Five Questions with BGA Member: Tamara Vigil

Tamara on the left.
I first met Tamara as a sensory judge at the GLRBC, an experience she remembers, but which I struggle to recall. A little while later, a childhood friend of mine began moonlighting as a barista at coffee shops in Lincoln, NE to supplement his income as a swim coach. He began trading coffee with me, roasted by a guy named Jon Ferguson, who asked me to educate at a Great Plains Jam he was organizing. There, I became reacquainted with Tamara. She was hungry, yearning for a greater engagement in the coffee community, to sink into a career as a coffee pro. 
Tamara was born into a musical family who toured the country in a motor home singing at churches, before settling into North Platte, Nebraska where Tamara's father worked as a music pastor. She attended University of Nebraska, Lincoln for a year before returning home to help her family open a coffee shop called Da Buzz Coffee House, while taking classes at Mid-Plains Community College. Shortly afterwards, she began studying Vocal Performance at University of Nebraska, Omaha and working at Caffeine Dreams, a popular shop transitioning to new ownership. Following this, Tamara worked at Whole Foods where she became Coffee Specialist/Buyer and won a trip to Costa Rica with Allegro where she met Christy Thorns and Mike Strumpf. 
"After this experience, I was hooked," she says. More in her own words: "I enjoyed working there but I wanted to know more about coffee and I wanted to work in a shop again. I met Jon Ferguson when he was teaching a roasting class in his brand new shop Cultiva in Lincoln. He wanted someone to work in the shop while he roasted coffee and grew the business. I moved to Lincoln and worked with Cultiva for 3 years. Through Cultiva I became aware of Barista Competitions. We judged many regionals and USBCs. I trained 2 competitors and I started competing myself in late 2009. Through competitions I met so many interesting people. I became aware of job opportunities outside of Nebraska. I was ready to move and wanted to experience living somewhere new. I wanted to live outside of the US and I found out about a possible job in Colombia at a cafe. I flew to Bogota for WBC 2011 and tried to secure a job while I was there. It didn't work out then but I'm sure it was for the best. I considered other possibilities and New York seemed to be the place where things were starting to happen. I planned to take my time and move there in the late fall of 2011. However, Phillip Search called me on a Tuesday in August. He knew of a job could I be there tomorrow? (obviously) So the next morning I was on a plane to NYC and I started working at O Cafe. I worked there for 2 months and then Dan Streetman told me Irving Farm was hiring for a Barista Trainer. I met David Elwell and Steve Leven - the owners of Irving Farm and I knew that I'd be at home here."
Now a two-time NERBC Finalist and New York resident, Tamara's sharp eye, hard work, and enthusiastic love for coffee and baristas make her a wonderful example of today's young coffee professional. Be sure to watch her vie for the title of USBC Champion next week.
Colin: You've worked for very small coffee shops (Caffeine Dreams Cultiva) and some large
coffee roasters (Whole Foods/Allegro, Irving Farms) -- would you feel comfortable comparing and contrasting those experiences? What about the experience of working in coffee in Nebraska vs NYC? I guess the obvious comparison would be money and resources.
Tamara: Working at Whole Foods, I felt very secure in my position. I was able to focus on my own education and get better at my job. There was definitely pressure to do well but it wasn't like the store would go out of business if I messed something up. At the smaller shops we saw every dollar going in and out and I really felt responsible when the shop would have a slow day or week etc. Irving Farm is the perfect size. Big enough to offer education and opportunities for growth and small enough to know that what you're doing is actually influencing the company. Working in Neb vs NYC - Is surprisingly similar:) Both places have a steady stream of customers who just want something strong and black and to-go. The real differences: New Yorkers call a lid a "cover", they stand "on-line" rather than in line and they want their coffee in a bag - Why?! haha!  
Colin: That's refreshing because I would imagine that New Yorkers would be... well I guess I'm suggesting that they may be more closed minded to having that transformative coffee experience. I'm thinking about the coffee in a bag thing, I think it's very funny that people ask for that, as do you. It would be so easy to get into a situation about a request like that. What do you think about baristas who feel the need to give people pause and somehow rethink their coffee experience? Do you see that happening? Or hear baristas say that kind of thing?


Tamara: I don't think New Yorkers are any more (or less) close minded than people who don't live here. I think it comes down to the presentation. I've always thought it was kinda funny to ask people to have a "slow coffee experience" while they're standing in a line.
Sometimes I do hear that. "The preachy barista" is a pet peeve of mine. I appreciate baristas who listen more than they lecture. There's gotta be a balance. I could go on for days about this. The truth is, you can give a customer a "transformative experience" without ever saying a word. I've seen it and it's pretty powerful.


