Photo by Justin Sisson
This interview is part of the #BrewLikeAPro series, where we share the journeys of coffee professionals doing cool things, their defining moments, and of course - their coffee rituals.
Michelle Johnson is nothing short of a badass renaissance human being. She not only runs The Chocolate Barista, a powerful force in promoting racial diversity in the coffee industry, but also co-founded Ghost Town Oats, which is redefining the culture of alternative milks, was the first Black woman to ever compete at the U.S. Barista Championships, and over time has produced a thoughtful body of work that has led her to become a prominent speaker, writer, and podcast host in the world of specialty coffee.
We recently had a chance to catch up with Michelle digitally from Los Angeles. She shares her defining moments along her coffee journey, how competing at the U.S. Barista Championships changed her professional career, the "hard moments and tough seasons", and the one thing she would change about the coffee industry.
Brewista: I've read that you are originally from the Washington, DC, area and you spent time overseas and across the country. Tell us about your coffee journey that took you to so many parts of the world.
Michelle Johnson: My journey began in an area on the DC/Maryland line called Friendship Heights in 2011. Tynan Coffee & Tea used to have a location there and my cousin and I came across it while job hunting in the neighborhood. I’d always loved the idea of working at a coffee shop and thanks to my sweet cousin, that dream became a reality. I took a strong affinity for the craft and eventually landed a job in Arlington, VA, at Bayou Bakery where I was introduced to the world of specialty coffee.
Learning about specialty coffee opened my eyes to career possibilities I never knew existed — competition, education, journalism, and even marketing and content creation. Over the course of my career, I found myself doing all of those things. In 2013, I moved to Phoenix, Arizona to pursue a job at a famed local spot called Cartel and while there, I participated in barista competitions and started to explore the creative marketing side of things through my own Instagram and soon, The Chocolate Barista.
Writing on my website turned into writing for Sprudge, Standart Magazine, and even the Aeropress Annual. Both writing and speaking sparked my move to Melbourne, Australia, to build and maintain one of the world’s most influential online coffee platforms of the time. My marketing and communications experience also deepened while there.
Right before returning to the States, I worked with Califia Farms Australia to help launch their Oat Barista to the Melbourne coffee market. I learned a lot about how to engage people who’re skeptical but open to trying something that doesn’t resonate initially. That experience informs much of the work I do today!
A position as SoCal Regional Sales Manager at Coffee Manufactory brought me to Los Angeles (a place I’d written off as an option to call home years prior) in 2019. Some of my closest friends and colleagues I met while working there. Although the job was short-lived (RIP CM LA), I pursued freelance education and soon became Red Bay’s Education and Training Manager for SoCal before the pandemic hit.
That was the last time I worked for someone else and have been on my own path ever since! I’m excited to see where my journey continues to take me!
What do you love most about your work?
What I love most about my work is connecting incredibly talented, smart people with the rest of the world. It’s so fun to find ways to shine a spotlight on cool people who deserve to be seen for all that they contribute to culture – and that goes beyond just coffee. Sometimes people need that one opportunity to be put on and I dedicate much of my time learning how to better be that person by sharpening my discernment skills. It’s a blessing to be in this position because it brings me so much joy!
Photo by Americano Mondays/Jeff Newton
Your platform, The Chocolate Barista, has been such a powerful force in promoting racial diversity in the coffee industry, especially for Black coffee professionals. When was the defining moment that inspired you to create The Chocolate Barista?
The defining moment was actually in 2014: two years before I officially launched. Phoenix has a close-knit creative community and I felt inspired by the collective’s ability to tell really compelling stories both visually and literally. Coffee shops were the meeting place for these creative minds, so through natural exposure, I wanted to carve out my own avenue to share my passion for coffee and life as a barista. I got as far as creating a website and a Photoshop logo, but eventually let it fall by the wayside.
In total honesty, a breakup reignited the flame to pursue The Chocolate Barista once again. There was a reawakening of self (like most breakups tend to inspire) and a pull towards creating the space for me to express myself fully. A month later, The Chocolate Barista was officially born and the rest is history.
Tell us about your most memorable moments in your coffee journey.
My most memorable moments in coffee have always been and continue to be when someone recognizes me at a coffee shop. I’ll never get used to it, and I mean that in the best way possible. There was one time when one of my closest friends, Tymika Lawrence (Atlas Coffee) and I were on a working vacation in San Sebastian, Spain and I was recognized at a coffee shop there! In Spain! It was so cool.
Here in the States too, especially from Black coffee professionals and consumers. Knowing I’ve made a small impact enough for someone to share that with me is humbling and an honor. I truly cherish those moments.
How has your experience competing at the U.S. Barista Championships changed your professional career?
