Coffee businesses must give marginalised staff a seat at the leadership table to be truly inclusive, says Lem Butler
Lem Butler is a world-renowned barista, coffee trainer, competition MC and the 2016 US Barista Champion
When it comes to diversity and inclusion, many coffee businesses are afraid of doing things wrong, which can lead to not doing anything at all. There can also be a dynamic of complacency where a company says one thing about diversity but doesn’t develop an understanding of what inclusion is.
To start, we need to define what diversity and inclusion actually means. Only then we can start holding a mirror up to ourselves.
Diversity is often seen as a numbers game – how many people of colour are involved, how many folks identify as women, as male or as gender neutral.
These companies may be ‘diverse’, but inclusion can still be problematic if those folks aren’t at the table making decisions and shaping company policy – that’s where we can get into the problem of complacency.
A company can say it’s diverse but still have an all-white male leadership team. True inclusion means that you’re including your diverse staff in policymaking and that they have a seat on the leadership team.
There is a long road ahead
Since I started working in coffee in 2003 the landscape has evolved significantly and there has been some great progress towards inclusion.
To put things in context, it’s important to understand the backgrounds of marginalised groups.
I was one of the few black musicians in my high school marching band and one of the first of two high school students in my neighbourhood, which was 98% black, to go to college.
When I got to college it was predominantly white, so I grew up in environments that didn’t really look like me or weren’t very inclusive.
It often felt like I had to work extra hard to achieve the same as my counterparts.
“Throughout my career there has always been the question of where I fit in and how I can create my niche in the companies that I work for”
When I got into coffee competitions it was a similar experience – I was often the only black barista out of 100 competitors. When I attended events, I also saw that folks would enjoy my company but would not invite me to gatherings with the ‘in-crowd’, which was predominantly white.
Later, when I went to work for a coffee roastery, I encountered the same lip service – aspiring to be a diverse company with a leadership team which was mostly all white men.
Throughout my career there has always been the question of where I fit in and how I can create my niche in the companies that I work for. In competitions I didn’t see competitors or judges who looked like me, but I tried to be that diversity to help others feel they could succeed.
Over the years I’ve seen more black baristas compete in competitions, behind the bar and I’m seeing more black-owned cafés too.
Today, I feel that there is more attention to what inclusivity really means in a company, and that is helpful, but there is a long tradition of systemic racism in the US and it’s still harder for people of colour, whether they identify as female, male, or non-binary, to get a seat at the table.
Inclusive workforces pay dividends in the long run
Black & White Coffee Roasters is a small company and my business partner, Kyle Ramage, and I are very involved with staff hiring. In 2020 we took a closer look at our business because we felt the pandemic, especially during the lockdown, broke our company apart.
When we returned to some kind of normalcy, we decided to establish a leadership team with the aim of bringing our cafés and roasteries back together.
We wanted to make our leadership team reflect the entire company and that’s what we’ve managed to do.
I’m now starting to see other coffee companies bring more marginalised groups into their leadership team and that’s a step in the right direction.
It’s great to have diversity, but if that diversity doesn’t move up the ladder, then your employees won’t feel like they have that upward momentum in the company, which is very important for the company’s culture and future success.
“Coffee businesses often take care of the product but neglect their people”
It is also important for employee retention as finding and training baristas is one of the biggest problems hospitality businesses are facing right now. If employees feel like they can advance in the company, they’ll continue to invest their time with hopes of progressing to a higher position or a seat at the leadership table to influence policy, hiring or training practices.
Companies should also dive a little deeper into their personal connections with staff.
People of colour can have anywhere from 10 to 20 micro aggressions on their way to work based on systemic racism. When they arrive, they can often feel overwhelmed by these experiences.
That’s why a day-to-day check-in with staff members to see how they’re doing and what they’re dealing with can be a huge benefit for employees.
An important lesson I learnt early on was that the secret to success in coffee is to take care of the people and the product.
Coffee businesses often take care of the product but neglect their people.
Whether it’s customers or staff, taking care of the people we work with every day is essential.
Self-reflection requires asking some difficult questions about whether a business is truly diverse and inclusive. I’ve worked for other people all my life and I’ve complained and pointed the finger. Now I’m a business owner I want to make sure that my actions are true to my words.
Lem Butler is a world-renowned barista, coffee trainer, competition MC and the 2016 US Barista Champion. He is also co-owner of Black & White Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee shop and roastery in North Carolina, which he founded with his business partner and fellow US Barista Champion Kyle Ramage in 2017.