It’s hard to recall when I first met Michelle Johnson.
We both lived in Arizona - but at different times. We also share a good amount of friends, and I could see via social media that she was doing her thing in the Arizona coffee scene. Yet as with many friendships in the digital age, the lines between online conversations and IRL interactions get a bit blurred.
Crazy enough, I think the first time that I met Michelle was when I noticed her standing in line in front of me at the Silver Lake Intelligentsia. She was a young barista at that time and had yet to become the voice that we know her to be today.
But then something happened, and about three to four years back, I began to notice that people like Michelle and Perry Czopp and a few others started stepping up the game of the Arizona coffee scene. Seeing as I am originally from Arizona and would occasionally go back there for photoshoots - I was able to see first hand how evolved coffee had become since I was a barista there in the early 2000s.
Then, in January of 2016, Michelle launched The Chocolate Barista and boom - a platform was launched that not only helped put her on the map but also helped in opening up the much needed conversation regarding the lack of representation of black and brown people in coffee.
Since then, she has gone to compete in barista competitions, write articles for Sprudge and moved to Australia for a year to work with Barista Hustle. Upon her return to the states, she made the (rather smart, I must say) decision to relocate to sunny Los Angeles, CA and take on a role as Account Manager for Coffee Manufactory.
Michelle and I have been talking about, featuring and interviewing her for a while. So now that she is here in Los Angeles, we finally made it happen.
Q: When and where did you get your first coffee job
A: My first coffee job was at Tynan Coffee & Tea in Chevy Chase, MD right on the border of Washington, DC back in 2011. I was 19 years old and never had any real interest working in other hospitality spaces but always wanted to be a barista. I was already a big fan of coffee and just wanted to get paid to be around it. Obviously, I fell in love with it immediately and the rest is history.
Q: What was the impetus for staring The Chocolate Barista (and when did you launch it)
A: I started The Chocolate Barista in January 2016 and it was a New Year's resolution for me to launch my own creative online space that focused on coffee and the local community I was a part of. It really was just supposed to be a lifestyle blog, to be honest (we have a lot of bloggers in Phoenix and I was inspired). Once I introduced what my coffee experience was like as a Black woman and saw the reception from that, I realized race was a missing conversation overall and decided to dig into that.
Q: Knowing how tough it can be to put all of your energy into a personal project - Where do you see The Chocolate Barista heading in the coming years? Both it and you have become a shining voice in furthering the necessary conversations around inclusion and representation for black people in coffee
A: You know, I think about this all the time. After SCA Boston this year, I decided I needed to take a step back from The Chocolate Barista (TCB) and take some much-needed time for myself. TCB is more than just a personal project—it's a personal project that takes on a lot of (unpaid) emotional labor for the benefit of an entire community, and shouldering that weight gets to be a lot for one person even if I am passionate about the work.
Currently, I'm trying to figure out how to expand on what I've built so far. What other spaces can I create under The Chocolate Barista umbrella that also fulfill some of my other creative passions but all have a foundation in being inclusive and centering Black folks? I like to think long-term and BIG. What can I do that'll have the most impact in the long run? A lot of people have said I should start a YouTube channel or a regular podcast. I'm still working through it all, but that's the beauty of having my own thing. I can take my time figuring it out while also still being present just by being myself, working as a coffee professional and continue to pick up relevant experiences and meet people.
Q: Having recently from from a year abroad in Australia, working with Barista Hustle - What were the biggest differences you noticed between the US and AUS coffee scene
A: Australia is a very espresso-forward culture (milk-based drinks included) while the US is more focused on filter coffee. Also the level of consistency in Australian baristas' drink-building skills across the board sort of blew my mind. A majority of places really aim to maintain a high level of quality when it comes to coffee, which was great and refreshing in a way. Not that that isn't the case here in the States, but the perception of coffee by the general public dictates that energy more than we think. In Australia, the general public have a general understanding and appreciation for good coffee, so it helps.
All that being said, I feel like Australia still has a ways to go when it came to cultural sensitivity and just how white-male dominated it is overall in comparison to the US. White men literally run just about everything in coffee out there, and the scales are tipped so far in their favor. But it's been awesome to connect with some amazing people who are working really hard to change that, particularly Demelza Jones of Same Cup who's been crushing it lately.
I'd also like to add that I miss the food and wine a lot.
Q: You’ve recently made the move to Los Angeles as a Regional Account Manager for The Coffee Manufactory - how are you feeling about your move to LA and the LA coffee scene
A: I loathed the idea of ever living in LA for years and never saw it for myself. Other people saw it for me way before I did. But once I started opening up to the idea, I couldn't find a reason not to move here and I'm SO glad I did. Aside from it being a huge financial adjustment, I'm really enjoying myself and my job allows me to explore the city and connect with a lot of people. Similarly to Melbourne, there isn't a shortage of great places to go for coffee and that's something I've always loved about LA even when I didn't think I'd live here. What stands out to me even more is how many coffee places are owned and operated by Black folks and people of color. It's awesome to be able to spend time regularly at those places and see myself represented behind the bar elsewhere too (my own company, included!). I'm really loving it.
Q: What’s your go to LA joint right now that makes you happy? Coffee or non coffee related.
A: One thing you have to know about me is that I love to have a good time and that usually includes good music and dancing. I've made Tenants of the Trees a regular weekend haunt for that exact thing, and rotate around a few other spots too. I'm also ALWAYS down for Korean BBQ (I live in Koreatown) or Indian food. I'm a regular at Bloom & Plume Coffee and frequent Alchemist Coffee Project too. But what really makes me happy is just chillin' at home by myself, smoking legally, and dancing. :)