ll probably be hearing a bit in future episodes, and whose perspective on the coffee carts was very different than the workers who I also interviewed. Terry also was a regular at a diner I worked at when I was in high school. So there's also a little part of me that feels some embarrassment talking to him because I was a really bad waiter. I think it's one of the few food service jobs that I've just never been able to wrap my head around. I'm just really glad he never held that against me. So I can't thank him enough. But I also think that it's important to let people speak for themselves instead of talking about them. So here are some clips from our longer interview.

Amanda: And what was your experience with coffee? Was it mostly as a consumer or were you just kind of seeing the trend growing in the area?

Terry Ziniewicz: Yeah, I wouldn't have known a trend from anything. I had the construction company, but I was kind of interested in doing something else. So about the time that we were pregnant with our son, Sean, I came up with this crazy idea to get out of construction and go into the coffee business.

Amanda: And go into the coffee business he did. Terry opened multiple locations under the name of Piccolo Espresso, as well as Crazee Espresso, and then later Espresso Parts Northwest, as well as Olympia Coffee Roasters. Terry and I talked a lot about coffee as a career, and one thing he was very proud of was the number of people who started as Crazee and Piccolo Espresso employees that have remained in coffee, either long-term or to this day.

Amanda: Anybody you have from the Piccolo days that you can think of?

Terry: Yeah. So you know, a lot of long-term employees—a young lady by the name of Erin Griffin that, you know, started working at our first drive-thru in Lacey. But the Lacey drive-thru was probably our most fun, busy, profitable space for 15 years—a spot that launched a lot of our efforts into coffee, including the parts business and all of that. But she started with us when she was 17, in high school. To this day, she still works with the Espresso Parts company.

Amanda: Interspersed through the rest of our interview, Terry would occasionally remember the name of another long-term employee or long-term coffee person that I should know, look at, or speak to for this podcast. Another topic that we talked about was how the coffee carts were the main impetus for starting Espresso Parts Northwest.

Terry: Espresso Parts. You know, Espresso Parts was started by way of a need to supply the businesses that we were already operating. I was the person that was responsible for maintaining all the locations. And so the supply chain for me was ... wasn't working, you know, like the espresso machines that we had were poorly constructed. And I just didn't know the difference between a good espresso machine and an espresso machine at the time.

So we just had different … different failure rates at the locations that were caused by having different equipment and different setups everywhere. So I was trying to standardize what we were doing and in doing so, loaded up the shelves in my workshop with a lot of product. And I thought, ‘Wow, I have a lot of products. I might as well sell it because that's what entrepreneurs do.’ And you start a new building or a new business and yeah.

So, Espresso Parts—or at the time it was called Espresso Cart Parts Northwest, and we had another side of that called Seattle Carts Manufacturing Espresso Carts. And so we supplied that company as well as Piccolo Espresso and then eventually other companies through the years. It grew and we scaled it up and scaled it back down several times and it kind of just made its own way.

I would say it kind of had a revisit every five years to see what we were going to do. We sold a lot of syrups at one time. You know, there were just a number of different bits and pieces that we did. All of the things you think about, like when putting together a drive-thru, the espresso machine should be in a place where your customers can see it, that the prices aren't turning their back, that the interaction is literally face-to-face.

You know, you're looking out [to see] if you're on the right side of the building, you're looking out the right window and being able to converse with the client and create the beverage and have that two minutes or three minutes of time with them that they learned to have as part of their daily routine. At about 20 years into it, it was just time to do something different.

Amanda: Terry was also able to really eloquently capture one of the thoughts I had about how the drive-thru had brought some simple pleasures into the lives of busy families.

Terry: You know … from my standpoint and starting with the drive-thru, as you had mentioned, we had two young children, Sarah and Sean, and you know, getting in and out of the car to run into the store wasn't a really viable thing or an easy thing, I should say... Not that it's not possible. It's just that there's another step.

Amanda: It’s a pain!

Terry: So the drive-thru thing, to me, seemed pretty reasonable. You know, this allowed families to be able to treat themselves to something as simple as a coffee beverage.

Amanda: And that's it for Terry. I want to thank him again for all of the time he spent talking to me for this podcast.

So something that Terry brought up and that we actually discussed at length—and that I realized will actually just need its own episode—is coffee syrups, and how we got them. His company worked with Torani, whose syrups, they claim, were the first that were specifically formulated for espresso. We'll get into that story of how the flavored latte was likely a staple in the United States first in San Francisco.

