In the direct company of Ezra Baker, all feels so simple in coffee culture.
His, isn’t a baker’s dozen – Master Barista – but a story.
Paired with less than half a dozen faces, you’ll find him implausible to forget.
Evening ascends on the native Georgian and I, as we sit across a communal table at Everyman Espresso in Soho. The snowbird and southern, has just returned from somewhere in the middle of Georgia. A somewhere, where streets are roads, backyards are fields, his mom hunts and the nearest anything is 15 minutes away. That anything isn’t a coffee shop.
His teddy bear personality comes with a tamp of directness. It is with both characteristics, that he takes me on his coffee journey back to Georgia and then to his current Café Grumpy present. His entry into coffee came about quite randomly. After going to school for biochemistry, he had a job working in biotech, but hated it. It didn’t take long before a prompt came along that caused him to move to New York nearly five years ago.
“I got a job at a bad cafe, but I moved to a better one, and then to an even better one and landed a job at Gimme! Coffee and eventually became their lead barista.” He stayed at Gimme! Coffee for a while until he moved on to a short stint at Blue Bottle Coffee followed by Cafe Grumpy where he’s now been in coffee residence for the past year.
smdlr: Can you share your normal coffee drinking ritual?
ezra baker: I don’t make coffee at home here, no-no. Its because the setup at work is too perfect,I have everything there that I need to control and make what I want.
On work days, that’s if I’m on the Lower East Side, I don’t have coffee until I get to work. I don’t even leave the house until its time to go to work. I like to be totally pure – I don’t eat, I don’t brush my teeth until I dial in.
s: That’s a serious ritual.
eb: Yea. I’ll dial in 3 shots, drink a bit of each one so I can taste it. Then I’ll make a pour over and I’ll drink it while I’m taking customers and I like sharing some with customers too. On a day when I’m not working, of course it’s different, I do all the regular things. And, on those days, its really nice to have someone make you coffee for a change.
s: Where do you like to go to have someone make you coffee?
eb: I like to go to Gimme! Coffee on Lorimer and I’ll sit and talk with friends into the afternoon. I’ll usually have 2-3 cups of something.
s: Between working and not working, it appears like you spend a lot of time in coffee shops.
eb: You can get sucked into a void. He laughs.
On a day off, I spend about two hours in a coffee shop. And then it usually moves onto something else from there. Like, I like to see whose working at Cafe Grumpy and depending on whom I want to talk to, I’ll go there too.
s: How would u define yourself in the context of being a barista?
eb: It’s about personal habits. There’s more latitude at Café Grumpy. When you’re at the store especially on the Lower East Side, you’re the boss; it’s your show, your shift. So, I feel more like a freelancer since there is so much freedom. Being a barista too is a social gig. My gig is to show up and run a cafe for 6 hours – its good, really good for people with a lot of experience.
s: When I visited Cafe Grumpy your playlist ranged from Rihanna to Toro y Moi. It was quite a diverse sensibility that day. What accounts for what comes out of the speakers?
eb: I’m selfish, I play what I want to hear. It could be like Prince’s Purple Rain to the xx three times in a row. And, at the Lower East Side store you can pretty much play what you want. There’s tons of designers, bloggers and street style people coming in and they don’t care.
s: I’m curious, do you ever get requests?
eb: No, I wouldn’t take it any way. He laughs again but louder. I don’t want customers to think about that. But, I’m always thinking about them, and what’s happening in the space. I like hearing what people have to say, its fun. Oh, and I love reading Yelp reviews.
s: Yelp reviews? Thats a first I’ve heard, tell me why.
eb: You can find good in the bad reviews. But, I can also tell what kind of experience a person had by how they write reviews. People just usually want what they want.
s: There is something quite certain about your coffee beliefs as you speak, may I ask, what are you inspired by?
eb: Coming from biochemistry, I like using my hands, making things. I had a job where I used to make sandwiches. My boss told me even if you’re making pb & j, it should be the best.
I’m inspired to make the best coffee that I can. I really want to give people what I would want to drink and I want to make it so that it tastes good. That desire drove me to not wanting to do science anymore; just let me make things that’s fun and let me tell people my personal story.
s: That is inspiring. I love a good story.
eb: My personal customer service personal philosophy, is, “Hey what are you up to, what do you want to drink?” That really works for me, so I don’t do fake smiles and all that jazz.
s: Can we talk about your process and thought on style and fashion?
eb: Fashion is expensively dressed, generic looking and style is personal. For me, I like to keep it simple and I don’t typically wear prints. I like to be somewhat masculine with a softness. So today it’s this Rodarte sweater. And oh, I like to wear baseball hats.
s: I noticed it when we met today, tell me about it.
eb: I don’t like hats actually. But, last summer I got it because I had to wear a hat as a barista, not anymore now. Anyway, a friend works at Opening Ceremony, I went in, I liked Kenzo, saw it and got it.
I don’t buy a lot of things. I’m mood driven and it takes me forever to buy something. Its, “how emotionally invested am I? Like, I have a really good pair of Yucatan shoes that I should not wear to work, but I do; I love them.
s: How do you navigate your personal role of being emotionally invested as barista, as an engager and an educator?
eb: You know – that’s a good question. I treat people like regular friends that would come to my house, I’m not directly nice, and I’m not trying to B!&$S&$#! people either.
s: So then Ezra, what fulfills you, in all of this?
eb: Making people things; I’ve always been like that.
His eyes light up, and I sense more is coming. And, more does come.
eb: In middle school, I’d bake cookies secretly. My grandma lived next door, and I’d bring them to her. It was something about that, that I loved – working with my hands for others. Now, I’m not orderly, but I love process and coffee is a lot of process.
s: Aha, and there is a difference between order and process.
eb: True. When it comes to explaining coffee and process, there’s a point when a customer’s eye will glaze over. There’s a line when you have to know how they are reacting and you have to pull it back, break it up. You want their interest; you don’t want to overwhelm them. In this city, depending on the neighborhood, people will wait for anything – they just want some coffee.
s: Just like that, Ezra makes it all sound unencumbered, simple even. You know, it is, as is he.