The first time I saw Reg, I hadn’t met him. I saw him and his flower shirt and just knew. Knew what? I knew that he would be forever apart of my story, the story of coffee culture by becoming a face in front of my lens and in the canon of my documentations. Little did I know that our paths would continue to cross at Menotti’s by digital film and Polaroid which he would later show me he carried with him on another time that we randomly met. Then, there was New York, he’d returned there, his home city for a while and I was there too, weathering the winter and the next three months of seeing the street and coffee through his eyes. It’s been about two years now, since I’ve met the man Reg and across half a dozen coffee shops – his most recent and longest stay of them all The FlowerBoy Project.
Ironically, this ‘boy’ was wearing flowers when I met him. Not ironically, his skill with the dried flowers and making people bloom right where they are planted is a trademark of his presence. His smile isn’t interchangeable for anyone else. His ability to be raw whether unknowingly homeless, a little wild on a substance, or just expressing his mantra be bold and fearless compelled me to have him sit down with me and just tell me his story, as a man, a human and a barista of color. This is our conversation. This is our time together on an afternoon when all the sun could do is shine.
c.: For the record. Who are you?
Reg: My name is Reynold. I live in Venice.
c.: How long have you been a barista?
r.: Six years and a month.
c.: You just had an anniversary?
r.: Yea. As of January of 2011.
r.: I was looking for a job and knew nothing about coffee. I was in New York and there was a company started by Max Brenner in New York and I didn’t know anything about coffee and got hired.
Within six months after I started there, I got moved up to supervisor. I was learning extremely fast from there and got on a project management team. A guy named Alex Perez put together an East Coast region of Starbucks and I teamed up with him for his projects after moving up to supervisor.
After that, I started doing my own projects. One was with Gladys Cafe in Brooklyn, then Pudge Knuckles. I worked with them to manage things and then I worked with Zaro’s Bakery to help start their coffee program – that was for about one year. Then I moved to Los Angeles in 2014, it was the first time that I ever came here.
c.: What did that first time feel like?
r.: It was the craziest thing that I ever done. I booked a plane ticket with no job, no apartment. I just jumped out the window and said I’m going to make it. I slept in the airport my first three nights. By the third day I had a job in a café. The fourth day I stated work and the owner put me in a hotel that night. Then I stayed with a co-worker for the next two days and then I moved to Santa Monica.
c.: The journey. The going without knowing.
r.: Yea, Then I started working with Pali Hotel.
c.: That’s where those good biscuits are. What was it like, working coffee service from a boutique hotel.?
r.: I was there six months. It was interesting. The coffee program picked up in my opinion once I was there especially during the day time shifts. People would come and I’d tell them come on and try this and try that. I’d be there and I would just want people to feel comfortable for the time that they were there. Six months in, Vittoria Coffee coaxed me away from there. And I started working with them for special events and trainings, some award shows and pop-ups. I also got to help train people in a couple of cafes even the One World First Class Lounge with the marble counter top coffee bar – it was so much fun.
c.: Which do you like – being a barista, or training baristas?
r.: I like both. I like to be the barista when it’s really busy. If it’s a consistent flow I don’t need to be the barista then – is really fun when its a rush because it reminds me of being a busy and that puts a smile on my face.
c.: How long did you stay with them?
r.: For about six months. I didn’t like the work environment. It was mainly like upper management – it wasn’t for me. And, to keep things decent for the interview I won’t go too far into it. From there I started working at Menotti’s in the spring of 2015. I got introduced to Menotti’s – it was a beautiful experience. I learned so much. I knew a good amount prior to getting there. It was eye opening. I went from thinking I knew a lot about coffee to realizing I didn’t know half about it. I got to learn about dialing in espresso, how to cup coffee, how to taste, how to look for inconsistencies when steaming milk, how to really get microfoam to a perfect, sweet and warm texture. Like if you get that [microfoam] you don’t really need to add sugar.
c.: Can you tell me about the importance of microfoam to being a barista and what it means for a drink.
r.: I have this philosophy about coffee. I feel like in the morning when someone walks into a coffee shop they are awake but not enough to start their day. And, it’s up to the barista to give them that feeling and motivation to get out there for work. How I see it I’m going to either make or break your morning.
