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On "Specialty Coffee"

Updated: May 2, 2023

I’ve been a lover of (specialty) coffee for over 10 years now. In fact, one of the reasons why I felt so connected to this city was because of its beer and coffee scene, at one time or another, the best in the country. When I launched Smalltime Roasters, I felt like a poser. So much so that when I roasted my first batch of coffee it didn’t feel like I was doing it right. Let me be clear, I felt confident that I knew what I was doing, I just didn’t think I was doing it right, mostly because the coffee was so gooooood!.

Roast after roast just felt like sheer luck, like there was no way my little roaster along with my coffee obsession could be this good out of the gates. I read every book and every blog, I reached out to any roaster that would respond to all of my questions, and I had many of them! You see, back then the whole thing felt like a secret science - roasting was more sorcery than mastery. Fortunately, much of that has changed. Nonetheless, even after tasting my coffee side by side some of the best in this city, I wasn’t sure why I felt like I didn’t belong. 6 months after launching Smalltime Roasters, I opened Kiosko. This is where I created the foundation of everything that you see now; the Intentionality, the Storytelling, the Purpose… all from that little shop. In the making of it all I became one of the first Mexican-American Roasters in the country. Anytime I found out about another BIPOC roaster or coffee shop I made it a point to reach out, to make myself available, to make time for people who had questions about how to navigate this industry. To be honest, I didn’t even know how to navigate this industry, I was simply hoping to be an ear or a soundboard for anyone who didn’t look like the rest of the people who I had grown accustomed to seeing in specialty coffee. Many of the friendships I made over the last 7 years were formed at the early stages of Smalltime & Kiosko. Through these years, I have had extensive conversations with BIPOC folk just getting in and others who are seasoned veterans working for other establishments, hoping to one day open a place of their own. I’ve watched many of the people that started before me leave the industry. I’ve also watched the many who started after me go on to create incredible things. During all of this time I’ve become even more disillusioned with this industry due to its lack of diversity. I’ve watched people make millions of dollars capitalizing off of a crop that is grown on non-anglo continents; Latin America, Asia, Africa… yet much of that heritage is never truly represented in specialty coffee. The people who created that vernacular, assigned quality stigmas, curated the “specialty” experience, and truly profited the most from it all, have done it without ever having to give much back. You’ve all been witness to this, and maybe because you see it so often, you just accept it; the “white savior” vernacular.

The type of language constantly used in this industry. Roasters making claims that they pay their Producers a “fair” wage. Or even claims about supporting small producers throughout “x” continents. The funny thing about that statement is hearing patrons repeat it, damn near verbatim.

At the start of the pandemic I recall running into one of our neighbors at our mailbox. She saw that I was shipping out many orders of coffee and asked where they were all going. I told her I was a roaster, and these were all orders for customers. She told me she loved coffee and had a subscription with another local roaster and loved their ethos and model, but one of these days she was going to give me a try. I asked who the roaster was and she said “Proud Mary,” to which I said “cool”. I then asked her what that “ethos” was and she told me that she supported them because they made it very clear that they work with many small Producers and pay them a fair wage. At that moment, I thought about responding back with some contrary facts, mostly because if you know anything about my past history with Proud Mary, you would recall the public “disagreement” we had on Instagram circa 2019 mostly on this subject. Instead I simply said something like “interesting” and walked away.

The thing about that old “we pay producers a fair wage” statement you hear so often throughout the coffee industry is just how truly absurd it is when you break it down. To give you a better example, whenever we serve oats at our Cafe, Matutina, we make damn sure that we are sourcing those oats from a local producer. We make sure to pay exactly what they are asking for their oats too, we would NEVER offer them a lower bid, mostly because if we don’t buy those oats, there is a possibility that someone else will. That small oat producer is based out of Portland, Oregon, his name is Bob Moore. His company is called Bob’s Red Mill. You might have heard of it before. Now I know what you are thinking, small oat producer? Yes, small indeed. Bob’s Red Mill makes about $53 million in revenue vs. its larger competition: Quaker Oats (3.8 Billion) and General Mills (19 Billion). You see how that works? How deceptive that language is? A “small” producer who makes over $50 Million in revenue, annually! That right there is how most of the coffee industry works.

