Ashley is the Online Editor for Barista Magazine and is a barista based in Chicago. She is also the host of Boss Barista, a podcast where she talks to people from all realms of the coffee world about important issues facing the industry, including gender, race, sex, and worker rights.
Jason Huffnagle - Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Coffee Chat, Ashley. Ordinarily, you’re editing my entries for Barista Magazine, so it’s fun to change things up a bit and interview you instead. Why don’t you start by telling us how you got into coffee in the first place?
Ashley Rodriguez: Hah! It is a fun role reversal!
I got into coffee completely accidentally. I moved to New York in 2009 after graduating from school and worked as a middle school math and science teacher. I was terrible—I was 22 teaching kids who were only a few years younger than me, and I was totally unprepared.
When summer came around, I met a guy named Ollie, and we became inseparable. We'd putz around New York reading books and asking ourselves if it was too early to start drinking beer. He had just moved from the West Coast and had saved up money, and since I was on summer break, we both had all this time to be twenty-something idiots running around the city.
Eventually, Ollie ran out of money, and said he was gonna get a job at a coffee shop, and I thought that was so much better than going back to school.
I remember exactly where I was when this happened. I was sitting on the back patio of El Beit, on Bedford and N 8th in Brooklyn, drinking an iced americano. I told Ollie I should just quit, and we kept repeating it.
We must have said something about, "if I don't do this now, I never will," because I got on the train and went straight to my school, and quit right then and there. My principal was surprisingly kind—he told me I should fuck around more and that I'd always be welcome back.
He told me that by going out in the real world and learning more about myself I'd be a better teacher to someone; maybe not the students in the school we worked in, but someone somewhere.
I started working at Gregory's Coffee in Times Square in 2010—they were the only folks that'd hire me, and I really needed help because I'd never worked a real service job. I worked in retail in high school and college, but I struggled with the basics.
I remember asked Bailey Arnold (who is also still in coffee and works for Oatly now) how to tie a garbage bag. However, I grew to love that job. I became the assistant manager, and in that year probably learned more about myself and my skills than four years of college and utterly failing as a teacher could have taught me.
Better Coffeer: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?
Ashley Rodriguez: I'm the type of person who has a zillion projects going on! My main priority is growing Boss Barista, my podcast that explores the intersection of feminism and coffee. That's sort of a loose definition and it's always evolving, but I'd like for it to support more of my life. I also work part time for Barista Magazine as their online editor, I'm a content manager and writer for a website called Good Beer Hunting, and I write and help coordinate roasters for the Matchbook Coffee Project (it's like an EP release of your favorite coffee roasters every month—definitely check it out!)
I'd love to grow the podcast for obviously selfish reasons (I'd love it to make a little money) but also because I'm floored by the folks who respond to it. I know my limits and I can only see stories and narratives within my range of vision, so when someone who I don't know or someone from somewhere I haven't been listens and shares their insights, it makes the show better because it extends the range of the show.
The more people listening means the more meaningful it becomes because it continues to evolve and encompass a variety of narratives. I worry a lot about my limited scope, so I can only hope folks continue to reach out and share their stories.
Better Coffeer: You seem to always have something going on--can you tell us a bit about some of your upcoming projects?
Ideally, I'd like Boss Barista to delve into coffee history. We did an episode about Erna Knutsen, who is a legendary coffee pro, and we tried to explore her reach beyond coining the term "specialty coffee." I was amazed by how much I learned—really, without Erna, the concept of microlots and the idea that small plots of coffee can be special wouldn't exist. But that episode took me months to make. For a 40 minute episode, we're talking at least 100+ hours of work. Which is awesome and this is the type of work I want to be doing, but it's very different from my usual episodes, which feature straight up interviews that only take a few hours to put together.
Right now, I'm working on a two part episode about Mulumebet Emiru—she was the first female pilot in Africa and as a gift, the emperor of Ethiopia awarded her three plots of land that all had coffee. Although the plots aren't the same, eventually she and her family would go on to start METAD and the prized Hambela Estate. She transformed Ethiopian coffee and gender politics. I'm excited to share what I've learned about her soon.
Better Coffeer: Your schedule seems like it would be packed! How do you stay organized? Any tips?
Ashley Rodriguez: Ugh. I'm not great at organization, if I'm being quite honest. One thing I try to do is make a list of everything that's on my mind. Even if it's not a checklist or something I use later, I try to get things out of my head so I don't get sick with anxiety over it. I also try to use the "auto response" feature on my emails when I can—usually just saying, "Got it!" or "Thanks!" is enough for most emails. I also try to anticipate failures or gaps in knowledge.
