5 Questions With Kim Elena Ionescu

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By Matthew Scott, BGA Events Committee Vice Chair

Sustainability is a buzzword in every part of the coffee supply chain. As baristas, we only see a small part of the bigger issues. This is usually related to the coffees our companies source and/or serve and the efforts made towards sustainability in the shops we work at.

If you’re like me, sometimes you have questions. Sometimes you want to know more.

The SCAA recognizes that these issues are important to their members and the members of their guilds (like you). That led them to hire Kim Elena Ionescu as the SCAA’s Director of Sustainability.

That job includes providing leadership to the coffee community in matters of sustainability throughout the value chain. She also develops initiatives to support and enhance the cause of sustainability throughout the coffee community.

Kim is a great example of someone making coffee their career, from barista to (most recently) the Sustainability Manager for Counter Culture. We thought it would be great for you get to know her a little.

How did you get into the coffee industry?

I began working in coffee immediately after I graduated from college with an English degree and no job prospects. I dreamed of working at a bookstore and was crushed when my local bookstore told me they weren’t hiring. That rejection ended up being a huge blessing because I walked into the newly opened coffee shop next door, struck up a conversation with the owner and ended up getting hired there. I didn’t drink coffee at the time, but as I learned a little bit more about it, I realized that it lay at the intersection of so many of my interests at the time, like sustainable agriculture, social justice and Latin America, just to name a few.

Do you have an ah-ha moment with coffee or a memory/experience that made you fall in love?

I love this question! After six months as a barista at the coffee shop I mentioned above (which has long since closed), I applied for a job at a local roasting company called Counter Culture Coffee and was hired to work in the customer support department. During my first week there, I took a modified version of what was then called the SCAA’s Beginner Espresso Lab, and I remember that after that day, I went out for a beer with a friend of mine and told him that I could imagine spending my whole life in coffee. He was skeptical and attributed my enthusiasm to the job being new, but it wasn’t just the job that I was in love with, it was the magnitude of coffee. I imagined that if I got bored with brewing it, I could start learning about buying coffee! Or growing coffee! Or financing coffee! (okay, I probably didn’t think about financing at the time, but you get the idea).

Do you have that moment with sustainability? Was there a moment or memory that made you decide to pursue work related to it?

I like to joke that the title of sustainability manager was bestowed upon me because I was the most stereotypically sustainable-looking person (biodiesel in her car? check. nose ring? check.) at Counter Culture Coffee when the company decided it was time to formalize that role. Part of me felt excited to have that title because I did consider myself to be sustainability-minded, but I also really struggled to understand what the term meant and what I was supposed to be doing in the job. Unlike coffee, which is a tangible product and which also immediately resonates with a large audience – at least everyone who drinks it – sustainability is nebulous and constantly evolving. It took me much longer to fall in love with working in sustainability than it took to fall in love with working in coffee, but once I embraced the idea that success and progress are measured along a much longer timeframe, I realized how much opportunity it offered to be creative, think big and learn from what’s happening on outside of coffee.

What's your favorite hobby?

I have two young daughters – ages three years and five months – so when I’m not working I’m mostly hanging out with them. Parenting isn’t a hobby, but it fills the time (and more!) that I would have used a couple of years ago for my non-coffee interests. These days, I’m probably happiest when I can engage my older daughter into something I love doing, like gardening, cooking or exploring the woods, and see her excited about it.

What would you say to a barista interested in sustainability? Thinking about farm, supply chain, and café sustainability and the role of the barista representing every step of the coffee chain before them, what would you say to them about their role and what they can do to be relevant & involved?

I’m biased, but I think that pretty much everyone is interested in sustainability, despite the fact that many people probably hate the word, because sustainability is about shaping the future that we’re all going to be living in, and I’m not talking about human beings decades from now, but rather us, in a few years. Sustainability issues relate to justice and fair division of resources and politics, and that stuff is often controversial, which adds to its interest. And we don’t have any answers! If what we were doing was working, we wouldn’t have to pursue “sustainability” as an alternative. That’s a great equalizer, in some ways, because Howard Schultz can’t be any more certain what the future of coffee will look like than a barista at a Starbucks store in the Seattle airport can be.

Anyway, baristas are social by nature, or are forced into sociability by their job, and I would love to see more baristas engage customers in discussion about the unknowns of coffee. Most of us feel most safe when we are sure we know the answer, so it’s tempting to stick to talking about topics where we feel like experts, which can often result in lecturing to an audience as opposed to opening a conversation. Talking about elevation, variety and process demonstrates knowledge, but that information isn’t interesting unless you have context for them, and even then, it’s more useful than interesting. I visited hundreds of coffee farms as a green coffee buyer and filled books with notes on elevation, variety and processing, but all of that is just background to the story, not the story itself.

Anyway, as far as concrete advice goes, when it comes to sustainability the supply chain I suggest reading history about the places that grow coffee, and books about ecology. Barista Camps are great places to meet people and learn (plus, they are SUPER FUN), and to extend your reach beyond the barista community, I strongly suggest volunteering for lectures and labs at Expo. In my early years at Counter Culture, before I became the sustainability manager and started working on the green coffee side of the business, I would sign up to volunteer at all the cupping classes and lectures about the market to get exposure to what green buyers did. Through that, I got to know a lot of the green buyers and importers who taught the classes long before I got to work with them. Most of all, kind of like the advice they give about being a good interview candidate for a job, ask lots of questions.

We’re excited as the Barista Guild to be able to interact with more sustainability issues & triumphs at our future events.

If you’re that barista who’s interested in sustainability and you’re attending Fall 2015 Barista Camp in Tucson, make sure to catch the talk by Tracy Ging (SCAA Board of Directors & Vice President of Sustainability + Strategic Initiatives for S&D Coffee and Tea, Inc.) on Tuesday, September 15.

BlogDanny Pinnell