Jumat, 01 Maret 2013

Five Questions with BGA Member Zaida Dedolph

The story of Zaida Dedolph is both entertaining and instructive. Zaida’s first coffee job was in a shop called the Willow House in Phoenix, AZ. She describes it as “ an old house and full of cigarette smoke and hippies and bad art.” She goes on, “at some point I managed to convince them to give me a job.  It was kind of like working in a music venue that was somehow combined with a coffee shop and also a halfway house. I worked there for three and a half years, usually with other jobs on the side.” Her on-the-side work included moonlighting at an 80 year-old soda fountain and working for ASU doing human cadaver dissection. “That is probably a somewhat interesting fact about me,” she says.

In 2008 love for “a silly boy” brought Zaida to the Windy City where she mentored under Nathan Lyle Black at Brother’s K, a cafe serving Metropolis Coffee in the Evanston neighborhood. She became the barista trainer at the Other Brother, then moved on to Caffe Streets where she met Charlie Habegger -- “I’m fairly convinced Charlie knows everything,” she told me -- where she worked until a 2011 blizzard convinced her to move South again. 

At Frank, in Austin, TX, Zaida learned she had an interest in “bossing people around and figuring out new ways to make money and keep customers.” During her time at Frank, Zaida trained with Tyler, Mike, and Chris from Handsome Coffee, then prepared for the 2012 SC Regional with Mike and Tyler at their HQ in LA where she learned “a whole lot about competition,” and “where all the best tacos in Los Angeles can be located.” After Texas, Zaida returned to Chicago as Director of Operations, (or, as her business card says, Protector of the Realm) for Time Bandits (the overarching LLC for Wormhole, Fritz Pastry, and HalfWit Coffee roasters).

In 2013 Zaida placed second in the NCRBC where I interjected myself into a conversation to meet her. Since then, I’ve been writing to Zaida, whose thoughtful, articulate correspondence was pleasant and inspiring. Read on as we talk about the explosion of micro-roasters in Chicago, coffee dogma, and respect for your fellow human being.


Colin: First of all, I have to mention your job title, Protector of the Realm (pretty awesome). I'm aware that others at HalfWit have similarly unconventional job titles, does that speak to the work environment there? Does it speak to how many coffee professionals are defining their own role in the industry?

Zaida: Well, thank you.  I'd have to give credit to Travis (owner of Fritz Pastry, Wormhole Coffee, and HalfWit Coffee Roasters) for that title.

I guess you could say we're actively creating our own roles, and in doing so we're also defining our company.  HalfWit is an itty-bitty operation, and we're still so fresh.  In total we employ four people, and each person has been so incredibly integral to the creation of our vision and our product.  

Because we are so small, each of us wear about a billion different hats.  Anyone who has been part of something new can understand how much flexibility is required, especially in the early stages of creating a business. One week I'll be putting coffee in bags, the next I'll be writing web content, the next I'm doing tastings with prospective wholesale clients. Some things stay the same, though: we all help out with quality control on an ongoing basis, we all participate in wholesale interactions. We talk a lot, and very openly, about what we're good at and what we're not so good at, and what we want to learn more about and how we want to learn it.  We play to each other's strengths and interests, and I think we've got a really good thing going because of that.  

Colin: You've had several mentors in the coffee industry, and are a great example of someone who found a role for herself in the specialty coffee realm -- Does your post bring you to mentoring many aspiring baristas? What advice do you have for them? What kinds of goals to do they have for themselves?

Zaida: Aw shucks. I've been so lucky!  My work now is a bit more behind-the-scenes, and I'd be hesitant to say anyone wants to take my advice. But I've learned a thing or two along the way.  

The biggest thing I would say is, work your ass off no matter how much you hate your situation, because chances are you'll learn something.   I started working at a Soda Fountain when I was 14 years old, and I haven't stopped since.  I worked full-time throughout college, and generally had at least two jobs (but sometimes three.) Giving up was never an option.  When I'd start to get frustrated and exhausted I would call my mom, who would always tell me that there is value in hard work that isn't monetary.  Of course, that was the last thing I wanted to hear when I was a snot-nosed kid with sore feet and homework to finish, but now I recognize that *maybe* she had a point.  

Working hard gets you noticed, and it teaches you things in funny little ways. Even if you hate your boss, even if you loathe doing dishes, even if you hate making skinny-half-caf-extra-sugar-free-vanilla lattes, you're learning.  Be nice to everyone.  Even if they're a total asshole. You never know what they might have to offer you someday. And do the things you hate just as well as the things you like.  People will notice your initiative.  

