Stephen, who also goes by SJD, is the Ally Coffee Account Manager for Northern California, based in Oakland. He hails from Southern California but took the long, coffee-laden way back to the left coast, where he is happy to be home.
Stephen’s first coffee role was as a barista at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Montrose, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. In those days he was just looking for a job, not planning to make a career in coffee. But his first coffee position laid the foundation for what would become a career in hospitality, with coffee as the vehicle for providing service and human connection. “At the time I was just a punk 20-year old,” Stephen remembers. “I wanted to be a movie director and writer back then.”
A few years later Stephen moved up to San Francisco and transferred to work for Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf there, several months later getting a job at The Plant Café Organic, which then served Equator Coffee. “This was 2007, when Blue Bottle and Ritual were the only two up and coming specialty roasters in San Francisco. I lived in Hayes Valley, very close to the first Blue Bottle location on Linden Alley. I recall walking by the Alley, seeing a long line and deciding to give it a try.” That was Stephen’s “aha” introductory moment to specialty coffee, realizing “whoa, that’s different.”
Enticed by that difference, Stephen applied for jobs at Blue Bottle but never got a call back. At The Plant he moved up the ranks to assistant manager: making coffee, serving food, prepping juices and smoothies. He was still undecided whether he would continue in cinema. He took a couple months off to travel through Southeast Asia, and, when he returned, was rehired at a different location of the Plant, which, while he was away, had switched from Equator to Blue Bottle. Starting with the intensive training Blue Bottle provided to wholesale accounts, Stephen was about to go headfirst down the rabbit hole of specialty coffee. He applied again to Blue Bottle and was hired as a barista for their Mint Plaza location in downtown San Francisco.
“I went to one of the Barista Nation events in San Francisco in 2012, and I remember being in this room with hundreds of people, all these booths, latte art competitions, workshops, and it blew me away. I didn’t know this many people were this passionate about coffee and how or why people cared so much.”
The keynote speaker was Katie Cargiulio who gave a talk that brought tears to my eyes because I realized that this is a community. It is more than just a job. That was the moment it shifted and became bigger than me. I became like a lot of coffee professionals, obsessed, wanting to learn more.
I was lucky enough to be at Blue Bottle at a time when there were a lot of resources. I became infatuated with cupping coffees, tasting coffees, learning about coffees and slowly started building my way up. I went from barista to lead barista and applied for the wholesale trainer position in New York. I found myself moving across the country to Brooklyn, where I did wholesale training for a few months and was then promoted to retail trainer, training only Blue Bottle café baristas, which is an extensive and intensive process. I learned what it means to train, how to give information, and how to receive information.”
Stephen finally landed in the position of Quality Control specialist, where he cupped every day and contributed to Blue Bottle’s research and development. Blue Bottle’s program involved the QC and R&D teams communicating with production, retail, and the green buying teams. Stephen was able to watch the proverbial machinery work, with the QC department as a hub on a communication wheel and spokes radiating to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo.
Stephen was ready to continue the dive into understanding coffee quality through the lens of sensory evaluation. “I left Blue Bottle, got my Q-Grader license, did some consulting work for Joe Coffee Company in New York, and ended up being their assistant manager at their Bryant Park location. I knew I wanted to get into roasting, because it was a part of the value chain I hadn’t been a part of. I knew a lot of the science behind it from the time in the QC department sample roasting.”
An opportunity presented itself to work in Hawaii, on the big island, as a production manager. Stephen moved as far west from his California home as New York had been east. He spent nearly a year in Hawaii production roasting and managing operations. Then he decided to come back to California, to transition from roasted coffee to green and join the Ally sales team.
From the United States’ west coast to east coast to outpost, coffee tastes, preferences, and conventions vary among café customers and coffee professionals. For Stephen, his understanding of hospitality and coffee quality have come full circle.
On one hand, there is the Q Grader Certification. “I can walk into a room with another Q Grader and know that we share a language. But the Q exam is intense. It’s six days of 10, sometimes 12-hour days. You’re in a red room with a bunch of strangers and it’s kind of psychedelic.”
Stephen worked at Blue Bottle during a time when the organization was heavily investing in training and mentoring its staff. Stephen was paid to learn and built up an incredible bank of knowledge and skills in a short time. But, just as important were his early days behind the counter of The Plant, seeing the value and benefits of hospitality and foodservice.
“At the end of the day, all of it has to do with people. That is the thing that has changed for me with regard to my time in the industry. When I first came in it was all about the coffee. About water, what brewing method. Now all of that is both important and arbitrary. The Q also taught me that tasting is subjective and trying to push people into categorical spaces takes time. You have to calibrate. You can’t usually enter a room and be on the same page. It’s pretty phenomenal when you can, even for Q graders.”
A lot of the things that the industry can get hyper focused on, I’ve also gone back and forth on. But what it all has distilled down to is that no matter what part of the value chain you’re on, it’s about your relationship with other human beings. What I’ve brought into every job from barista to trainer to QC to roaster to now green coffee sales is what it means to be a kind person, to hear someone and be present, to be of service.
When you look at it from a perspective of humanity — I’m putting 40 plus hours a week into a job. Wouldn’t it be cool to see it with the frame change of I’m being of service to other humans?”
Service in the coffee industry starts long before the café bar. Ally is excited to have Stephen on our US Specialty Team, reminding us to calibrate, check our water, and also to keep a smile on our faces, approaching the complexity of the green coffee trade with an optimistic California vibe.