Get to know Jennifer Yeatts, director of coffee for Traverse City, Mich.’s Higher Grounds Trading Co.
INTERVIEW BY DIANA MNATSAKANYAN
Diana: Mnatsakanyan: How did you get started in coffee? What’s your “coffee story”?
Jennifer Yeatts: I first worked at a coffee shop when I was attending college at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. I had a lot of fun, and ended up working there off and on for several years. As I made my way in the world post-college, from overseas meanderings to a year in Northern California, I always seemed to end up with a barista job at least a few hours a week. I got great training while working for Peet’s in Sacramento and remember daydreaming about someday having the job of our regional trainer, Ed. How dreamy would it be to get paid to teach other people about coffee?! Meanwhile, I moved on to graduate school, thought I’d end up on the academic track, chased the dream of tenure-track professorship. And then, while adjuncting at a community college, I stumbled upon yet another barista job. It was a part-time gig that morphed into a full-time marketing and quality control position at Higher Grounds [in Traverse City, Mich.], where they also needed someone to develop training curriculum and ”wait for it ”teach other people about coffee. I quit my academic teaching job and there you have it!
DM: What do you love most about your work?
JY: It goes right back to that dream job: I love training. It’s so rewarding to guide a new barista through the learning process and celebrate all the little victories, from a perfectly-dialed-in shot to the first time they nail some latte art. The farmers who make our coffee possible are a constant motivation and inspiration; I’m sure I would not still be working in coffee if I hadn’t come to view them as part of our community, which makes every interaction with coffee so much more meaningful. They work so hard despite essentially living in poverty, and it feels good to work for an organization that is investing in development projects that make significant impacts, like building clean water systems, increasing access to education, facilitating gender equality workshops and increasing food security. I also love the people I work with; we have a great team at Higher Grounds, and I’m inspired by many of my coworkers every day.
DM: How do you recharge your batteries after a long day?
JY: I ride my bike home then settle into my kitchen zone, cooking something delicious for dinner. A glass of wine may also come into play.
DM: Do you ride your bike often?
JY: Yes! My husband and I both commute by bike year-round and also spend a lot of time biking for fun, particularly with a group of friends called the Country Ramblers. One Saturday a month from April through October, we do an all-day ride (usually 40 “50 miles) out in the country.
DM: What would you never leave your house without?
JY: An extra layer, just in case.
DM: What’s your guilty pleasure?
JY: A plain croissant from the best bakery in Northern Michigan, 9 Bean Rows.
DM: What song would you choose to play every time you walk into a room?
JY: This one. Kidding! That was a joke. Let’s go with 1612 by Vulfpeck. It’s so random and fun and funky and that’s a vibe I like a whole lot. I can’t help but shoulder dance a little while I sit here at my desk and listen to it.
DM: What do you love most about your city?
JY: Traverse City is such a great mix of small town and city. Depending on where I go, I can either run into six people I know within an hour, or not recognize a soul. Lots of creative chefs here are crafting amazing food from what’s available locally. We have a growing farming community, excellent craft breweries, and dozens of local wineries. And I’m always just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from fresh water. Love those Great Lakes!
DM: What would you love to see happen in the specialty-coffee industry in the next five years?
JY: The industry has a huge opportunity to introduce consumers to producers. I don’t mean literally, though that’s always awesome. I mean by offering increased transparency across the supply chain, demonstrating a version of “direct trade” that acknowledges the extreme disparity between our comfortable first-world lives, and those of the people responsible for the vast majority of work when it comes to our daily obsession. How can we expect higher-quality coffee to be produced by a farmer who might not know how she’s going to feed her children that day?
For example: there is some incredibly delicious and unique coffee coming out of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that has seen 6 million people killed in conflict over the past 20 years. Six million people! That’s some serious turmoil. There’s still trouble over there, but much of the violence has settled down and coffee buyers are now much more able to travel there and build relationships with the amazingly resilient people growing coffee, supporting the formation of cooperatives and the infrastructure needed for increased and higher-quality coffee production.
Many of those farmers are women who have lost their husbands either to conflict or because they’ve drowned trying to smuggle coffee across Lake Kivu into Rwanda ( in recent years there’s been little opportunity for them to sell coffee and many were forced to get creative at the risk of their lives). Those women are doing a huge portion of the manual labor but receive very little respect or recognition for their work; they have no voice when it comes to what happens to the money they’re paid.
However ”and here’s where specialty coffee has an opportunity to create larger impact ”projects such as the GALS (Gender Action Learning System) program are making major strides towards building respect for women and their contribution to their communities. These women are taking leadership roles in their cooperatives and working towards shining a brighter light on the Congolese coffee industry. When we champion these strong women and replicate programs like GALS in other coffee-growing communities, everyone along the coffee supply chain will benefit from it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Mnatsakanyan is a cat-lady-turned-barista living in Charlotte, North Carolina. A workaholic and coffee nerd, she is currently in the process of opening her first coffee shop, Undercurrent Coffee. She also dabbles in barista blogging, coffee consulting and Netflix binge-watching (she highly recommends ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and ’30 Rock’).