Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Michelle Johnson
Meet Michelle R. Johnson, The First Black Woman To Ever Compete At The U.S. Barista Championship
Michelle Johnson originally hails from Northern Virginia but is making the world her oyster through her love of coffee. Michelle’s passion for java has led her to live in places like Phoenix, Washington, D.C., Australia, and currently Los Angeles.
In addition to being a badass barista, Michelle manages The Chocolate Barista, a digital space dedicated to “promoting racial diversity in the coffee industry, specifically focused on Black coffee professionals” and is an Education & Training Manager at Red Bay Coffee Roasters, a Black-owned coffee shop in the Bay Area of California.
This past February, Michelle made history as the first Black woman to ever compete at the U.S. Barista Championships in Orange County, CA.
We had the chance to talk to Michelle about her background, love of coffee, and how she’s pushing the narrative of Black women excelling in the coffee industry.
Travel Noire: I read that you’re a Virginia native and moved to Phoenix. What sparked that move?
Michelle: I wanted to start fresh and give myself a chance at living a better life. The DMV area is really expensive to live in, and my family has always had trouble remaining stable.
When I was 19, we moved back into a homeless shelter (my mom, four teenage siblings, and myself) and I decided then that I didn’t want to continue to live like that anymore.
A few months prior to that, I was able to visit my best friend who was attending Arizona State University in Tempe and I decided that was where I would go. It was far enough away from home, but also really inexpensive to live on a barista budget, haha! Plus, Phoenix seemed like a blank canvas which at the time, I knew that I wanted to fill it with something, so that drove me even more.
Travel Noire: Why did you choose Washington, DC as the place to begin your coffee journey?
Michelle: I’m a DC-area native, so it was natural! I honestly wouldn’t have gotten into it had it not been for my cousin. We were job hunting in Friendship Heights/Chevy Chase (DC/MD border) and there was a coffee shop right across the street from the Metro station. I mentioned that I’d always wanted to work at a coffee shop, but was too scared to walk in there and ask for a job, so she dragged me in there, LOL. Needless to say, I got an interview and secured the job within a week, and I was HOOKED.
I’ll always be grateful to Tynan Coffee & Tea for getting me started because it put me on the path to find the coffee community DC is known for, which helped inform my career.
Travel Noire: Can you tell us a little about what you do? What does a typical day look like for you?
Michelle: [This answer is pre-COVID, of course, because I’m on furlough now]
Currently, I am the LA Education & Training Manager for Red Bay Coffee Roasters based in Oakland, CA. They’re a Black-owned company with a roaster and multiple cafes in the Bay Area.
I work remotely, focusing mostly on creating training content for our retail baristas, the lead barista program (which includes more in-depth training and advanced coffee theory), and spearheading the wholesale training program for Red Bay’s wholesale accounts.
I work closely with the Oakland Education & Training Manager, our Wholesale Trainer, and the rest of our coffee department to ensure consistent training across the board, formalizing our education programs, and of course, drinking HELLA coffee to make sure our coffee maintains it’s high quality!
My days can look a couple of different ways, depending on if I’m in Oakland with the team or remote in LA.
When I’m in Oakland, my days can be filled with coffee cuppings (a tasting process for QC and calibration purposes), meetings with the training team to continue building our program, and testing new coffee theories we come across in research. It sounds pretty nerdy, but the environment is very chill, super collaborative, and we stay caffeinated all day, haha. Usually, I’ll meet with folks in other departments too, to calibrate on any needs that crossover into training.
When in LA, I either work from home or at one of our wholesale accounts, South LA Cafe and Sip & Sonder, or other coffee shops in the area. These days are usually entered around doing heavy research, writing/consolidating training content, and touching base with the Oakland team consistently so that we’re on the same page. It’s nice having South LA and Sip & Sonder nearby because I can do a quick check-in but also drink our coffee in ways I can’t make for myself at home (like espresso!).
Generally, I prefer to work outside of the house because I’m a social being and my productivity thrives when I’m in a coffee shop environment.
Travel Noire: You run a platform called The Chocolate Barista, can you tell us about this platform and how it’s impacting the Black coffee professionals community?
Michelle: The Chocolate Barista is a platform dedicated to promoting racial diversity in the coffee industry, specifically focused on Black coffee professionals. What started out as me blogging about my personal experiences with being a Black woman in coffee, turned into providing a safe space and platform for other Black coffee professionals along the supply chain (but mostly on the retail side) to share their experiences and feel heard.
In the four years of The Chocolate Barista, it’s impact has extended globally, inspiring the coffee industry as a whole to take into serious consideration the ways it has excluded marginalized people, but especially racial minorities.
