Learn more about Fi O’Brien and Casey Lalonde, the folks behind Girls Who Grind Coffee, a roastery based in southwestern England.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Girls Who Grind Coffee
There’s no hiding behind a name like Girls Who Grind Coffee, a roastery started by Fi O’Brien and Casey Lalonde. After meeting at a yoga class, the duo decided to create a brand that celebrates the accomplishments of women, who are overlooked at every corner of the coffee supply chain. From aesthetics to sourcing, Fi and Casey talk about how they incorporate their values and mission into their business.
Ashley Rodriguez: Can you tell us about your individual coffee paths? How did you both get into coffee, and then how did you find one another?
Fi O’Brien: I’m a Melbournian born and bred, so coffee kinda runs through my veins. I started my career in advertising as a creative strategist, but a few years into my career felt the urge to open my own café utilizing my design/brand skills and my love for coffee and café culture. Since then my career has always swayed between the two industries and still does now with GWGC.
Casey Lalonde: As a coffee lover and a sociology student, I became interested in both the art and science behind making a great cup as well as the stories of the producers at origin. This led me to a position at a roastery and coffee lab in Vermont where I assisted on Q-grader courses and learned to cup and roast.
Fi: We then both somehow, individually, ended up in our now creative little hometown of Frome, Somerset. And in true Frome style, we met at a baby yoga class when our kids were small, always chatting about our love for coffee and how we’d love to make some changes to the industry that we once loved but felt had changed, but not in a good way!
What inspired you to start a roasting company as opposed to any other coffee business?
Casey: When I started roasting, I fell in love with it. It’s the only thing I’ve felt so passionately about doing. I love the process of choosing beans, learning about different origins, and forging relationships. It still amazes me that all this amazing flavor is locked inside of little green seeds and I get to work out the best way to get it out!
A roastery allows us to have the greatest impact on the lives of female producers. We saw a gap in the market for female-produced coffee and thought it was time to shake things up a bit.
Fi: It really felt like the best use of both of our skills. I originally conceived Girls Who Grind Coffee as a business to celebrate and empower women within coffee but still hadn’t decided on how I was going to do this, and then after chatting with Casey and discovering her background and passion for roasting, it seemed like the perfect partnership to create a business that would not only empower us as women in business, but also other women within the coffee industry.
Tell us about the name of your business—it’s straightforward and to the point, but what inspired you to be so bold in naming your business?
Fi: I’d been working in the coffee/café industry for a long time, but was starting to notice a weird and uncomfortable shift that I was no longer enjoying. It really started to feel kind of intimidating, and I felt that women that were achieving and capable of such great things weren’t getting the kudos deserved.
I then had a bit of an epiphany moment of wanting to do something about it to celebrate these women and their stories—I thought the name Girls Who Grind would be a fun tongue-in-cheek name that would get noticed and spark conversation. The messages and stories of these incredible women are serious but the name is a bit cheeky, but it certainly does get noticed, which is obviously exactly we want—the more people that notice, the more people hear these stories.
What are some of the values of your business?
- To offer delicious, specialty coffee, produced by women.
- To make coffee accessible for everyone, which means keeping away from portentousness that you sometimes find in our industry.
- To have fun.
- To empower women in coffee.
Do you ever come across folks who scoff or make fun of the name or the values of your business?
Fi: Yup. Not that often but it has happened. We’ve had people tell us that what we’re doing is illegal and that we are discriminating against men. We explain that this is not the case. We are celebrating and empowering women through promoting gender equality. The vast majority of people have only good things to say.
Can you talk about the design of your coffee bags, and about the overall aesthetic in general?
Fi: I’m head of brand of GWGC, and I’m absolutely loving being able to put my skills as a creative strategist to good use. I really wanted to create a brand that resonated with people—excited them about our coffee and our cause! It’s difficult to find a balance, when you have a message, that you don’t get bogged down in facts and figures; it’s important to inspire your audience/customers so that they don’t lose interest and connect with your brand!
We wanted to make women the front and focus of our packaging designs. Saying that, the illustrations are not actual representations of the women producing the coffee, but more a capture of the spirit of the producer/coffee.
Casey and myself hold a cupping, create our tasting notes together, and then I go away and consider colours and the type of woman I feel best represents the taste and story. I then work alongside Ben The Illustrator, who magically captures all of these things in our gorgeous bright, graphic illustrations.
What have been some of the biggest successes in your business? What have been some of the pitfalls?
- The reaction we have received has been excellent. When we meet our customers face to face at events we do, it always makes us feel proud of what we’ve achieved.
- We partnered with producers in El Salvador and worked together to get their coffee to us. We feel so proud of the relationship that has formed and can’t wait to see how it will grow in the years to come. When I saw the farmers drinking our coffee back at the farm, I definitely felt emotional.
- It’s been a huge learning curve. One of the most difficult things has been managing cashflow.
I’m always interested in partnerships. What have you learned opening a business with someone else? What has it taught you about yourselves?
Fi: Oh boy! We’ve definitely learned that we couldn’t have done this alone. We each bring our own skills to the business that complement each other to make it work. It’s the perfect partnership really.
It’s been challenging at times working out various roles, but we’re learning as we go, and as we grow, our roles are becoming more separate and clear, which has helped a lot.
What feels important to you in coffee? What, when people think of you, do you want them to say about you?
- That the hard work that has gone into it is acknowledged, respected, and celebrated.
- That it’s not intimidating.
- That coffee has a significant impact on people’s lives and has the ability to connect them on so many levels.