Watson’s Counter Crushes the Rush at First Stop on La Marzocco’s Workflow Competition Tour

Crush the Rush has a strong opening event on its five-city schedule, with learning sessions on ergonomics and a beach-themed competition.


Cover photo courtesy of La Marzocco USA

At La Marzocco’s Crush the Rush 2 on July 12, newcomers James Lim, Liezel Villanueva, and Natalia Guempel from Watson’s Counter in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood took first place in the barista team competition. In conjunction with the games, Fulcrum Coffee Roasters hosted a day of learning sessions while 20 three-person teams competed in timed trials, and the eight fastest teams went head-to-head later that evening. Participants from cafés across the Pacific Northwest came through, including those from Portland, Ore. and Bellingham, Wash.

Rachel Dickinson gives a tour inside an espresso machine in one of the six presentations of the day. Photo by Mark Van Streefkerk.

During the learning sessions at Fulcrum’s showroom, La Marzocco showed off machines from their longtime former CEO Kent Bakke’s personal collection, and visitors were able to pull shots on a Linea Mini and GS3 MP. Heidi Blackie, an occupational and hand therapist, also presented “Barista Ergonomics: The Right Way to Stay Healthy Behind the Bar.” Through hands-on tamping and pouring demonstrations, she encouraged baristas to adopt a pistol grip and use abdominal strength while tamping, which eliminates the awkward L-shaped arm angle that puts pressure on the rotator cuff.

Scott Callender, La Marzocco USA’s VP of marketing and customer strategy, spoke about “Innovation Trends in Espresso.” Showing how new technology is driven by alternating waves of improving workflow and then cup quality, he tied it together, confirming, “Crush the Rush 2 is a workflow competition.” Scott then introduced the Mazzer Robur S, a grinder with a timer that goes to a hundredth of a second, and the automatic tamper Puq Press Q2, both of which would be used in the competition. 

Elle Jensen judges MacKenzie Clayton’s drink during the final competition. Photo by Mark Van Streefkerk.

Eric Hentz, architectural designer and president of Mallet Design Build, talked about ergonomic cafe design, and Erin Wang of Alliance for Coffee Excellence hosted a Costa Rican cupping with Blas Alfaro before Pacific Foods’ Nathanael May gave practical pointers on moving to zero-waste at three levels: roasteries, cafés, and individuals. “Tech Talk: Tour of an Espresso Machine” was the final workshop of the day, in which Rachel Dickinson of La Marzocco USA, Faithfull Plakovic from Black Rabbit Service Co. and Gustavo Munoz from Coffee Physics showed participants the inner workings of an espresso machine.

James Lim pours the winning drink, crushing the competition! Photo by Mark Van Streefkerk.

The finals kicked off at 7 p.m. with a beach-themed rager, complete with inflatable pool toys, a fog machine, party lights, and a DJ. The top eight ranked teams from the day competed side-by-side at separate bars, and the eight-coffee-drink lineup was announced before the competition began. Once drinks were made, runners rushed them (with poise) to the judges’ table, where Elle Jensen and Breezy Sanchez of Amethyst Coffee Co. in Denver determined if the drinks were up to par with no drips or spills and satisfactory microfoam. Teams also had to complete side-work tasks like stamping a sleeve of cups. The semifinals featured the hilarious task of remaking a drink for a “dissatisfied Yelp-er” and bringing the drink to them in the crowd, where they would be talking on their phone (of course); the competitors had to wait for them to finish the conversation before presenting the drink. 

The team from Watson’s Counter thrived on the beach party vibes, decked out in matching rainbow head and wrist bands; they took the trophy home after beating the team that had two champs from last year, Ken Selby and Elisabeth Johnson. It all came down to the side task of finding six items, including a bathroom key and dispersion screw, in a tub of coffee grounds, just like the too-real life task of rummaging through the compost for lost objects. Liezel of Watson’s Counter was the first to find all six things, retreating to help on the bar faster than the other team. 

James Lim, Liezel Villanueva, and Natalia Guempel of Watson’s Counter in Seattle won a limited-edition 8-speed bike, courtesy of a collaboration between Fulcrum and tokyobike. Photo by Mark Van Streefkerk.

Watson’s Counter is a Korean-American restaurant and café that opened five months ago. While the team has known each other for about three years, “We’ve actually never all worked on bar together,” James said. When asked about their strategy, he said, “We were just so focused on making sure we don’t mess it up. Because regardless of what they do it doesn’t change our time. It doesn’t change how fast we move. So we just focused on what we’re doing.”

The winners took home $300, a limited-edition tokyobike, a giant trophy, and much-deserved bragging rights.

Crush the Rush 2’s USA tour will continue this week in San Francisco on Friday, July 26, before hitting New York, Chicago, and Nashville, Tenn.

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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.