We interview 2016 USBC Champ Lem Butler and 2017 USBC Champ Kyle Ramage about their just-announced North Carolina roaster and retail business, Black & White Coffee.
Header photo by Jennifer Hall, @Jenn.hall.photo
BY SARAH ALLEN
They whispered excitedly to me awhile back about this thing they were so excited about: United States Barista Champions Lem Butler (2016) and Kyle Ramage (2017) were going to go independent and start their own coffee roasting and retail company.
Turns out they’d been planning it from as far back as when they were in Dublin, Ireland, for the World Barista Championship (WBC) in June of 2016. Kyle was there, along with Lem and Lem’s whole family, to serve as “coach,” which is a job that runs the gamut from running errands for ingredients, tasting shot after shot during a competitor’s prep time, polishing glassware, and soothing frayed nerves.
“I believe it was when we were running around Dublin in search of milk for the WBC that Kyle and I were forming the idea of a café concept,” Lem told us. “Once we got back to [North Carolina], we would continue playing with different concepts; texting back and forth ideas and pics of café bar design and the latest coffees and coffee gear. Back then it was just in dream phase.”
And back then, Kyle hadn’t matched Lem with a USBC win. But in April of this year, Kyle did just that, with Lem by his side, as his coach, of course. And then the proverbial pieces started falling into place pretty quickly.
Lem continues: “Kyle had been consulting, training, and teching for Back Alley Coffee Roasters in Wake Forest, N.C., since they opened two years ago. After this year’s USBC, the owner of Back Alley presented Kyle with the opportunity to buy him out. Kyle came to me with the opportunity, and our café dreams came true and in the form of an already-operational roastery and two cafés. Once we found our investment capital, we were able to form Black & White Coffee, LLC and purchased Back Alley Coffee Roasters.”
A note: I was with Kyle recently in Brazil as part of the Ally Coffee Champions Trip, and he was all nerves. I quietly asked him how things were going, and he was edgy—and super excited. “We’re just waiting on stuff from the lawyers,” he confided. “It won’t be long now.”
It was incredibly important to both Kyle and Lem that they made gracious exits from the companies where each had worked for many years: Mahlkönig USA for Kyle, and Counter Culture Coffee for Lem. “Although I am beyond thrilled and terrified of what I have been secretly calling ‘book 3’ in my coffee chronicles, I have been struggling with all the emotions that come with departing a company I have called my family for 10 years,” Lem says. “I guess I can say 14 years because I started in coffee at The Daily Grind Espresso Café in 2003, and we used [Counter Culture Coffee].”
Now, they’re ready to share the news of Black & White Coffee with the world. Here’s what went down in our recent conversation.
Sarah Allen: Congratulations on Black & White! How was the dream of opening a roastery together born?
Lem Butler: The last two years have been incredible. … We, like many baristas, dreamed of opening a café, so we just started merging our ideas we had already come up with on our own.
SA: Where is Black & White Coffee based? Will you have retail as well as roasting?
LB: Wake Forest is 17.5 miles from Raleigh, N.C. We have a 15-kilo Loring, and along with roasting for the cafés and wholesale accounts, we will roast for retail.
SA: What are your different roles, i.e., who is the green buyer, who roasts, etc.?
LB: There will be a lot of overlap, especially in the beginning, but the official roles are:
- Kyle: Lead Green Buyer/Head Roaster & Quality Control Manager. He will also continue to maintain machines both in our cafés and around the area.
- Lem: Operations Manager/Educator and Wholesale Sales. We will both also continue our consulting concepts that we have started over the last few years.
SA: Do you have staff?
LB: We were very fortunate to inherit a family that already works so well together. I feel like they are adopting us. Currently there are eight staff members who have stepped up and put the team on their back helping us with a seamless ownership transition. I hired my first employee yesterday—one of the sons of the original owner, who recently turned 16, has been and will continue [in] a crucial role in our efforts to increase our presence in the local community through the weekly farmers market. We have an amazing crew that is dedicated to customer service. Some have formal training, but coffee skills can be learned, but customer service is far more difficult to “learn.”
SA: When will people be able to buy Black & White Coffee?
LB: Our branding and website will be finished in October when we will launch our rebranding of the café and open up to the world via the World Wide Web! Keep an eye on @blackwhiteroasters on Instagram for more info.
SA: Will Kyle use Black & White Coffee at the WBC in Seoul, South Korea, in November?
LB: My departure from [Counter Culture Coffee] was on amazingly awesome terms. CCC will continue to sponsor Kyle by roasting an amazing coffee gifted to him from Jose Gallardo (who also did the same for me in the 2016 WBC).
Kyle Ramage: [Black & White] will be a co-sponsor with CCC. They have been great sending me photos of coffees arriving and scheduling collaboration between the two companies.
SA: A little about your relationship: When and how did you guys come to know each other and become friends?
LB: Kyle and I met in 2011 when Jubala Coffee opened using Counter Culture Coffee. I was one of the educators in the Durham Training Center where the Jubala staff took classes and cupped coffee. We’ve competed in the Southeast Regional Barista Competition and participated in numerous TNTs. The Raleigh coffee community was small back then, so everyone knew everyone and we have all grown together. And then of course there’s the barista competition: We’ve both competed in the Southeast Barista Comp but we really got to know each other over the last couple years.
KR: We somehow always ended up tasting coffee together at competition—at regionals, qualifiers, and at nationals. That is probably one of the defining moments of our friendship, tasting coffee together coming up to and during the 2016 USBC when Lem won. It ended up being just the two of us tasting Jose’s coffee together. Since then it has continued, to fourth at WBC for Lem and then an unlikely win for me at USBC 2017, and now the run up to WBC and the new roastery. We are living the dream.
SA: Do you hang out a lot?
LB: I really don’t have a lot of time outside of family, so what little friends I have get neglected. I do hang out with Kyle more than anyone else. We are both fairly busy people, especially these days. We are both married.
KR: Lem is also an amazing father, and spends quite a lot of quality time with his family, and rightfully so. Have you seen those kids? They are the cutest. Work-life balance is important to both of us, and neglecting family for work is not an option. We do spend a ton of time together for sure, but with the hectic schedules we both have, “chill hangs” are few and far between.
SA: Regarding Kyle being Lem’s coach in 2016, and Lem being Kyle’s coach in 2017: How have those experiences affected your confidence in your abilities to make a business together successful?
KR: Lem and I work well together in a way that has been rare for me. We are pretty different, but in that difference we make each other a little better, I think. Lem is the coolest and calmest person I know, smoothing off my nerves when I get “in the weeds.” We also have a relationship that is pretty honest, in that we can talk honestly without fear. That is how our competition roles worked and how we seem to draw the best out of each other.