We talk to Geetu Vailoor, Boon Boona Coffee’s coffee educator and wholesale manager, about her road to specialty coffee, giving back to the community, and Bollywood dance.
BY MARK VAN STREEFKERK
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Geetu Vailoor
Boon Boona Coffee opened its doors at the start of this year in the Seattle suburb of Renton, Wash. One of the café’s missions is to bridge the gap between African coffee farmers and North American consumers, as well as provide green coffee beans to Seattle’s East African community for coffee ceremonies, something they also do at the café.
An insightful and knowledgeable addition to the Boon Boona team this summer, Geetu Vailoor oversees café training, wholesale projects, and a slew of other things. Read on to learn about the many “hats” she wears, and her upcoming work with Coffee at Large.
Mark Van Streefkerk: Tell me a little about how you came to specialty coffee.
Geetu Vailoor: After college I decided to step away from (my studies in) broadcast journalism. I studied in Georgia and lived in a small town called Athens. I ended up volunteering and eventually working with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) after college. I worked with a farm in a collective, and that’s where I fell in love with agriculture and production.
I knew once I did that job I wanted to stay in the industry, creating more intentional connections with production, our consumption, and understanding the value chain. I eventually went on to work in a couple of coffee shops. I happened upon an amazing mentor, Brandon Jackson. He didn’t quite understand the depth of the specialty-coffee industry, but he was really supportive of me going for it, and encouraged me to find out how to take Counter Culture classes and learn more. I decided that I wanted to pursue coffee further, so I moved to Seattle. I worked at a café for the last three years, which gave me some awesome opportunities. More importantly, I fell in love with Seattle’s community, and met a lot of awesome people through the SCA Global Expo. The local community is amazing.
I noticed you were a judge for the U.S. CoffeeChamps preliminaries in Seattle. How did you get involved with that?
I’ve always thought about participating in Brewers Cup as a competitor, but I honestly had never been to a Brewers Cup competition. I’ve only seen the Barista (competition) at SCA, and I was like, “Maybe that’s a bad idea. Maybe I should just go observe.” Someone reached out and asked me if I was available to judge and I thought, “Am I even capable?” So I went to the calibration day on Friday, and everything panned out really well. We calibrated and spent, like, six hours learning the expectations. That was pretty awesome. Getting involved was pretty easy, it was about communicating my interests, sending an email to the head judge, and I got a time and a place to be.
What do you do at Boon Boona Coffee now?
It’s definitely a small business, so there are many different hats to wear. I’ve been working on the floor learning about bar flow, creating our training manual, trying to implement a new training system, and also working with Efrem (Fesaha, owner) and Ali (Gulduren, director of coffee) on taking care of creating wholesale projects with the company. I participate in a little bit of everything. I go to the production cuppings, sit in, and try to help with planning events. We’re hopefully having a throwdown soon too, so (I’m) helping some of our baristas organize that.
I have experience as an educator—a dance teacher actually. This is definitely a new experience, but it was kind of crazy to see how many parallels there are between teaching dance and teaching coffee, because there’s choreography, audience engagement, storytelling, and art. I taught Bollywood dance, which is very theatrical, and I feel like being behind the bar is very theatrical. I did competition Bollywood dancing for a while, and choreographed for a competition Bollywood team. I was on a college competitive team.
What’s exciting about working at Boon Boona Coffee?
The thing that drew me to specialty coffee in the first place was working in an industry that talks about transparency. We are really striving for transparency. Every time I’ve worked alongside Efrem and Ali, I see them go to great lengths to get an answer for people. I want to do the same thing. I feel really valued here. I’ve struggled to find my voice heard and represented in my work as a queer woman of color, but that changed at Boon Boona. Boon Boona has literally changed my perception of my value in the coffee community, and that’s why I actually have the emotional capacity to do this work with Coffee at Large, which is something I didn’t even think would be possible until now. I do feel very lucky.
What are you working on with Coffee at Large?
I want to create an education co-op: a community-fueled, knowledge-sharing, and skill-building program. I’m reaching out to community members, and seeing what kind of resources they can provide. It’s (mainly) knowledge-sharing and skill-building. (I can ask roasters) “Hey, if you have two or three hours of your day and you have a sample roaster, there are a couple of baristas that want to witness what sample roasting is, and be able to have a go at it.” Just doing something like that, trying to create a program where we can do community knowledge-sharing. That’s something important to me in coffee because I think we talk about gatekeeping a lot, and I want to break that down and actually give people that have resources a genuine way to do something.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Van Streefkerk is Barista Magazine’s social media content developer and a frequent contributor. He is also a freelance writer, social media manager, and novelist based out of Seattle. If Mark isn’t writing, he’s probably biking to his favorite vegan restaurant. Find out more on his website.