I found myself in a lot of spaces to talk about these disparities but was always the only Black person or one of the only Black people in the room. The industry has come a long, loooong way since the topic was first brought up, and it helped pave the way for the different organizations and initiatives that exist to focus more on equity within coffee, like Glitter Cat Bootcamp (a coffee competition boot camp for marginalized coffee professionals) and Getchusomegear (a free brewing equipment resource for marginalized folks).
But within the Black coffee community specifically, The Chocolate Barista became the epicenter of a network that was so necessary. People all over who have always been the “only one” in their coffee shop or community have been able to find and connect with other Black coffee folks from all over. That’s been the most beautiful thing to see — our community growing over the years and it just continues to do so.
If I never did anything else with The Chocolate Barista, I’d be okay because the network and support system it helped to create is more than enough.
Travel Noire: You’ve lived in Australia, how did that impact you as a black woman in the coffee industry? Why were some things you learned while there?
Michelle: Yes, I did! I lived in Melbourne for 15 months, and it was such an interesting, but a life-changing experience. Now, that was a place where I was literally one of TWO Black women in coffee in the city, and the other girl (who’s one of my greatest friends) worked within the same company and was from Canada, haha!
I have to say though, there weren’t many instances where I didn’t feel like a token within the Australian coffee community but at the same time, I had more experiences where people were wanting to learn from me not just because of my experience in coffee and social justice, but for my coffee skillset, growing global perspective on marketing and coffee culture, and my general opinions on the difference between the U.S. and Australia as it pertains to coffee.
Up until then, I felt like I was often pigeon-holed into being the “token diversity” person in coffee in the U.S., despite having other skill sets. It was an interesting dichotomy.
Living in Australia really opened my mind to the beauty of diversity within global coffee cultures. I was able to travel quite a bit to Sydney, Seoul, and parts of Europe while living there, and learned even more about coffee culture on a global scale.
It’s one of those lived learning experiences I hold dear to my heart and I think it still shapes how I approach trying to cultivate a culture within my own community back here in the U.S.
Travel Noire: What sparked your love for coffee?
Michelle: My mom. For as long as I can remember, she drank coffee (Maxwell House), so it’s a personal connecting point between us.
I remember taking my first sip when I was 4 years old! Because of her, my attachment to coffee is very ritualistic and is all about comfort more than the technical side of it — although, the technical part of coffee is what thrust me further into pursuing it as a career!
Travel Noire: You were recently the first Black woman to be a finalist in the pouring competition at the U.S. Coffee Championships, what made you want to compete?
Michelle: I started participating in barista competitions back in 2014 at the regional level. I enjoy a challenge, especially if my biggest competition is myself. It’s one of those experiences where you can train and practice your routine for months leading up to it, but how you perform that day is all that matters.
Additionally, it’s a massive platform where you’re able to say whatever you want to say for those 15 minutes you’re on stage serving drinks. I’ve never not utilized that time to make sure I’m saying something that’s important, forward-thinking, but also authentically me because that’s the type of energy I carry on a daily basis.
If it ain’t me, I ain’t doing it, haha.
Competing at the U.S. level was a lot of fun and I’m proud of myself for making it that far! I think in the future, I’d like to pivot to coaching Black competitors who are interested.
Travel Noire: What do you want people to know about being Black and being a woman in the coffee industry?
Michelle: One of my closest friends, D’Onna Stubblefield, said it best on the Black Coffee PDX podcast two years ago: “We are hyper-visible and not visible at the same time.”
Being a Black woman in coffee is consistently ignored, talked over, and dismissed. My position, career, and accomplishments in the coffee industry have never changed that aspect. I’m still a Black woman at the end of the day, and that’s all some people ever see. But trust and believe, we are ALWAYS the ones quietly creating pathways and opportunities for other people to advance in their careers. We share information, we put people on. We take care of ourselves and our people, and most of it hardly ever gets the flowers it deserves. But that’s not why we do it. I’ve been able to work with so many talented, intelligent Black women in different parts of the coffee supply chain. That’s a strong network that is also growing and will only ever get stronger.
Travel Noire: What advice do you have for other minorities wanting to enter the industry?
Michelle: Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be open to learning something completely new. The coffee industry is a unique industry to work in that doesn’t have to look a certain way. Being a barista is the most accessible way to jump in, but there are also community events and learning opportunities (even virtually now!) for you to slide in on. No matter the pathway, there’s a place for you!
Besides, coffee is a part of our ancestry since it originated in Ethiopia and Yemen. Come on and take up space, you’re entitled to it.
Travel Noire: What makes a great cup of coffee?
Michelle: Good ass energy, a willing heart to keep up the ritual, and some sugar.
Travel Noire: How can we keep up with you?