Frank La’s Triumphant USBC Return: Part Two

We conclude our conversation with the new United States Barista Champion.


Frank La, co-owner of Be Bright Coffee in Los Angeles with his wife, Michelle, took the coffee-competition world by storm last month at the United States Barista Championship (USBC) in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., where he became the 2024 U.S. Barista Champion.

In yesterday’s first part of our interview with Frank, we talked about his return to competition after a long break, finding a competition-worthy coffee, and more. Today, we conclude our chat with Frank by discussing representation in competition, how he’s approaching the upcoming World Barista Championship in Busan, South Korea, and more.

Franks with his First Place plaque.
Frank La says he competes because he loves the challenge and wants to represent his company well. Photo courtesy of Pacific Barista Series.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve mentioned representation as a reason that you compete; can you explain whether that informed your decision to stop competing, and why you returned to compete?

I didn’t step away because of lack of representation. I stepped up to compete back then because of lack of representation. Especially Asians back in 2013, 2014, there weren’t a lot of us competing in Barista competitions. I wanted to put myself out there and be like: We can bring excellence, too. We can do well in this industry.

I stepped away from competing more because of the business that I was a part of at the time. We just had different needs: We were growing and expanding, and committing to competition season wasn’t very conducive for that. I was able to coach the next year, but I didn’t get to compete again after that. There were some inklings and desires, but it ended up happening where it became nine years.

When I started my own company, I knew immediately that I wanted to get into competing because I love it: I love the challenge of it, and I also wanted just to represent my own company in the best way I could. I had wanted to compete in 2022, but it was a lottery system and I wasn’t chosen. But in 2023 I was able to get in, and that’s how I started back up again.

And as I came back, I was so delighted to see just much more representation. I think especially this year, at least on the Asian American side, we had three Koreans on the finals stage, including me. And that just brought me so much joy, especially because Worlds is going to be in Busan this year. The prospect of a Korean American representing the U.S. in Korea was just like a dream come true.

Pouring coffee from a pourover.
Frank and his wife, Michelle, own the retail-roasting company Be Bright Coffee in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Be Bright Coffee.

I understand you have family in Korea, too. How do you feel about competing at the WBC in Busan—which is only about five weeks away—and how are you preparing?

My uncle’s still in Korea, my aunt is still in Korea. I have a lot of family friends that are there. And I’m really excited to be able to compete and show my family, like, look what we’re doing. It’s gotten me to Korea, and I’m representing the U.S. I think it’s just a really proud moment for them as well.

The WBC is about six weeks after USBC, and it actually feels appropriate. It feels like it can be a continuation of what I’m doing. We’re not going back to the drawing board and restructuring anything. We’re not changing the coffee. We’re not changing themes. And part of that is just that the resounding feedback we got from our judges during deliberations was: You don’t need to change a lot for Worlds. And that was really reaffirming.

And also talking to past competitors, hearing from what they saw from their experiences, they feel like the theme would do well. They know the coffee is gonna do well. That’s really reassuring because it is now five weeks away, and it gives me a kind of peace knowing that we just need to refine certain things.

Frank with his wife and daughter.
Frank and his family will head to Busan soon for Frank to compete in the 2024 World Barista Championship. Photo courtesy of Pacific Barista Series.

Finally, what was it like to win, and to join this small club of U.S. Barista Champions? How do you feel about being a specialty-coffee ambassador?

Immediately after I won, I got a text from (2015 USBC winner) Charles Babinski, who I know and have completed alongside, and have admired for a long time. He made a joke like, “Congrats champ, jacket’s in the mail!” We don’t have a jacket; that’s not a thing. I wish we did! But it was really cool to know that I am a part of this really small group of winners.

About ambassadorship, I actually wondered about that in 2014. I had placed third in the Southwest region, which at the time was one of the toughest regions. I had expected to do well going into nationals, and I wondered: What happens if I win? Do I feel ready? I think back then I had a lot of impostor syndrome about the prospect of winning, that if I had won, could I be an actual ambassador? What do I have to offer? I’m not the best barista. I’m not the most talented latte artist. I’m not the best at tasting. I’m not the best at dialing in.

But now in 2024, I’m pretty well-rounded in a lot of those things. I just know that I commit to excellence, whatever that looks like—for me that’s in making coffee, and bringing customer service to my customers. I think I find peace in knowing that, and that I am going to be an approachable person through this whole thing.

I don’t feel any higher about myself than I did a week ago. I think I’m trying to stay grounded and know that I am just a regular barista. I just happened to win this thing. In that sense, I hope that people can identify with me, and know that even they could win. They could do something like this, commit their time to it, and win.

Cover image of the April + May 2024 19th Anniversary Issue

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About Chris Ryan 259 Articles
Chris Ryan (he/him) is Barista Magazine's online copy editor and a freelance writer and editor with a background in the specialty coffee industry. He has been content director of Sustainable Harvest and the editor of Fresh Cup Magazine.