Colin: I really admire the exhortation, "work your ass off no matter how much you hate your situation." For some reason that really strikes home for me. I'm all for a balanced approach to life, but too often I feel like it's easy to be satisfied with the status quo and work is needed to grow. That, and also a desire to look the part more than play the part... does that makes sense?

Zaida: I totally agree.  When people tell me they want to work in coffee, I always want to ask them whether they want to take out the trash, whether they want to clean toilets, whether they want to be friendly to people who they don't feel like being friendly to all day long.  It's one thing to make really great coffee, but that job can't exist in a vacuum.  If you're not willing to get your hands dirty, then you don't really want to be a barista.  That's what it really takes to "play the part."

Colin: You've moved around quite a lot since you got started in coffee (AZ-IL-TX-IL and that pit-stop in LA with the Handsome guys) -- and the "Blizzard of '11" (which I remember!) figures prominently in your move to Texas to work at Frank -- is there some tension between the North and the South for you? Are you by nature a bit restless? Will you move again?

I'm probably a little restless.  I might be a lot restless.  The south is home, though. I am a desert girl at heart.  I grew up in Phoenix in the midst of the housing boom, which then completely collapsed with the economy.  It was a very visible, tangible thing, and so many people I know were heavily affected by it.  The ultimate goal is to go back home to Arizona with all my fancy learnin' and start something new in a few years.  

Colin: Your description of the Chicago coffee scene as moving from one polarized by two large specialty roasters to one of increasing diversity in approaches to roasting and serving coffee is open-minded. You go on to say that there "isn't any real truth" about what quality is, what kinds of things does Half-Wit do to avoid dogma in conversations with customers?

Zaida: Man.  It's funny to think about how the term "microroaster" has evolved.  I feel like what's happening in Chicago is the emergence of a bunch of "smaller-than-microroasters." "Nanoroasters."  "Micro-mini-roasters," maybe.  We're totally happy to be a part of that movement, and I want you to know how much discussion this question sparked amongst our roasting staff.  Generally, we came up with the following response.  

Our un-dogmatic approach to specialty coffee can probably best be summarized by talking about a party we threw a few weeks ago.  It was HalfWit's launch party, it was science fair themed, and it was totally baller.  We invited the media, but we also invited our friends and our coffee colleagues.  When people walked in, we had different boards set up outlining some element of coffee science.  For example, we did an exhibit on water quality, where people who stopped by the booth could taste coffee brewed with city water, bottled water, and Reverse Osmosis water.  We did another on roasting, so people could taste the difference in one coffee roasted to three different levels.  Another exhibit was all about brew methods.  The point wasn't to tell people how to do things, it was to let them explore their own palates, and to show them the differences that subtle factors can make on coffee quality.  We emphasized things that consumers can change in their own homes; what water they're using, what coffee they're buying, how they're brewing it.  We set up the event, but we still learned a lot.  

We don't know everything.  We don't really know anything.  But we want to know more about all of the things.  We want to taste coffee in a million different ways. We want feedback from people who have never tasted coffee before just as badly as we want it from coffee professionals.  We want our coffee to taste great whether it you brew it on a Mr. Coffee drip maker or pull it on a fancy pressure-profiling, pre-infusing espresso machine.  We're not going to tell you how to brew excellent coffee, but we're willing to teach you about all of the variables that impact quality and let you figure it out on your own. That's the difference, right there.   

It's easy to forget that the term "specialty coffee" refers to a grading system, not a particular philosophy, not some immutable doctrine.  Our notion of quality is evolving every single day.  The best we can do is buy high-quality coffees from reputable importers, grown by great growers, and help our customers figure out the rest from there.  

Colin: Can you think of a topic within specialty coffee that deserves more discussion?

Zaida: Where my ladies at?  I'm fortunate that my boss has a penchant for hiring wickedly talented, brilliantly opinionated, and brutally stubborn female managerial types (Sara Travis and Andrea "Otter" Otte at HalfWit, Stevie Baka at the Wormhole, Jaime Podgorny at Fritz Pastry....oh, and Me.)  But this job has been exceptionally unique in that regard, and I won't deny the fact that being a woman in this very male dominated industry has been a massive struggle.   

I have some amazing female role models in this industry (Sarah Kluth, Katie Carguilo, Sarah Allen, Trish Rothgeb, Heather Perry, etc....) but there simply aren't enough, and the gender imbalance is still so marked.  It goes all the way back to origin; too often, women are often the ones growing the coffee, but men are the ones controlling the money and making the decisions.  It goes all the way up the supply chain.  

