I met Emily when we were both competing in the Kansas City leg of The Barista League, USA. If you don’t remember The Guji Gang’s amazing jumpsuits, you should do yourself a favor and check them out.
I recently visited Philadelphia to attend The Glitter Cat Barista Championships where Emily was a trainee for the week and had the pleasure of chatting with her for a bit afterward about what keeps her excited about coffee competitions and, a feeling that many of us know pretty well, coffee industry burnout.
ANGELA FERRARA [THE BARISTA LEAGUE]: First things first, tell me about Glitter Cat!
EMILY ORENDORFF: Glitter Cat was amazing. It was a really intense few days of drinking so much coffee that I felt caffeinated even after getting back to Denver at the end of the week. But everything we did was so helpful and every person that I met was really incredible.
A: Why did you initially want to get involved in coffee competition?
E: I originally got into USBC because I was a coffee nerd since high school and through college and had actually watched USBC online (like, I could tell you what coffees Charles Babinski served when he won in 2015, if that gives you any reference). So, when I started at Boxcar, I actually expressed interest in my interview that it was something I would want to do in my time there. I think at the time, my understanding of coffee as a career was limited by this idea of competing. Like, you had to compete in this competition if you wanted to be successful in the industry. Of course, now I realize that's far from the truth.
A: What drives you to keep competing?
E: I think any of us that who love the sense of community in our industry have felt revitalized after any industry event like Expo or USBC and I definitely fall into that category. For all the stress and effort that goes into a 15 minute presentation, I say every year that I'm never doing it again. But the feeling you have after doing one is unmatched and refreshes my interest in coffee year after year.
A: I know you’re passionate about the issue of burnout in the coffee industry. What do you think causes this exhaustion?
E: I know myself well enough to know that to constantly working in a high volume cafe wares me down. To have to put a reset button on a human interaction every 30 seconds is draining, and can sometimes feel inauthentic. Then you factor in being a queer woman, you start to be pretty aware and sensitive to micro-aggressions, to men interrupting you to tell you what they know or call you weird pet names and I find it wearing on me pretty fast. And that's not to say I haven't had some incredibly rewarding relationships with customers, because after being on bar for three years, I have forged a lot of meaningful relationships with people who have been coming in. I have met some of my closest friends who I am so thankful to also call my coworkers or peers through my job.
A: Do you think it’s possible for career baristas to get over that feeling without switching positions or career trajectory?
E: If we are aware of it as it's happening, I think it's possible to navigate out of. I don't have a ton of answers right now, but I think it boils down to asking yourself what your motivators are in coffee. For me, I get a lot of satisfaction from competition. Not just USBC, but incredible events like Cherry Roast or Barista League to even just an occasional latte art throw down... find what it is about coffee or the industry and throw yourself into it in hopes that it guides you through.
A: You mentioned earlier that you recently took a second job in a restaurant. Was this a move in hopes to renew excitement in the coffee industry? And if so, do you think it was successful?
E: In part. I wanted to save up some money for myself and for the upcoming competition season. I also wanted to learn more about fine dining in a restaurant group that I would argue has unmatched hospitality. I originally thought I would kind of explore a theme of hospitality for competition, but mostly was curious where the disconnect is between hospitality in a cafe setting vs. a dining experience and what the crossover could be. I learned a lot in a part of the service industry I hadn't explored, and about wine and hospitality, which is something I have always been passionate about outside of coffee, but I wouldn't say it was renewing excitement at my full time job. That isn't either job’s fault, but simply a product of overextending myself to a point of exhaustion, where I felt like I was getting to a point where I couldn't give 100% at either one, and that was far from where I wanted to go initially.
A: Do you think involvement in competitions helps with the feeling of burnout directly?
E: I think it does… I’ll report back after this upcoming season! Haha. I think competition, whether you're directly participating in them or just attending by yourself or with your company is a setting to connect with other like-minded people. It puts your face out there for future connections, collaborations, and maybe even job opportunities. And in my experience, it has acted almost as a staff retreat of sorts, where on top of feeling a renewed passion for coffee, I feel a new sense of passion and maybe even loyalty for my employer and my coworkers. I think involvement in competition lets me just nerd out on coffee and talk about it with people who will genuinely enjoy it.
A: What are you most excited about next?
E: I'm excited to see competitions expand and grow! In so many ways USBC is the gold standard for competition in our industry. Slowly but surely, that is changing and I think that is so key to move our industry forward. I think USBC isn't a metric for the best barista in the country but more of a best barista who had the privilege/opportunity to compete. I love USBC because I'm invested in it, but the barriers to entry are totally absurd and for so many talented folks in coffee, it's simply inaccessible and, in truth, that competition is not for everyone. T. Ben Fischer creating Glitter Cat was the first step I've really seen to work within this competition to change the faces of who we see there and I am endlessly grateful to him for that. But we also have so many people now forgoing USBC altogether to create new ones which is also so wonderful. To see incredible people like Elle Jensen create competitions like Cherry Roast that brings the competition spirit in while also providing accessibility and safe spaces to all women, transmasculine, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming baristas makes me think that the gold standard is quickly fading and I can't wait to see other competitions develop and gain traction and provide more opportunities for people in the industry.
As far as competing in Denver goes, I am looking forward to seeing all these coffee folx and Glitter Cats on my home turf! We have a rad coffee community and I can't wait to share that with everyone traveling from out of town and I want to be accessible for those traveling here just like so many have done for me when I visit or compete in other cities. This is a shameless plug to please please please reach out to me if you are competing or helping a competitor in Denver. Whether it's finding you a place to crash, coffee/food recommendations, a person to walk around with or do run throughs with, holler! (@darkclothesnostain)
Emily is the Assistant General Manager at Boxcar Coffee Roasters in Boulder, CO. She’s registered to compete at Coffee Champs later this year, which marks her third season competing in USBC. Catch Emily’s competition routine in Denver next month to hear more of her thoughts on this topic!