When I spoke to the other baristas who had worked in coffee carts, one thing that we bonded over, whether it was the people I interviewed today or people that I just spoke with over the internet while I was getting ready and doing my research, was that we all had spent some time, had enjoyed the creativity that we had creating drinks with those syrups. And that was our first experience, kind of building signature beverages and creating things that were really our own in a culinary sense.

When I was working at a Clubside Cafe, one of my greatest triumphs was a blueberry and amaretto latte. I don't know if it's something I would want to drink today, but I feel like teenage Amanda was just so excited to be able to create something that was probably something that nobody had ever had before. And I guess it's a feeling that I've been chasing most of my professional life.

When I started this project, I looked to social media to see what other people wanted to share or say about their jobs as drive-thru coffee-cart baristas, either around the same time that I was working—some a little before, some a little after. One of the people I spoke to was Becky Reeves, who was kind enough to allow me to record our conversation.

Becky is a brand ambassador for the company Oatly and is just an all-around nice person. Becky worked in Las Vegas, Nevada, and had some really lovely stories to share and some really great insights into how doing that job has informed the way that she continues to interact with the working world. It was just really, again, a really lovely conversation. But to stay on the topic of coffee carts, without further ado, here are some clips from my interview with Becky.

Becky Reeves: I'm Becky, I worked at a coffee drive-thru place with a small lobby—it would have been … is that 2010?

Amanda: Yeah, 2010-2011...

Becky: Yeah, yeah. So it was around that time and it was in Las Vegas, Nevada, about 15 minutes from the strip. So we saw all different types of folks all the time.

Amanda: And how old were you when you were working there?

Becky: I had started there when I was 16. By the time I was 19 I was managing, and I left when I was 21 to go move to Portland, Oregon, to go work in a "real coffee shop."

Amanda: Oh my gosh.

Becky: I'm rolling my eyes at myself for that one.

Amanda: Yeah, I feel like we all ... we all do. I definitely went through that as well—I worked at a drive-thru stand and then would go into town and be like, it’d be so nice to work at a place with a couch. Wow! Where you like what kind of drinks were you serving. Like what was the coffee that you had?

Becky: The coffee that was served was mostly flavored 16-ounce iced beverages. And because it was so popular, we actually had a system that upon reflection is very efficient but pretty disgusting, where we would pull a bunch of espresso into little syrup-looking containers, and we would pull the espresso in there. And so then we would just have 12 to 20 iced espressos ready to go. And then we'd take those espressos and dump them on everything and then just make the drinks. And that's how we were able to make them so quickly. But it was yeah, it was mostly a lot of blended drinks, tons of blended drinks, mostly all iced drinks because it was just hot all the time. So we had like, iced Nutella lattes.

Amanda: Yeah. Did you ever have a signature beverage on the menu?

Becky: I had a few. Oh, this is going to show my age, but I was really proud of making a lot of Harry Potter-themed drinks. This is so painful to say, but I made a butterbeer drink—that they might still have on their menu—that people went WILD over. Making signature drinks was always my favorite part, just figuring out things that could go together and having people try it.

Amanda: Another thing Becky and I discussed was our relationship with regulars at our coffee jobs.

Becky: My god! I could talk about the regulars there forever. We had this one regular named Pam. She would—I miss her—she would always be at the drive-thru ready to go before we were even open. And we always knew she'd be there and she'd wait as long as she had to. And we'd put on our headsets first thing in the morning and would start clicking and we'd be like, ‘Good morning, Pam.’ And she'd always be ecstatic that we remembered her. She's like, 'Oh my God.'

And she tries to remember everybody's voice. And so she'd be like, 'Becky?' And she was just the best, I hope she's having a really good day today. We had tons of regulars that would come in, just use our bathroom and then spill Splenda all over the place somehow and then never come back. George Lucas' daughter was a regular. She was an incredible tipper, super nice. Every, every coffee shop job I look at, like in my past, the regulars were always the best part.

Amanda: Later in the conversation, we discussed the things we learned by working those jobs. Since Becky had worked as a manager and at such a young age, she had a really great perspective on the things that were valuable about the job, over and above your usual first-job stuff.

Becky: It's hard to reflect poorly on myself, because I was a child and they were putting far too much responsibility for someone that was paid $8 an hour, if that. But I definitely think I learned a lot about knowing what's worth communicating, being able to weigh values, being able to weigh emotions, being able to communicate emotions in a way that isn't super invalidating to employees.

