barista > tinuade oyelowo : cafe grumpy

It’s mid-afternoon and even by New York standards, it’s freezing.

However, there’s a lovely reminder that I can be in the presence of what feels like a luminary

– not the moon which can glow at a crescent of its size –

but the bright and full spirit of sunshine that exists as Ms.Tinuade Oyelowo.

As we meet, the chorus, “If you let me, I’ll take care of you” sounds out of the speakers at the Lower East Side, Café Grumpy. The words belong to Rhianna, however, they might as well emanate from Oyelowo, as its the aim of this Nigerian-American barista, who is going on her seventh year within the profession and without a visible sign of a matrimonial itch.

Before becoming a Brooklyn resident, Oyelowo lived in Chicago, Seattle and prior to both, grew up in Florida.  Her first move occurred at eighteen and the destination was Seattle. “I was the oddball out, but with coffee, I experienced a culture that was accepting and inviting.”

Then, Seattle was the epicenter of specialty coffee, which brings her to speak of the locale with high esteem. Her cheeks rise as she speaks of a constant cultural scene of strangers having conversations, strangers reading. Then, they rise a little more as she confesses, “I fell in love with it, them, and the culture. But, I was also privileged to have my palette be taken advantage of in a way that I hadn’t experienced.”

As this Seattle eye opening experience became rooted within her, so did her love for how to experience a bean. After her undergraduate work, her education and an internship took her Midwest, Chicago specifically.

There she worked for a micro-roaster, Metropolis, where opportunity abounded. “I learned so much; I was behind the counter and I now had the knowledge and experience to give to others,”

Slow forward, four and a half years later, Oyelowo considered a presented opportunity to move to New York, which is where she’s lived for more than a year now.  One can experience her, and her colorful kaleidoscope of style at one of the Café Grumpy storefronts between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

When I ask her how being a barista makes her feel, her eyes widen and her head tilts down to a quasi-meditative slant.

to: “Its exciting. I feel like this is my New York, and New Yorkers and I are in this together. But it’s important not to get caught up in the subculture.  Catering to what’s next is important to what’s going on in the industry but you can’t let it overtake you. What I love about Cafe Grumpy baristas is that we understand that at the end of the day it’s about making a good cup of coffee and being up on your craft.

s: You’re moving into your seventh year as a barista. What have you learned?

to: At Metropolis I learned a lot about coffee, and what a roaster was. When I was there, there was a group that I was able to work close to, which helped me to put a lot in perspective. Coffee is not something to throw away; it’s about responsibility and the energy, time and effort that goes into creating an end product.

s: What is your coffee ritual?

to: I don’t like making coffee at home. My gift to myself is getting coffee. There’s all this luxury in that, and for a little of nothing.  When I come in, right away I have an espresso – double shot – the full extraction, give it to me baby! Then, a twelve-ounce coffee for here, which I don’t usually finish, and then usually another espresso. That’s followed by a cup of tea at the end of the day. And after that it’s the end of the day, which is when I move on to Whiskey, I like Neat, with a few ice cubes on the side.

s: Whiskey, minus the ice cubes – I’m bookmarking. So, please tell me about what you’re wearing today; there are large earrings, a chunky necklace, a printed top and fabulously large hair among other things.

to: For me, it’s not about labels. You can tell how bad I’m feeling by how bright my colors are. My clothes are an extension of myself. But, if these three could blend; poor girl chic, meets Punky Brewster with Angela Davis than that’s my style. There comes a point I’m going to embrace the fakeness of what I wear.  My cheetah ring is plastic but it brings me joy when I look at it. It’s the same as when kids play, the comfort of self-expression, that’s what I feel.

s: Self-expression; its everything. I believe that’s why so many colorful people speak to me, I hear them communicating before they are actually saying anything.

to: Early in my life I had to be creative, I don’t have the body type where I can walk in and get something. It was like what can I do with that and make it my own. When I go into certain stores for things, there’s a lot of people who don’t go to those stores, so its like couture to me, limited edition.

s: Welcome to my thrifting world. We laugh. I am curious, what do you think about culture and space when applied to coffee?

to: I remember an idea of Metropolis was to create a forum, a space where people want to meet and gather and share ideas. We lack it in our cultures. Think about it, when we eat, we look down. When we watch movies look up. But to be together, when someone says thank you, to you, it trickles down many, many steps.

s: Its like you are speaking my cultural language. The coffee space can be like holy ground for those interactions and connections.

to: Its like the energy of going to a live football game with strangers does something, its celebratory, being able to create that community with people you don’t know. Its like that first best cup of coffee. You want to create that for whoever comes in – mellow music, energy, design – however it is, I want someone to walk away and say, “I met somebody.”

s: Is there an ultimate barista day for you and where is your fulfillment?

to: A great day is when I’m giving something I proud of to someone that appreciates it.  I love people, learning about coffee knowledge and I can geek about it. But, we don’t exist without customers.

s: How do you approach the customers that walk through the door?

to: I take ownership of every cup. Its about accessibility, coffee should be accessible to everyone. They should know above anything that they are getting what they need, what they want. Then, they come back and then the questions come. More than telling about a bean, its those moments where a customer feels, ‘oh wow, hey yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Many of us baristas, we are the outsiders, the bookworms and the geeks in other ways. We find homes here. Café Grumpy is great for that, you don’t have to worry about, say rent, while your boss wants you to worry about the beans. It’s that balance of opportunity for self and for the craft.

s: Speaking of opportunity, this season you make a cameo on HBO’s ‘Girls’, as a barista working at Café Grumpy. Can you share what its like to play a caricature of your character?

to: I thought it would be easy. Like, I would actually be using my machine, grabbing my portafilter, dosing properly but it didn’t end up that way.  There are a lot of other factors to being on set, but I loved it. It was exciting, it hasn’t hit me yet, still feels surreal.

s: I can imagine. If I were to ask you how you define being a ‘girl’ in New York City, what would you say?

to: It’s a sense of mad fierceness, tough, being determined, all merged into one. You have to have individuality and be true to who you are, while open to possibility. If you know who you are, at the end of the day that’s it.

Her arms move as she speaks, and her flower patterned sleeves fly, fly into the space where something is brewing. It smells of coffee, but what it feels like is a voice in a very cultural and colorful revolution.

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