Colin: Your father is a singer, and you studied Vocal Performance and University of Nebraska. Do you still get to sing? Is belting out a great song as cathartic as rocking quality on a steady bar-shift?


Tamara: I don't get to sing unfortunately. My guitar has been in my closet since I moved here and I haven't made an effort to remedy that. Not for lack of wanting but the walls are thin in my apartment and I'm rarely home except to sleep anyway.
I love that comparison! It is so similar! I miss working regular bar shifts so when I do get the rare chance I often do hear angels singing.


Colin: Right, It's like, when you are executing at a certain level you just get to BE. It's very in the moment, very Zen in a certain way.
Tamara: Totally. 

Colin: You have the privilege of working with Dan Streetman at Irving Farm. I'm a huge Streetman fan -- but most people know Dan as outstanding BGA member (Chair of the BGA Executive Council) and perennially friendly USBC Judge -- can you talk about the experience of going shoulder-to-shoulder with the man himself?


Tamara: oh lord. Dan is sometimes like my hyper little brother and sometimes like a stern-but-kind dad. He is always supportive and encouraging so it's great to work with him. But he knows every word to every pop song ever released and he can't help but sing along. Not to mention he cheers for the Cowboys so you know he can't be trusted. It's unfortunate cause he's really smart about everything else.


Colin: You've had the experience of working at some small shops (your parents shop, Da Buzz Coffee House, Cultiva, and Caffeine Dreams) in the first year(s) of business (or the first year with new owners in some cases). What do you think are the most important goals for a small shop to have in its first year? What advice do you have for people considering opening a new coffee bar?


Tamara: Learning from them I'd say the most important goal is to have a very clear identity and stick to it. They've been able to evolve without being wishy washy and trying something new every week just to get bodies in the door. My mom is brilliant at making the business about relationships and knowing each customer personally. The first year is definitely tough but be consistent and be consistently better. Being consistent builds trust and trust builds relationships. Even if for some reason you don't make it past that first year(many don't) at least you'll have built relationships that could bring you to bigger and better things.


If you're considering opening a new coffee bar?
1.WORK IN THE INDUSTRY or at least hire someone with experience! and learn from the best not just any old joe!
2. Know how much stuff costs and set your prices so you can cover those costs and still make a profit. Prices for everything not just the coffee- cups, towels, milk, rent, utilities, payroll, training, etc. Invest in the things that matter - employees, training, equipment and coffee.   


Colin:  Those are great points. I routinely say that someone needs to "own it," by which I mean that someone needs to be the heart and soul of driving the vision for the business. This Field of Dreams idea that "if you build it they will come" leads to nothing really unique or special. At the same time, I struggle with knowing that even with a sound business model, sometimes quality coffee isn't at the core of driving a cafe.
Tamara: It's true!

Colin: So you love coffee, you love singing... what else do you love? You seem to have a fondness for bikes? What do you sink into when you're not busy training baristas?


Tamara: bikes, books, running, yoga, healthy food, sometimes un-healthyish food, football, dogs, beer and whiskey - not necessarily in that order but I think that covers it!


Colin: So, You and I have several things in common: we both swam in highschool, and I briefly swam in college at the university of nebraska, lincoln -- which university we both attended -- as well as Mike Strumpf's presence at our first origin trip, and the fact that you grew up in North Platte, NE and my grandfather grew up there as well --- what's up with that?? Is this meaningful or just random? Shed some lovin light on Nebraska -- most people think of NE as a grassy nowhere land, that's not a fair assessment is it?


Tamara: I know! It's kinda like we're the same person. Freaky... Nebraska is love. The longer I'm away the more I realize how special it is. I think most Nebraskans are ok with no one really thinking about our state. Don't tell anyone that the air is fresh and people are nice there.


Colin: Agree on all accounts. What struck me is how huge America is when I was out there. And the idea that someone might actually enjoy living in their hometown for their whole life. I was 19-20 and I felt I wanted to see the whole world, but some of my classmates really didn't. Now, when I'm inundated by people on all sides, crammed on the subway with thousands of people, I sometimes yearn for the sight of plains to the horizon and occasionally a tree. It occurs to me that all places are unique and valuable in their own way. If Nebraskan's are occasionally accused of being resistant to change, well I guess in some ways I can't really blame them
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