~ Talking coffee & life with Laila Willbur ~
After attending The Coffeewoman event in conjunction with the U.S. Barista Championship Qualifying Event in KC last week, we were inspired by the passion, energy and great ideas facilitated, and thrilled to chat more with Laila Willbur. Director of Coffee for Cherry Street Coffee House in Seattle, Vice Chair of the Barista Guild of America, and the 2014 U.S. Barista Champion, she has great insight into the industry and where it's headed - we hope you enjoy getting to know her a little better as much as we did!
The LAB: What's your go-to morning bev?
Laila: When I don't have to go into work early, I drink my first cup of coffee at home. Ryan has our Bonvita set to brew at 6am. We have a subscription to Ruby Coffee Roasters, so its generally something from them or something Ryan brought home from the LaMarzocco lab.
If I have to be at one of the cafes at open, then my first cup is usually a QC check, which is generally a single espresso and either a single macchiato or gibraltar to check the espresso and their milk skillz.
The LAB: What was the first moment you can remember that you knew you wanted to pursue coffee as a career?
Laila: Oddly enough, growing up with my parents owning coffee shops I had no interest in coffee. I worked a couple jobs in coffee just because it was an easy job for me to get. I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember and was going to school for Early Childhood Ed. I think it was my time working at The Urban Coffee Lounge in Kirkland, WA that made me start feeling like maybe I could do this more long term. I worked for a married woman, and while I was there she had her first child. It was nice to see her go through having a child and having flexibility as an owner. I also started doing competition there and placed 3rd. It was after that I was offered my first job at Barista in Portland and I made the move away from home, although not that far, for the first time in my life. That move might have been “the moment”.
The LAB: Was there a specific experience with coffee that changed the way you viewed it?
Laila: My first time on a coffee farm was definitely the biggest eye opener for me. I had been working in coffee for almost 5 years at that point, and at Stumptown for a little over a year when I went. I paid my way to Guatemala following then coffee buyer Ryan Brown. I went to El Injerto and toured the farm with Arturo Aguirre Jr., and got to see first hand all the things I thought I knew, but seeing them brought a whole new level of understanding. We then went to El Salvador and spent time with Aida Batlle. What a badass. Seeing her driving around the mountain and just owning it was so inspiring.
The LAB: What was your first thought after winning the 2014 U.S. Barista Championship?
Laila: My very first thought was “no way”. I was in shock but as soon as my senses set in I looked to the stands to find Emilio and Phil, my teammates. That routine was all about the three of us so as soon as I realized I had won, I realized that WE had won, and I found them jumping up and down hugging and screaming and crying. They were sitting right next to my ENTIRE family who were all going the exact same thing. That moment is one I will never ever forget.
The LAB: What are your thoughts on the new barista competition format?
Laila: In regards to the regional qualifiers, I think its important to remember this is just a bandaid. I was a part of the committee tasked with figuring out what to do for this year after the announcement of the regionals being cancelled. I think we came up with a good plan for this year, but its not the plan to continue with. However, I think in the future, shortening routines like we did at this competition (15 down to 10 mins) will be necessary. These competitions need to become more entertaining, preferably to consumers, in order for them to continue. They need to be viable and they have not been.
In regards to the milk drink change, I think its great. Its an opportunity for innovation. I think it might take a couple years before we really understand it but I look forward to seeing someone bring something really interesting to the table that scores exceptionally well. However, what tends to happen is something finds that perfect idea, and then everyone follows, so I think true innovation tends to be few and far between.
The LAB: What's on your ipod right now?
Laila: iPOD? HA! Spoiler alert. I don't listen to music. I know. I’m a horrible person. I listen to NPR in the car and I kind of like the silent. If I am listening to music I really am not drawn to any specific genre - its more mood dependent. After work, maybe some hip hop. Long drive, maybe some old favorites or something indie. I like to sprinkle a little country and top 40 in there for good measure.
The LAB: What's winding down at the end of a long work week look like for you?
Laila: Weekends, I like to visit my family. I have two little nephews that are the most important things in the world to me so its tough to go more than a week without seeing them. I really like to go thrift shopping. I can spend hours there, not buy anything, and leave feeling so refreshed. I think its rifling through things - it shuts my mind off, I can zone out for an hour or two and that recharges me.
The LAB: If you're life was a movie, what would it be called?
Laila: Ali’s Daughter. I feel like if someone looked at my life from the outside in, it would mostly revolve around how my life is affected by the father I was blessed to have. He has shaped everything around me. From being in coffee, to being involved with my barista community and the Iranian community, my love for my family, my loyalty to Seattle. These things are all shaped by my father. I look like him, I act like him in many ways, we even have the same laugh. We are also different in just the right ways to create a little bit of tension from time to time to keep it entertaining. He really is my best friend.
The LAB: What do you see as being the main challenge women in the coffee industry are facing right
Laila: You know, for a long time I never really saw challenges, as I’ve grown up in the industry. I’ve never allowed my gender or my age to stop me from doing anything. I might have had to work harder than a male counterpart but I never let that bother me.
Now, at 28, married and looking to have children the reality is starting to set in. I have major challenges ahead. How do I have a baby and work? Does one of us stop working? Can we afford that? Neither of us want to stop working. Do we send our baby to daycare?
I am very, very, very, lucky to work for my family. I am very aware that my situation is not the average and that the flexibility I have in my work life is very rare. So, for me, I’ll be able to make things work.
What if I worked somewhere else? Would they work with me? Its scary to think about. I’ve seen companies within our industry support and champion working mothers and I’ve also seen them fail her. I would say that is an issue that woman in the workforce in general have to deal with if they choose to start a family.
The LAB: What goals and perspectives do you see women in the coffee industry achieving and bringing to the table in the last few years?
Laila: Woman can relate with other woman. We deal with the same issues. When I see a woman doing something really cool I am immediately more excited about it. Not because “thats really cool, for a woman”- its cool in general, but I am a woman too, and so I identify with her better in her triumphs as well as her challenges. The personal goal I have for myself, (and I guess I would say I hope that others might also make this a goal) is that as I continue to navigate my future in this industry, I want to do my best to be a role model. To be someone visible, vocal, and approachable. Not because I like the spot light - quite the opposite - I am very much an introvert. However, it feels like a duty. No joke. Like I was meant to be that person always out there, working, doing, leading the way, pushing others to get involved, and so on. I want to be someone that a young barista can see, hear, and talk to - seek advice from, look to with questions, or strive to be like. I know that sounds super conceited, but I’m not referring to being like “me,” but to being a woman who works hard, who doesn't let being a woman stop her from doing anything, who speaks out when needed, who takes risks!
The LAB: That's awesome, and we're inspired. Thanks so much Laila - cheers!