There was a realization some time after the U.S. Barista Championships and during the pandemic that I’d reached a ceiling in the coffee industry. It’s an interesting realization to have but it’s far from a negative one. Competition taught me the importance of having a platform and how to use it responsibly. It was always my dream to do that at the national level and as soon as I achieved it, I was fulfilled.
But questions of “now what? what’s next?” rang through my mind from that moment at USBC through the rest of 2020. The only thing I knew for sure was that using a platform—any platform—responsibly was the goal. Eventually, plans to turn The Chocolate Barista into a resource for Black coffee culture came to fruition and shortly after, Ghost Town Oats was born. Both fulfill what I gained as a result of my experience at USBC, and competition in general, and now there is no ceiling. The sky's the limit.
What have been some of the hardest moments in building your career? In particular, these past 2 years have dealt out its share of challenges. What have you learned?
The hard moments and tough seasons have usually come down to feelings of inadequacy, and self-sabotage due to plain ol’ fear. Building a career for myself as an entrepreneur took the life out of me for periods of time as I was the only one I had to count on for material stability and caretaking. The return on investment of my time and energy was incredibly unbalanced at first – I wasn’t making enough money consistently to ensure my basics were covered at all times and money management was a trial by fire sort of ordeal. And it still is! But I’m better at it now than I was before and I have even less. But I have hope that that’ll turn around.
Hope has gone a long way for my weary, entrepreneurial soul. I learned that hope comes in so many ways. For me it looked like running into a friend at a coffee shop and receiving a word of encouragement right on time. Hope looked like taking shots at the bar to celebrate life or throwing on my favorite outfit and overloading my phone with selfies. Finding a piece of hope anywhere in my day-to-day keeps me pressing forward no matter what.
If you had a magic wand and could make one change about the coffee industry, what would it be and why?
I would break open every barrier blocking access to resources, information, wealth, stability, and great taste experiences so everyone a part of it, namely coffee farmers and hourly coffee workers, can get what they truly deserve.
On days when you are tired to wake up, what are things (besides coffee ;-) ) that get you out of bed?
I look forward to those mornings when just the thought of seeing the sun and breathing some fresh air on the balcony motivates me to get up. I never regret it. But most days, hunger gets me out of bed.
What does your morning coffee ritual look like?
My coffee ritual changes all the time! Sometimes I’m really tedious about my ritual and other times, I’ll make coffee haphazardly just to get some caffeine in my system. What does remain consistent is a pause to thank the universe for another day and for blessing me with the skillset to make something delicious for myself every time hahaha!
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 enjoy a range of vibes — R&B, lofi hip hop and jazz, and quite a bit of rap. My Spotify Discover Weekly or other comparable playlists based on my current tastes are great to work out because I don’t often know the music already, so it allows me to focus more on what I’m doing and less on singing!
There are a ton of Barista Jams playlists I’ve made over the years that are great to throw on at your coffee shop or work to: https://open.spotify.com/user/meeshal/playlists
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?
Move with integrity. Radical transparency and honesty isn’t just for the supply chain; it goes for navigating relationships with one another too!
Photo by Eric J. Grimm
We would love to learn about your newest project, Ghost Town Oats. Can you tell us a little more about it?
Sure! When we thought of what the typical oat milk drinker looked like or who they were, our answer didn’t exactly reflect who we were. So, we’ve sought out to redefine the culture of oat milk and Ghost Town Oats was born! Just like how The Chocolate Barista carves out space for the world to wrap its mind around the existence of Black coffee culture and therefore open even more avenues for everyone to celebrate themselves in coffee, Ghost Town Oats is doing the same in the plant-based space. We’re really excited to continue building this company and see where things go in the future. There are a lot of exciting things on the horizon so stay tuned!
Are there other projects you are working on that you would love people to know about?
Yes! There’s a pop-up arm of The Chocolate Barista called Cafe Creosote, inspired by my time living in Phoenix. Our drinks incorporate ingredients I came across in the desert like agave and prickly pear. We imagine our target customer as someone who likes their drinks sweet but flavorful. Whether you like floral + sweet, earthy + tangy + sweet, or just plain coffee + sweet, Cafe Creosote has you covered.
Right now we’re on a hiatus but you can usually find us at the Black Market Flea here in Los Angeles. We’re excited to come back later this spring and serve our community again. We’re also available to pop-up for private events too!
How can people find out more about you and follow your projects?
You can always follow us on Instagram at @thechocolatebarista and @ghosttownworld or if you want to see me outside of what I do, my personal Instagram is @michellenotmeesh. Also hit me on twitter: @michellerenee_j
Editor's note: And if you enjoy reading The Chocolate Barista and would like to support their mission of continuing to be a go-to resource for Black coffee culture, you can support them here.