Amanda: I also think back, when I was 16 to 19 especially, I was like—I had such a chip on my shoulder.

Becky: Yeah, me too!

Amanda: The way that I behaved to my coworkers that I had NO charitable assumptions about whatsoever because of the very visible differences in the economic background that we had ... And then I think about it later and I'm like, you know, that might have been true, but I did not need to behave that way towards them and I did not need to talk about them the way I did or talk TO them the way I did, because, damn, I was a dick.

Amanda: Another thing that was never lost on either of us is that while we were doing these jobs, we were also just doing random teenager stuff. This came up when we were talking about the way that we were able to start recognizing automobiles by their engine sounds.

Amanda: One skill I got that I realized later is I can tell a make and model of a car from very far away.

Becky: Yeah, I can tell by the sound.

Amanda: Yeah. Or somebody is like something, something. And I'm like, ‘oh, it's the diesel.’ And they're like ‘huh?’

Becky: You can hear.

Amanda: Or Dodge trucks, even the gas ones have this thing where they sound weird.

Becky: The guy I was dating towards the end of my time when I was working there drove a Subaru WRX. And so any time a WRX would come through the drive-thru, I was like, 'Oh, I know what that is, like in my ear.’ I was like, ‘I can hear it.'

Amanda: Yeah. I didn't get too many chances to flirt at my job because it was right near where I went to school. So I knew EVERYBODY.

Becky: I wasn't good at it. I had some of the workers that were amazing at it and they would just tell me stories about all the dates that they went on with customers and all the things that they got bought. And I wanted that so badly, but I just could not figure out how to talk to people like that.

Amanda: As it turns out, Becky and I both experienced feeling as we worked at places that were a little cooler than we felt like we could rightfully exist within.

Becky: In Vegas at that time, there were very few coffee shops, too. And so the few coffee shops there were, they were cool—they were a hub for someone or something cool. And so I think that there was also an idea that the baristas of these coffee shops were thereby cool, or knew of cooler things. Even though I didn't, some of my co-workers did, but I was not one of them.

Having people give tips through the drive-thru was very disorienting for me, just because it didn't make sense until I started to really understand labor, and that $8 an hour is not a suitable amount of money to have a life. But that was always fun because then that also taught me relationship-building. So people that were really good tippers being like, 'Oh, so this is how you ... this is this now.' So that was an interesting lesson to learn, the politics of tipping. I learned all of that there.

Amanda: Oh yeah. I think that the tipping is interesting because I feel like it's ... I feel like I made better tips there than I did at my next job. even. But I had some weird interactions with customers at the drive-thru, which is why I ended up leaving, because men are gross.

Becky: Yeah. Super gross.

Amanda: Anyways, so I feel like we've gone well away from coffee carts. So before I hit stop on the recording, I would like to ask you if there's anything that I didn't ask you that you would like to talk about?

Becky: I mean, I'd love to talk about the games that we would play to keep ourselves sane...

Amanda: Oh, my god. Yes, please!

Becky: We would oftentimes—one of us would bet the other to include certain words in your order, like when you're talking to a customer and it was a blast. ‘Meow’ was an easy one. And so then it became like, how many can you say? And so it would be, 'What can I get you right meow? OK, would you like any muffins right now or right meow?’

And I always thought that was a blast. And then there was one word ... There was a word that I was told that I had to work in and I don't remember how I did it. That was always very fun. I loved talking in the drive-thru and accents and then having someone else go to the window so that the person driving would just be very confused as to who was helping them. (Laughs) Those were the main ones.

Amanda: Thank you so much for doing this and talking to me.

Becky: Oh my pleasure, it was so long ago. And like, it's hard to remember. And it's also wild to think of how long of a coffee career I've had. It's bizarre.

Amanda: Thank you so much for speaking with me, Becky. That was really amazing.

So remember how earlier I said that there might be times where we need trigger warnings in our coffee podcast? Well, this is why I said it. So as I mentioned before and alluded to during some of the interviews, working at a coffee cart was one of the first jobs I had with a W-2. And it was one of the first times that I experienced a lot of sexual harassment in a workplace.

If you would like to skip this part, it's about two-and-a-half minutes long. You'll know it's over when you can hear background music again and when the italics are gone.