My goal is to make your morning.
c.: Make my morning Reg.
r.: You’re spending anywhere from two to nine bucks for a coffee. I feel like if you get s$&! You’re going to be like damn I spent five bucks on coffee that just pissed me off.
Microfoam is a good thing; you don’t want to sip bubbles. You’ll resent me and I’ll feel it. Coffee has to be the perfect temperature. The importance of temperature is crucial for each drink. You can read the temperature through your hands. It’s about the smaller details so much. It’s like the difference between comfort versus caffeine. If you don’t do it right you’ll f$&! S&$% up.
c.: Did learning these tools and semantics make you feel more like a barista.
r.: I feel like I am more of a barista now. I take a lot of pride in being a barista. I know how good I am now. I hate coming into a shop and hearing a customer walk in and they want me to make a drink and not someone else. I want the whole team to be able to make their drink. I pay attention to so much detail than a lot of people and that detail is felt through the drink.
c.: Why do you think that is, that people can feel the difference in details?
r.: That’s one thing why that Nicely taught me, how to steam milk. People can taste it. It’s because people haven’t been trained, they haven’t been taught how to steam milk right, so they’re steaming it wrong. It was tough working at Menotti’s but I took so many great things with me because of it.
c.: Where did you go after Menotti’s?
r.: I had a life bump. I went back to New York and I continued on with Zaro’s Bakery. I called them and said, ‘Hey, I’m coming home.’ And it was like you have a job, no questions asked.
c.: How did it make you feel to be able to return home, to make a phone call and be taken care of like that?
r.: Great! I started that coffee program. The good and bad of it was that I was told that no one else could run it like I was. I was like man, did I have that much of an impact. Like, no one could step up and keep it going – it means I did something right and it was noticed.
c.: Being seen is major, in a craft, and in this craft. I would like to talk to you about your journey as a barista of color.
His eyes widen, his smile opens and all of the sudden he’s commanding the chair that holds him.
r.: Oh cool let’s do that.
It’s interesting because you don’t see many barista of color in the coffee world – period.
We’ll look at each other and be like how ‘did you get into it?’
c.: How did you get into it?
r.: It’s a weird answer. I was homeless and I took the job and really enjoyed it. Someone else I saw at a café, just made coffee so pretty, like LaRon. And for me, I always had a thing for coffee as fashion. And he wanted to own a café and have all these well-dressed baristas and an immaculate bar.
The select and few people that I know in coffee, it’s really interesting and random how they got into it, and for some it was by choice. I always get that weird look.
c.: What weird look?
r.: That why look.
c.: So, why Reg? Why coffee?
r.: Coffee culture is such a happy place. In my opinion the world has looked at people of culture to not be so happy or inviting on the first impression. Half of the time I don’t want to talk to somebody but I put on that face. I may not be feeling it, but I have to fake the font and do my job and like it.
c.: You do like it don’t you?
r.: Yes. But I don’t really see many people of color being a barista. A person of color can be anything. I feel like a café is a place where you can steal way from the regular world for five to ten minutes. In the most cases we’re trying to steal away ourselves. Sometimes we don’t have the most inviting faces because we’re in our head.
A face of color is perceived as uninviting. But in my head we’re the most inviting folks – we’re always trying to learn something and adapt and make people feel comfortable with us.
