Umeko Motoyoshi on Flipping the Narrative in the Coffee Industry

Umeko is standing in front of a pink background filled with disco lights, holding a Rainbow cupping spoon in one hand and an Iridescent Unicorn Kettle in the other hand.

All photos c/o Umeko Motoyoshi

If you have not yet come across Umeshiso's fun, colorful, and don't-take-yourself-so-seriously Instagram feed, then you're in for a treat. This Kansas City-based business is quite literally the "center of the Spooniverse", which grew quickly from their original (and popular) Rainbow Dipper cupping spoons.

We had the pleasure of having a conversation with Umeshiso founder, Umeko Motoyoshi (they/them), over Zoom— an hour filled with laughs, honesty, thoughtfulness, along with a peek into their sunglasses collection and their sweet cat, Chip. As a longtime coffee professional, Umeko has an incredible perspective on the industry— from coffee educator, coffee technologist, certified Q-grader, to podcaster, coffee writer and social media consultant, entrepreneur and someone who brings the community together. Here, they share about the turning point in their journey, representing other ways of being in the coffee industry, the fascinating story behind the rainbow cupping spoons, and what's in store for the future.

Brewista: In a single sentence, who are you as a human being?

Umeko Motoyoshi: I am a cool gay wearing sunglasses. 

You have had such a varied career that spans so many areas in the coffee industry. Tell us about the most pivotal points along your coffee journey.

I went through a period in my career when I was working at a start-up, developing technology to create a specialty instant coffee product. It was a very bizarre time in my life. I was trying really hard to embrace the San Francisco startup hustle thing. That wasn't me, I was really miserable and stressed out. Then I had a mental breakdown. 

That mental breakdown was really important and influential for me. It showed me that what I was trying to do and how I was trying to inhabit the "coffee space" just weren't working for me. I knew I had to completely change the way I thought about work and identity. At that time, I was extremely traumatized by the emotionally and sometimes physically abusive workplaces I experienced. That impacted my health a lot— I have complex PTSD, and a big factor was being exposed to very harmful, destructive environments while working in the coffee industry.

During my mental breakdown, I couldn't leave my room for months. When I returned to work, it only lasted for a brief time. Then I quit on the spot, in the middle of a meeting with my boss, without knowing that's what I was going to do. That was the start of my life getting better, but it's not without a lot of ups and downs. I had to make a decision for myself that the things I really wanted to do in life were important, how I feel is important, my happiness is important. I had to figure that out really fast, because I had just quit my job without any other options.

That's when I started doing Umeshiso full-time. I wasn't making any money yet. At one point, I had to choose between paying rent and buying groceries. Although I would ask for help today, at that time I didn’t feel like I could. But I made it work. I had to believe in myself— that what I was doing would work, and that it was worth it.

Since I've started Umeshiso, I've been able to restructure my life completely to support my mental health and my happiness. I am now able to exist in the world without having to split myself into my personal and professional personas. I answer to myself, my community, and my teammate Yeonji — those are the people that are important to me and to whom I want to be accountable.

Yeonji is in the background and Umeko is in the foreground, both holding Rainbow cupping spoons in front of a pink wall.

Hearing about your story helps me understand more about the work you're doing for the community and the non-profit you founded. Do you feel like you are able to merge your personal and professional life more authentically now? How has it been going lately?

It's great. I act like myself no matter what. I am able to express myself in a genuine way without having to put on a professional mask. I can just be myself and treat people like people. I like to go into meetings, be honest, straightforward, and pleasant — and ask to see pictures of their cats. That's what feels good to me. I get to do that in my marketing — I get to act like a real person and treat my customers and Instagram followers as real people. I like getting to feel like I'm making content for my friends. 

Yeonji is in the background with a frown, wearing a knitted frog hat and scarf. Umeko is in the foreground laughing with a tie-dye shirt on and purple knitted hat.

Your social media presence has been such a refreshing and much-needed voice in the coffee industry, especially in making specialty coffee feel more accessible to all. Was there anything else that had inspired you to put yourself out there in the way that you do?

For a long time, I wasn't in a position where anyone would listen to me or think of me in any respectful way. I was working in a coffee industry in a male-dominated environment, for companies that were super toxic. The things I wanted to do and the person I wanted to be — there wasn't representation of what that might look like. I got a lot of pushback and discouraging feedback. I felt like who I wanted to be in the world wasn't ok, because I didn't see people doing that in the coffee industry specifically.

As soon as I was in a position where people listened to me and took me seriously, I wanted to represent other ways of being so people can see proof that you can do this and you can be ok to be yourself. I just wanted to show people that you can do things in a way that feels right to you, and you don't have to go along with anyone else's idea of what success looks like. I’m also gay and nonbinary and Asian and disabled and I love to show people that it’s a great way to be.

We have so much love for your cupping spoons and the Umeshiso Spooniverse! Tell us about your magnificent rainbow cupping spoons and their origin story.