Why is there such an huge gender imbalance in the specialty coffee world? What are men doing to involve women in the discussion? Why aren't we talking more about it?  

Colin: Yes, I don't know why it is, but I agree there seems to be a gender imbalance in the coffee world. And your tracing that imbalance back to origin is right on. I'm married to a woman and I can't speak highly enough of the ways women build communities, empathize with others, and work well in groups, which are key skills to advancing the cause of specialty coffee. Yet at the same time I feel it's a tough topic for me to talk about without feeling as if I'm reiterating gender stereotypes, "Well women are like X and so they don't Y," or "Well men are like..." You know what I mean? I guess when it comes down to it I'm afraid we're just making excuses, when push comes to shove, employers need to make an effort to hire women and promote them when they deserve it. Would you agree?

Zaida: I don't think specialty coffee is single-handedly going to be capable of conquering sexism in the workplace, but I think sometimes the solutions are really very simple.  Talk to your staff.  Talk to all of them.  Hear their opinions, actively solicit their input.  Making sure that people's voices are being heard is a vital step in this process.  I'm equally hesitant to say "men are this, women are that," and I would be totally disingenuous if I didn't mention that most of my mentors in this industry have been delightful, respectful males.  Mostly, that's been because I've been trained by men, managed by men, every shop I've worked at has been owned by a man or by men. On one hand I'm very grateful, but it's also such a struggle to have your voice heard if people don't feel like hearing it.

A colleague of mine at Frank once said that being a woman in the service industry is like walking into work every day and getting punched in the face.  Even when we love what we do, even when we see so much value in our craft and worth in our work,  we are STILL, in 2013 for pete's sake, ruthlessly objectified by customers and undervalued in hiring decisions.   

I think beginning to deal with the problem of gender imbalance in specialty coffee is as simple as creating a welcoming environment, in general.  Don't speak over your coworkers.  Don't be dismissive of the opinions or impressions of new hires.  Make sure everyone has a chance to speak at cuppings, that everyone is able and encouraged to participate in every step of your company's process.  And definitely, start hiring qualified women.

Colin: OMG we have to talk about the cadaver job --- that fact immediately changed the way I think about you. Can you just talk about that experience for a second?

Zaida. Wow.  You might have to ask questions about this, because it was kind of a huge experience on so many levels. Working with cadavers completely changes the way you think about the people around you and the world that you live in.

Colin: So I'm wondering if you were like pre-med or something. I guess the question is, why were you doing this? How does one qualify to do something like human dissection? and lastly, are there any sort of existential moments when doing human dissection? I imagine something like alternating between feeling like humans are just biological machines, and feeling as if what it means to be human is something more than just the physical bodies we walk around in.

Zaida: Okay, so, Dead Bodies.  

I went through about eighty different majors in college.  I was definitely premed for quite some time, then switched to biological anthropology (I spent most of college in a cadaver lab or in a basement sifting through boxes of bones.)  I got the job as a way to expand my knowledge of anatomy and physiology.  I was also really into the concept of structural-functionalism during that period of my life. I wound up loving it so much that I switched majors to something that would let me look at the way people's cells interact within their bodies and how those same humans interact with other humans in their larger environment.  

I want to stress that preserving human dignity is tantamount in cadaver dissection.  Donating your body to science or research is probably the most amazing gift you could ever give. In a cadaver lab, you wear black scrubs. The face, hands, feet, and genitals are covered at all times, unless they are being worked on.  It's a very serious environment, but not at all a sad one.  It's not glamorous, but you treat every single thing you do with so much respect for the gift that was given to you.  You may have to do things like, remove residual contents from the colon. Sometimes things unexpectedly burst.  Also, fat doesn't preserve, so you have to remove every bit of fat from a cadaver before you can really do anything else. It's also the most incredible experience. You receive a "specimen," which is actually a very vulnerable, naked person, and have a chance to break that body down to its most fundamental parts.  I don't think I had any idea what respect really meant until I had seen what a fatal clot looks like inside of an aorta, or used a bone saw to remove the top of a cadaver's skull.  You look at every person around you in a different, more fragile light. I wish everyone could have that experience.  I would get out of the lab and just think about all of the people that I loved, and how I should probably tell them that all the time.  

Yes. Zaida, you inspire in me a new respect for life.

Thank You for taking the time to talk with me.

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