Talking about stepping back into customer service roles with Kiana Cruz, a barista at the CoRo Coffee Room in Berkeley, Calif.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo by Lindsey Shea
The first time I talked to Kiana Cruz was to plan her coffee release as part of the Matchbook Coffee Project. Immediately, I was struck by her kindness and depth of self-knowledge. Kiana has been a barista for years, and then moved into production roasting for Equator Coffees & Teas in San Rafael, Calif. For many baristas, getting off the floor is a dream, but Kiana found herself missing the connection and moments of kindness she could create for guests, and stepped back on the floor. She is now a barista at CoRo Coffee Room, the café connected to Bay Area CoRoasters in Berkeley, Calif.
I hope, more than anything, this interview resonates with the folks who are feeling jaded behind the bar. I know I felt reinvigorated to think about kindness and service from talking to Kiana, and I hope you do too.
Ashley Rodriguez: Tell us about how you first got into coffee.
Kiana Cruz: I’m pretty sure there are many of us with a story similar to my own! The minute I turned 16 was the minute my parents told me, “Hey, it’s time for you to get a job!” There was a Starbucks near my house that I used to frequent to study at, and it dawned on me to apply for a barista position there. I landed the job and loved it immediately. While I didn’t really enjoy the taste of regular ol’ coffee (I was so used to drinking Frappuccinos), I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with and helping customers. I met so many interesting people in my community that I would have never thought I would in any other capacity, so work never felt like just clocking in and clocking out.
I also had a super-engaging manager at that time who taught me that drinking coffee straight up ain’t so bad after all. He took me through the ritual of preparing a French press and I thought that was the coolest, most tastiest coffee I had ever had at that time. I ended up buying one of my own French presses right after that shift and began making them at home for myself and my parents to enjoy.
What is your current job? What does your day-to-day look like?
I’m currently working as a barista at the CoRo Coffee Room, which is a café connected to the amazing Bay Area CoRoasters space in Berkeley, California. Bay Area CoRoasters is a co-roasting facility that has everything from coffee roasting machines of all different sizes, a state-of-the-art cupping/quality control lab, and fantastic industry professionals who teach classes and provide consulting services.
I like to think of our space as a little incubator for dreams and passions of members who may want to get their own roasting business started or are just looking to meet other people in their community over a thing they love: coffee! The CoRo Coffee Room is such a special part of Bay Area CoRoasters because we only highlight members who roast in the space itself. We’re giving them a platform for their product and it feels so good to see them come into the café where we both can enjoy the fruits of their labor.
What about coffee drew you in?
I think what drew me into coffee was not so much the actual taste of coffee itself, as I mentioned before, but rather the culture of the café. I loved sitting with my friends over a hot drink to catch up on their lives. I just think about all the colorful conversations I have over coffee with people. Those were (and still are) the moments I cherish the most in my life. Also, coffee people are some of the friendliest, most helpful, and most supportive people I know. It’s so inspiring to be around them, and I always hope that people see me as that too.
How did you get into roasting?
I actually fell into roasting because there was a rare opportunity that someone referred me to. A very close friend and colleague who I worked with at the time recognized my hard work, intense focus, and enthusiasm I had for the industry as a barista and said, “Yo! There’s a sweet roasting job that you should go for because I believe in you and your abilities. You have all the qualifications to be a kick-ass roaster and I know you’re going to succeed in everything you set your mind to,” so I applied and landed the opportunity.
I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I actually am a kick-ass roaster. I was always curious and incredibly open to learning new things growing up, and whatever it is I’m interested in, I have to know EVERYTHING about it. It’s all or nothing with me because I love feeling connected to my work, mentally and spiritually. I think a lot of roasters who are successful in the trade have very similar personalities to mine. We are very much Type A, hyper-focused, and incredibly passionate about our work.
You roasted coffee and then moved back into service—how come?
This probably sounds cliché, but I missed the constant interactions I had with people. I realize how much I love making drinks or food, getting to know my customers’ names, engaging in witty banter, answering questions about home brewing or coffee recommendations—I really missed all of that. I absolutely love roasting, no doubt, but splitting my time in the café is so important to me too. It keeps me grounded and even more connected to my work.
Something that you’ve mentioned is kindness in service—how do you define kindness, and how has it transformed your perspective?
To me, kindness is meeting people wherever they’re at in their coffee journey. I’m not one to throw out pretentious flavor terms or “mansplain-y” advice when people don’t ask for it. Keeping things accessible, easy to digest, and showing empathy in any way I can is at the root of my service foundation. Remembering that the purpose of everything I do in the café to make folks happy helps me stay grounded in the bigger picture of things, regardless if I’m personally having a good or bad day in the café. Knowing that I am doing good work by showing up for people in any way I can is in itself rewarding for me.
One thing I love doing for people who decide to have their coffee or food in-house is simply providing them a glass of water, even if they don’t ask for it. It’s like getting the sweetest and warmest hug from someone you haven’t seen in a while. It’s my way of saying, “Hi, thank you so so much for coming to see me. I’m grateful for your presence and am here to give you anything you need because I am here for you. I love you.”
You’ve had a lot of intimate and transformative experiences with coffee leaders—can you tell us about the impact of those experiences?
I think we’ve all had those moments in our careers where we felt like we don’t measure up or we’re not good enough. I’ve worked for a couple toxic managers who manipulated me into thinking that I was inadequate and stunted my growth potential to the point where I internalized that trauma. I thought I was the problem when it was actually they who were the problem. I’m realizing now how much damage that has caused me personally, but at that time, I didn’t know any better or didn’t have any professional support to help me, so I walked around with intense anxiety and sadness for who I thought I was. The feelings of imposter syndrome consumed me into thinking that I didn’t deserve anything that came my way.
I found light at the end of the tunnel when I finally broke down and opened up to a couple of my colleagues during my time as a barista at Paramo Coffee and as a production roaster at Equator. I still tear up when I think about those moments because it was one of the few times where someone ever acknowledged me and supported me through those dark times. I’m not going to lie, I almost gave up on myself because my negative self-talk clouded my ability to see my own talents, but they realized my potential and my will to fight. They didn’t stop believing in me, and I carry that kindness with me whenever I see someone going through the same struggle I went through.
What do you want people to know about you? What does the future hold for you in coffee?
I just want people to know that besides devoting the majority of my life to coffee pursuits, I was a jazz and tap dancer for over 10 years, an ice skater for two years, and I secretly love playing Xbox in my spare time.
I think my future path in coffee is taking some SCA-certified classes in roasting, maybe going for a Q Grader license, and eventually starting my own roasting gig with my husband. It’s a dream of ours to work for ourselves one day, and I couldn’t think of a better person to be in business with. :]