One thing that's saved me a ton of time, for example, is knowing that my podcast episodes need to be 40-50 minutes, and trying to make the time I have the recorder on as meaningful as possible. If I need to edit, I try to take super detailed notes during the interview with timestamps so I can go back easily and make edits. I also try to edit immediately after so it's fresh in my mind.
That being said, I'm a mess of anxiety and wish I could be more organized! So if anyone has tips for me that'd be amazing!
Better Coffeer: What are some changes you would like to see in the coffee industry? Are there any trends in coffee that you find exciting and/or troubling?
Ashley Rodriguez: Tons. I get upset when folks don't consider what their power means. I'm talking about managers, folks high up in a business, anything like that. If an employee is struggling, if someone is harassing a member of your staff, it's your job to act.
I also get pissed by this idea of loyalty in coffee shops. People talk about baristas bouncing from one job to another and don't consider why a barista might do that.
As a person who has had a number of horrible bosses, I can totally relate to needing to escape shitty and unsafe working conditions. I also think you can't demand loyalty from folks who often work at or around the minimum wage. It's manipulative.
There's this line in the Erna episode that Ric Rhinehart shares. He talks about how Erna was, "thoroughly unimpressed by the mediocre men around her," and I feel that. I see men in coffee gets jobs that aren't posted, get paid more than female counterparts, find pathways in coffee that lead to meaningful careers, and then I see women just struggling to get by. It's infuriating to see. Look at the companies with sales roles and you'll see men. Look at equipment companies and you see men.
As I get older I worry about my future, and sometimes I don't see a pathway for myself or for other folks—not just women but other people in marginalized groups—to make a meaningful career with dignity. That needs to change.
Better Coffeer: I appreciate the advocacy you do, both in the articles you write for Barista Magazine but also as host of your podcast, Boss Barista. Is there a particular issue you’re more focused on right now?
Ashley Rodriguez: There are two things I'm thinking about right now: letting people know what their rights are and reaching as many people as possible who don't see themselves in the coffee industry.
The first one feels obvious—most people should know what their rights are—but they don't.
Businesses have no interest letting people know what they can and can't advocate for. I remember working a job where my boss actively encouraged people to not talk about their wages. He said it was "something we don't do here." And of course, we all found out we were paid different amounts. You have absolutely every right to be open and transparent with your coworkers about your wages.
Same for harassment issues. If you leave this interview with anything, let it be this: WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN! DOCUMENT EVERYTHING! Any meetings, emails, whatever, keep them documented. To prove harassment against an employer, you have to show that harassment happened, you told a supervisor, and they did nothing to correct the behavior.
This is hard to do unless you show you reported the behavior to someone above you. If you feel uncomfortable talking to a boss or a supervisor, talk to a colleague, or have them sit in on a meeting. Witnesses are also important—have a colleague make a written statement about a behavior they saw. I can't stress documenting things more.
The second one sort or echoes what I talked about in the beginning. My scope is limited, so hearing from others is important.
I love coffee competitions and events, but I worry I'm just seeing the same people. Who are the baristas not at these events? Who are the baristas who haven't found their community yet?
I have two friends who own a coffee shop in Chicago, and they went to their first SCA event last year, and mentioned feeling like they didn't know anyone or who to turn to. I want to make sure baristas from all over the world feel like they're part of the community.
Personally, I'm trying to be more open...sort of like breaking down the fourth wall. I've definitely been more depressed and downtrodden in the last year than I ever have been. I feel so much doubt about my future and self-loathing about the work I put out.
I try not to hide those feelings, but it's sometimes difficult to say out loud. I don't have solutions for these things and I haven't quite figured out a way to turn things around. But I guess it goes to show that you can still create and push yourself despite feeling shitty, and I feel shitty a lot. But that's ok. It's all part of the process and there's nothing I gain from hiding behind it.
Better Coffeer: Who has most influenced you personally? Professionally?
Ashley Rodriguez: A lot of podcasters. I listen to this one podcast called, "The Turnaround" where Jesse Thorn, founder of the Maximum Fun podcast studio, interviews other interviewers. I learned a ton from his interviews of Reggie Osse (Captain Jack) and Terry Gross. I've listened to these episodes a few times over.
Obviously the folks in coffee writing world—Jenn Chen, Michelle Johnson, Umeko Motoyoshi—are amazing. I'm continuously impressed by the level of work our small cohort of coffee writers put out. Really, what influences me are small moments.
Someone just messaged me saying 'be the person you needed when you first started working in coffee," and that floored me.
I hope for more quiet moments of encouragement like that.
Better Coffeer: Off the top of your head, what’s some of the best advice you’ve been given?
Nobody knows the things you want them to know unless you tell them.
I learned that in a writing class in high school. I try to apply it to my life—I try to be as open and transparent as I can be, and acknowledge that folks don't communicate or internalize things the way that I do. It's ok to repeat yourself or to give breath and words to your feelings.