I really wanted a gay cupping spoon! I really wanted a rainbow cupping spoon, because cupping was really uncomfortable for me for a long time. The cupping table has historically been so central in the collective imagination of the coffee industry. Cupping is put on a pedestal, and being a good cupper is seen as a pinnacle of what someone could achieve in the industry. 

Also, bringing your own spoon to a cupping was seen as this status symbol reserved only for specific people. I thought, instead of being a status item, a cupping spoon should really be gay and something that feels empowering to the person who has it and signals welcome to others. It should make us feel that it's ok for us to be ourselves. That we can have fun and do our jobs in a way that is comfortable, affirming, welcoming, and respectful to everyone.

A set of 6 Rainbow Big Dipper cupping spoons lined up on a white surface.

By the way, I had no idea that it was such a big deal to bring your own certain kind of spoon to a cupping!

It used to be that if you brought your own cupping spoon, that is what only the super intimidating cuppers do. But now everyone has their own cupping spoon, and the spoons are gay! I love that so much — that my product flipped that narrative. 

I just want to see rainbow cupping spoons across the stage, in all of the cupping competitions. That would be awesome to see!

I worked with the 2022 U.S. Cup Tasters Champion, Julien Langevin (he/they), who reached out to me, which was super cool. They asked if they could design a custom spoon to use when competing at World Cup Tasters Championship in Milan. They designed the Trans Dipper, which has the trans symbol on the bowl of the spoon and the words on the handle, "Slurp on, Soft slurp." Just a little background, the soft slurp is controversial! Having a really loud slurp is believed to be another status symbol in the cupping world — the louder you slurp, the better you can taste the coffee. Julien is a soft slurper, and won the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship with the soft slurp! So I loved selling that spoon, and we donated all proceeds to GlitterCat Barista to support marginalized coffee professionals.

Rainbow chopsticks are being used to pick up spring rolls.

What are some of the other exciting things you’ve recently launched at Umeshiso?

I started selling gay chopsticks. You can use chopsticks for everything, including for making coffee. I was really excited to do this because it seems like an odd product offering — "we sell spoons and chopsticks." Why would I release chopsticks before releasing forks and knives? I just really wanted to do chopsticks, and I am Asian and I just wanted it to happen!

So we have chopsticks out now, and we have forks and knives on the way. The chopsticks I'm really excited about because, just like the spoons, customers are starting to use them for everything. And people need to know — you can eat Cheetos with chopsticks. You won't get the cheese dust all over your fingers, and I don't think many people know that.

Ultimately, I want to offer things that make the coffee and dining experience more fun and integrated into your life.

Tell us about Get Psyched and how this community can support it.

I have some very exciting projects I'm working on for our annual fundraiser that I cannot wait to share with everyone.

Once a year, we raise a bunch of money and open up applications so that coffee workers can apply to receive a mini grant to pay for a psychiatry appointment. Coffee workers are disproportionately impacted by mental health issues while also being very under-resourced, often uninsured or underinsured, often making wages that don't allow them to access the healthcare they need. I remember working as a barista and having panic attacks on bar while working a shift trying to make lattes — and that was considered normal. There wasn't a lot of space for any kind of conversation about what a mental health need might be. The culture can be very unforgiving.

I wanted to offer services that would help people who need that resource. I also wanted to contribute to creating more visibility in the coffee industry around the importance of mental healthcare and creating safe spaces for people who have mental illnesses.

You can follow @getpsychedcoffee on Instagram to find out more about our upcoming fundraiser.

What music do you listen to while you work to get hyped or to help you focus? Do you have a playlist you would like to share with our community?

I either listen to this playlist or one brown noise track on repeat. I have ADHD, so I have to use different tools at different times to help me focus.

Umeko is cupping coffee with her Big Dipper cupping spoon in Rose Gold.

Our readers are really serious about coffee. For aspiring coffee pros, what is one single advice you would like to give them as they navigate the coffee industry?

Look for the people and the spaces where you feel respected and heard. That is always more important than looking for the people and spaces with the most clout or accolades.

Are there other projects you are working on that you would love people to know about?

We're just trying to do this business in a way that's healthy, fun, sensitive, and thoughtful. We are trying to create a work environment that other people can join and feel protected, safe and respected. We don't want to be a huge corporation, but it would be cool to have a small team of people that have fun and are supportive of one another.

If folks would like to support our little gaysian business, we have a Patreon and also I hope folks will just buy something on Umeshiso and tell their friends about it.

We also do wholesale. We offer a good discount for those who buy 25 spoons or more. Anyone who is interested can DM, email us, or use the contact form on Umeshiso. We love working with small businesses.

My teammate Yeonji is really wonderful and fabulous. Follow her on Instagram at @yjlofland and support her business — she sells jewelry.

Anything else you would like to share with our community?

I am really grateful to be a part of this community — for the friends and community that let me be myself and support me, make me feel safe, protected and encouraged. I want to be like that for other people. I am really grateful for all the opportunities and relationships that come along with being in this coffee community. It's not perfect, but you find your people and what works. I am super grateful to receive love from the community, and to be able to be loving and caring to other people.

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