As a person of color we build up this wall – it’s like meet me right here, at this moment. Even at first impressions we don’t always want to let someone that far in right away.
c.: You’re working in an industry that is people facing. You’re in a role hinge on impressions, transaction after transaction. How do you negotiate that space between you being behind the bar and the other person being in front of it?
r.: I see them. I see people a couple of times and I watch them. I watch them add sugar, so then I’ll do all the extra steps for them so at the end of the drink being prepared I’ve done that already. Then I’m like ‘hey what’s your name again’ and I talk to them a bit more’. We get a chance to warm up to one another through their order and then they go.
c.: I see you: breaking ice, breaking barriers.
r.: Yes. We’re the therapist for the day.
c.: Okay therapist. Then, does something kick in for you where you are like ‘I’m taking this role on’.
r.: Of course. And, when a person comes in three or four times a week, sometimes you can say, this is on me today, ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ That builds a level of comfort. They appreciate you a bit more.
Its not only about profit, it’s about people. It’s about building connection.
People become comfortable over time – they know that this, this is their spot. And because we’ve built a level of comfort we start to notice.
c.: One of the most basic human desires is to be noticed. Do you feel this human tool you have is your personality or is it a result of training that allows you this comfortability?
r.: When I got into coffee I was homeless, I was living in a shelter. Coffee became this cool, happy place. To be happy every day, I realized that if I put out a heart in a drink and said ‘how is your day going’ and made them feel in this short amount of time, then I felt good. I know what it’s like when you’re going through something and this random person asks you a question and you feel obliged to let it all out. I wish sometimes I would have been that person to myself.
c.: Indirectly you were. By servicing others you were healing yourself. Tell me, what would you want to see more of it in this culture and the industry.
r.: I want people to stop being so pretentious about coffee behind and in front of the bar.
c.: Can you tell me what that looks like?
r.: Sometimes baristas try and one-me up. Its one thing to be impressed, it’s another to come in from the outside, check out a shop and start asking about my parameters before you’ve even see me do anything. Can I do my job and impress you first. Can you try it first and then we converse about it. Then ask me how I made the product. Then I can say this is what I’m pulling. And if you like it great.
If you’re the most amazing barista in the world, be the most amazing barista in the world.
c.: Amen. Amen. You just made me want to wave my hand. I chuckle. I haven’t asked yet, but must, do you have a style signature?
r.: A hat. I have a lot of hats. People always know that I’m smiling. If you catch me on a day without a hat, that means my day is at a million before it even got started that I left without it. It’s like ‘he’s having a great day so much that he forgot his hat he – never forgets his hat.’
Coffee wise, I like floral, very floral, full bodied. I won’t pull a super long shot,- I kill my shot at about thirty seconds max.
c.: How much of a lifestyle is coffee for you. And how much do you see coffee as a part of a lifestyle culture?
r.: It’s a huge part because I meet a lot of people I work with through coffee. I start my day with a cup of coffee.
c.: Do you explore coffee shops?
r.: I do especially in new cities. I’m an avid and spontaneous traveler. I never plan, I just get online and take trips and explore coffee culture. I pick specific states and cities. San Francisco was the last next; the next one is Portland.
c.: Portland is coffee culture mecca.
r.: I can’t wait.
r.: My go to drink in the morning is a cappuccino. I use to drink only espresso, but I have a digestive problem. So it’s always coffee with milk now.
c.: Is there something you’d like to say to the good folks out there about being a barista of color and working in some of the coolest shops in L.A. and New York?
r.: I love how far coffee has brought me. From not knowing anything in 2011 and knowing a lot by February in 2017 – it’ll be a year next month that I’ve been at FlowerBoy Project. I’ve never been at a café for a year.
c.: That’s a milestone Reg.
r.: Yea. If someone wants to get into coffee or travel, learn how to make coffee – coffee will always take you somewhere. I learned this skill and hated it so much because I was so good at it. I thought about quitting and I was like how will I make it in L.A. but L.A. has a huge coffee scene and I’m good at what I do and I’m going to be okay. And looking back, literally on my third day here I got hired and didn’t even have an apartment.
Since, I’ve worked nice jobs like with Lisa Cooper doing music videos, starting my own brand, working at a design studio and in web development. Coffee will help you get to where you want to go. Coffee is always that bridge to the gap – you just have to give it a little time, pull out the conversation card, it will almost always be in for where you want to go. Coffee will take you places.
As told to Chérmelle D. Edwards.