I hope you had a good thanksgiving, and that you are staying home and healthy.
I met this week’s guest, Christopher Scott McNeill, while we were both working at a well-respected independent coffee shop in Sacramento. For those who don’t know, California’s quiet capitol city has thriving—and tightly intertwined—coffee, food, and bar scenes. There is something almost indescribable about being part of a world like that, especially at the time when we both were. It’s tribal, it’s political, in many ways it’s brutal; but there was a sense of community unlike anything I’ve really seen before or since.
By the mid-2010s, the big cafe/roasters of Sac—Temple, Naked, Old Soul, and to a lesser extent Insight and Chocolate Fish—had largely cemented their brand identities and their corners of the market; they had become the establishment. This gave rise to a new generation of shops, the owners of whom had all begun in one or more of those establishment companies and who were setting out to buck the system and refocus their craft on what they thought was important and missing from the big guys. These new shops were exciting, close knit, and often daring—so much so that I made the leap myself from Temple to one the moment I got the chance. Chris joined the team maybe a year later.
For a while, it was incredibly fun. We had a small and close-knit team, only six or seven and with no managers other than the owners. We had an incredible espresso machine, a simple and straight-forward menu, we hand-made our own dairy alternative milk—everything was as difficult as it was rewarding. But, as Chris mentions in the episode, coffee has a ceiling. Almost everyone, especially in the smaller cafes, is paid minimum wage, and with no means of advancement—say, in a team with no supervisory positions—meaningful raises are rare. Going to a different cafe is most often done as either a favor or an act of protest since, again, there isn’t any more money on the other side of the fence. You could split off and start your own shop, but the industry is an incredibly high-risk one financially, especially in a market this saturated.
Then there’s the issue that every shop that is ultimately successful is so less because of their shop culture or approach to craft, but because the owner is well connected to the industry already. They came up with all the other owners, and here in Sacramento, they are almost exclusively white men. In this way, independent coffee has the same issue as everything else: we confuse privilege for bootstraps.
When I left in 2018 to focus on teaching and finishing grad school (a privilege of its own), I had become deeply bitter about my shop and the scene on the whole. In some ways I still am, but there’s something tempering about seeing the same issues plaguing every corner of the Great American Experiment. There’s also something to the power of time: our era, short lived as it was, is largely over. The members of my generation who didn’t find their way into a management position of some kind have almost all moved on to other things. We all had the same complaints, and when they weren’t heard we got out.
Sean and my conversation with Chris only briefly touches on coffee—the focus is on journalism and when you get to call yourself an artist—but I can’t help but feel like this thread is running beneath it even still. Perhaps it’s a conversation for another episode.
Thanks for listening,