And the problem with this vernacular does not stop there. There are also the classic statements about creating “safe” and “inclusive spaces” within their roasting businesses, a language tailored around their own interpretation which lacks any kind of enforcement. Add to that more bullshit filler vernacular like “hand crafted”, “artisan”, or even “fourth wave” coffee and you’ve got yourself most of the playbook for specialty coffee in America.

That which I just described is why we choose not to mess with “specialty” coffee. It doesn’t mean that we are not putting out great quality products. It doesn’t mean our standards are lower. It doesn’t mean we don’t pay our Producers a “fair” wage. Quite the opposite actually. Our coffee is exceptional, sourced directly from the people who produce it, using importers who look like us. Let me repeat that last part, using importers who look like us, Mexicans! We know what we pay our producers, but most importantly, we know what they are paying the people who work for them, and believe me it isn’t anywhere close to what they should be getting paid, but it’s certainly more than what we’ve seen throughout much of this industry.

Oh, and not to be forgotten, the “safe space” statement. Here is my personal belief on people that promote the “inclusion” piece, the “safe space” piece. Those who started hanging “BLM” posters after May of 2020. Those who open their doors screaming to the world about how safe or how diverse their space is. To me, those people are equivalent to an athlete who has just been traded to a new team and kisses the badge of their new uniform after their first game….maybe wait a little bit before you swear your allegiance to the club.

Diversity is built from intent. Inclusion is built by the actions that came from that intent to create diversity. To me it has always been that simple, and if you don’t believe it, simply look at the people who work in our Cafes. We’ve been doing this shit since day 1.

To simply have diversity and inclusion be a “pillar” of your mission statement without truly incorporating equitable actions to achieve whatever this benchmark looks like to your business is why we have so many companies who have stripped away the meaning of it.

If you are wondering why I am sharing all of this with you, I will tell you. Over the weekend, Portland hosted the SCA (Specialty Coffee Expo). This is truly the largest event of the year in the industry, with people from all over the country coming to either compete in coffee competitions or see what the next big thing will be. Throughout the city there were events happening around the clock, which mostly meant money was being blown on extravagant parties by big companies hoping to win your business. Despite Reforma now being one of the most renowned Mexican-American owned coffee roasters in the US, we chose to do nothing for the occasion. No parties, no talks, just business as usual at all of our cafes, a decision that didn't take us very long to all agree on, mostly because of what you read above.

What I wasn’t expecting from any of this was the number of brown folks who came to our spaces from all over the country, both our cafes and our restaurants. Starting on Thursday, I found myself catching up with brown folks from Mexico, doing last minute pop-ups with coffee legends, serving dinner to some of Mexico’s most renowned coffee producers, talking shop with young brown folks from all over the US, and talking science with winning coffee competitors from Mexico and Colombia.

For 4 nights, I ended my days pouring Mezcal for my friends, old and new. We talked about all of the challenges we faced then and now and how far we’ve come. I got to finally meet people who I had connected with years ago, all of them just as enthusiastic and not nearly as worn down as I was. It was a welcomed surprise to feel that much energy around me, to tell them how much they all meant to me and for them to do the same. It was an unplanned family reunion which took place in our Establishments nightly, one that gave me hope for this industry.

It reminded me of why I got into this business in the first place, that motive that has slowly washed away everyday, like the facade of a house in a coastal town. It was the strength and the support that I didn’t know I needed, a gift from the gods for the demanding year I’ve had in this industry in a city that becomes harder and harder for me to recognize.

Don’t get me wrong, specialty coffee is still too white, but this at least gave me a glimmer of hope, for me, for them, and for the many that will one day be the voices of this industry.

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