Most notably, I had a period during one summer, the only summer that I worked there where I had not one, but two serial masturbators, one of which would actively flash their penis at me from their car. And it was just really unnerving and disgusting. I was a teenager. I didn't really understand yet or have the language to describe what was going on. I didn't really talk to my parents about it because I figured they would ask me to get a different job, but then continue to have the same expectations for my income that they had had previously. And my employer was really not very helpful other than saying, ‘Oh, just memorize the license plate, don't serve that car,’ not realizing that the way that our cart was set up, it was really hard to see the oncoming car until they were really right upon you.

I really carried that helplessness. And it's definitely something that I think about a lot. Attending talks by the Rock Center here in New York, that one thing they bring up is that often restaurant and food service jobs are the first jobs that a young person has or a person newly arrived to the United States. And often that means that you're dealing with a workforce who knows very little about their rights and about what sorts of things are acceptable and unacceptable. Fundamentally, I knew that what happened to me was unacceptable, but I also did not know what sort of recourse I had if my employer chose not to protect me in any way, which they didn't.

And yeah, I just felt like it was important to share that, because when I had to sit and record and think about what coffee carts meant for the Pacific Northwest and what they meant for specialty coffee, I also had to spend some time thinking not just about the good memories I had from my coffee cart job, but also some of the harder memories, and some that I'm sure are not super uncommon amongst people doing the same type of work.

At this point, I feel like it's pretty safe to say that espresso stands are here to stay. It's clear that through their 31-year history, they've had a bit of a boom and they've had a bit of a retraction [contraction—I used the wrong word]. But I think now the market has stabilized and it is proven that this is a pretty sustainable business model in the areas where it will actually work.

The question is, as we move towards a less car-based infrastructure—if that is something that will happen in my lifetime, as I hope it will—if this is still a model that will continue. Maybe in a hybrid form, with a little bit of walk-up and a little bit of drive-thru, or if this is going to continue to be the phenomenon that it has been for the past 30 years.

One company that has shown a lot of staying power and has grown beyond the Northwest is Dutch Bros Coffee. I'm not sure if they're Dutch, but they're definitely bros and they are from Grants Pass, Oregon. By 2005, they had 75 (franchised) locations, and as of today, they have over 250. And I'm actually a pretty regular Dutch Bros customer when I'm visiting the Northwest—it's one of those things that I'll stop and get a drink on the way between visiting my mom's house and my dad's house and my grandparents’ houses, and just gives me something to keep me company on the highway on the way.

Dutch Bros started in Grants Pass, Oregon. They were third-generation dairy farmers who were being asked by the government to reduce the size of their cattle herds and needed to figure out something else to do, and chose coffee. What's really interesting about that is in my conversation with both Becky and with other baristas I spoke to, we ended up talking about how milk, and especially whole milk, was something that we ended up drinking significantly more often once we became baristas.

Funny enough, somebody works for an alternative milk company now, but I digress.

Dutch Bros is a pretty interesting case study as a franchise business and as one that has really taken and made the espresso-cart model a lasting thing around the country now.

The assessment that I got was that the coffee cart and drive-thru coffee cart craze was very much founded and grown because during the time when they were founded, Howard Schultz refused to get into drive-thru because he felt like it undermined the quality of his product. However, Starbucks is much larger than one person and has continued to grow and evolve.

I would also love to hear from people who may be able to tell me if there are coffee carts in places outside of the U.S. Clearly, they exist in Canada. I've seen them in British Columbia. But are there any ... anywhere else? Did anybody take them to Mexico or maybe outside of North America?

If you know of any, please let me know. Send me photos, or if you have any tips, comments, or you just want to keep up with what I'm up to, please follow me on Instagram and Twitter. I am @UpdosePodcast on Instagram and @UpdosePod on Twitter. The music you heard today was “Crusin' USA” by the band Iji (pronounced eehee) and “Wozniak Effect” by the band Stark and Nimo. Thank you to them both for allowing me to use their music for the show. Again, my name is Amanda Whitt. Thank you so much for listening to and being part of the very first episode of the Updose Podcast.

Go get yourself an iced mocha. Goodbye.

That was the first episode of the Updose Podcast!

Over the next few weeks, you’ll hear more stories from guest creators—some will be launching their own podcasts, and some are doing one-off audio projects. Thanks to Chobani, all creators will be paid for their time!

If you liked this episode, go follow Amanda on social media—they shouted out their handles just a moment ago, and stay tuned for more guest appearances over the next three weeks. We’re just getting started.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.