Sara Frinak can usually be found behind the scenes, organizing coffee competitions or working as the Southeast account manager for Ally Coffee. We bring her into the spotlight to discuss humility, the lessons she has learned about management, and what piece of equipment she’s never without.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ BARISTA MAGAZINE ONINE
Photos by Tony Abbott
Sara Frinak has probably helped you out at some point—she can usually be found behind the scenes at Brewers Cup competitions, and we ran into her recently running around at the coffee bar at the World Barista Championship in Seoul, South Korea. Sara prefers to be behind the scenes; she’s a person who wants to build up others and help people find success. She does this through her work in the Atlanta coffee community and as the Southeast regional manager for Ally Coffee. Sara graciously took time to sit with us and talk about her coffee beginnings, what she has learned by managing others, and why coffee matters to her.
Ashley Rodriguez: Let’s talk about your life pre-coffee. What were you doing and what career path did you envision for yourself?
Sara Frinak: My first coffee job started right when I started college, and it was one of the many jobs I worked to get by. So, simply put, I probably had a different idea of my future anytime someone asked. I ran a daycare for a bit and taught 3-year-olds on the weekends, and hosted and served at a restaurant. I coached swimming and was an instructor for a swim school. I even had a little crafting phase where I sold hand-bound notebooks and jewelry things at local shops and cafés. All I knew was that I wanted to work for people and with people. When I finally graduated college, I made myself a deal: I’d move to a bigger city for two years and try this “coffee thing” out. If it didn’t take, I’d go back to school and get my doctorate. And, well, here we are, I guess.
AR: How did you get into coffee? What was your first coffee job? SF: I got into coffee on accident, really. There was this local bookstore called The Gnu’s Room in my hometown/college town, and I got a job working the counter there. We had a small coffee program, and there was a woman, Sarah Barnett (aka Mama Mocha), roasting coffee in a small room in the back. The bookstore ended up going nonprofit, and then eventually going out of business, so I moved over to the coffee shop. I needed a paycheck, and I remember thinking, “I really don’t want to do this, but I’ll at least stay here until I find something better.” I worked as a barista with Sarah and eventually started as an apprentice in the roasting business, then later took over management for the store and helped open another location. Sarah took me to my first [Specialty Coffee Association] Expo and showed me the immensity of the industry, but she also taught me a lot about what it meant to serve the community you had in front of you. I just never found a job that was better.
AR: Have you every received a compliment or criticism that surprised you or made you reconsider the way you operate? Any piece of advice that really floored you?
SF: I learned early on that I don’t know much and I’m not good at much. I am bad at taking compliments and I seek out criticisms. So I find myself in those moments of reconsideration very often. I’d say what sticks out to me the most to me are the lessons I learned while in management. Fewer singular pieces of advice, but more just the mistakes I made before I really understood efficient communication. It’s made me a more attentive employee to managers I’ve had since my move to Atlanta. I know when to take direction and apologize, as well as stand my ground and walk away. It’s been an invaluable skill. We work so closely with each other in this industry, so the interpersonal stuff is just golden.
AR: You’ve worked backstage at a bunch of coffee competitions—what does that look like?
SF: It honestly looks like utter chaos. Like, glass wares, a lot of boiling water, and a ton of masking tape. I enjoy the backstage work, because I prefer being in positions of support for people. I’m not one for the limelight. I think there’s a lot of work to be done with the competitions format, and I’m happy to help push for improvements from a logistics standpoint. When people ask about this kind of volunteering, I always tell them that I’m not the one to speak out about the important things. I’ll help build the stage and the stairs that lead up there. I’ll tear the stairs down and rebuild them better if people can’t use them. If the stage buckles on one side, we’ll build better supports. But I’m not the right person to climb up there and go for it, at least not yet. As stressful as it can be backstage, it’s so much more fun when I think of it like that.
AR: What have you learned from your previous jobs?
SF: Always carry a Sharpie and masking tape with you. There are few things more terrible and unforgivable than a no-call-no-show. Home-cooked food and cheap beer go a long way during staff meetings.
AR: What feels important to you in coffee? What would you like for our community to work on?
SF: Coffee is important to me because coffee is universal—sure metaphorically and idealistically—but also geographically and economically. The majority of my family is from and lives in Malaysia, and I have always wanted to do work that keeps me connected to all of my family, both in Alabama and in Sabah. Once I started roasting, I saw green coffee as a way to be a part of an industry that does that. I have uncles who worked on cargo ships and coffee farms, aunties who would make coffee every time we walked into their home. I spent my time in college helping facilitate everything from open mic nights to AA meetings to drag shows to farmers markets at coffee shops. This industry allows the opportunity to see problems and potentially create solutions. It’s the connection, I suppose, to the international and the local that is important to me.
It is difficult to say just one thing our community could work on. We are a group of doers, you know? We see something isn’t right and we get pissed off and address it. Right now I hear and am motivated by this big push for equality, representation, and empowerment in our industry. It’s such a huge fight. Sometimes it’s discouraging or daunting, but more often than not it’s absolutely inspiring. I’m trying to figure out what that should look like on my end. At the moment, I’m focusing on increasing professionalism in my region, and learning more about sustainability in Southeast Asia. You do your best until it’s not enough, and then you do more—that’s what I’ve always been told.
AR: Where do you think your voice fits into the larger coffee scene? What do you feel like you have insight on or feel like an expert in?
SF: Wow, nowhere, nothing, none of it? Haha It’s probably a head-trash thing, but I’m still figuring out what my voice should even sound like. As over-dramatic as it may sound, I’m a biracial woman who grew up between an island in Southeast Asia and a small town in the Deep South. Everyone I’ve ever met has had an opinion on what I say and how I say it. So, I guess I just never developed a desire to be heard by big groups of people. Even doing something like this is so strange to me; the idea that my answers to these questions would have weight feels a little like a mistake. There’s a value in my insight and my experiences, sure, but I haven’t developed the skills to communicate them intelligently or appropriately. Again, it’s probably just insecurity and head-trash, but it’s taught me a lot about the power of communication. Until maybe a week ago, I didn’t think my voice had a place in the coffee scene; I didn’t think I had much to offer so visibly. Now that doesn’t matter. If I’m getting interviewed, I guess I better find a place, hah.
AR: If you have to draft a fantasy coffee staff, who would you choose and why?
SF: I honestly don’t know if I know enough people in the industry to make a fantasy draft. How many people would you even need? I do have a running checklist of people I’d hire for my imaginary café. It’s a mix of bartenders I respect and servers that impress me. I once saw two baristas in Seattle work a 20-person line like it was nothing—hired. There’s a sweet man who runs the cash register at a burrito place in Greenville, S.C., who is always nice and always remembers little things about his customers—hired. There’s a bartender in Atlanta who flawlessly handled a drunken patron’s offensive remarks and still served the four other people standing behind him—hired. I should probably start paying more attention to coffee people if we’re doing a fantasy league, but at the moment my imaginary business is freaking tight.