Featured photo: Christopher Pierce and Ashley Griffeth started Loom Coffee Co. in early, shortly after the pandemic. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Christopher Pierce and Ashley Griffeth don’t mind paying more for their cup of coffee. In fact, they want others to get used to it too.
Loom Coffee Co. opened for business in early 2020, shortly after the pandemic, specializing in what is known as “third-wave specialty coffee.” The co-founders, Christopher Pierce and Ashley Griffeth, collectively have more than two decades of experience working with coffee.
“I realized that Greensboro is a more opportune place to do something like this because it’s not on the map in terms of specialty coffee,” says Pierce who lived in Asheville prior to moving to Greensboro.
In order for coffee to be labeled as specialty, it has to adhere to certain standards and receive scores above 80 points from the Specialty Coffee Association. But what Pierce and Griffeth are aiming to do isn’t just bring high-quality brews to local shops. They’re looking to change the way customers, baristas and business owners think about coffee as a whole.
“In Greensboro, you’ve got a lot of cafés that are not so much about showcasing the talent and skill of the craftspeople but more about customer service and the customer experience,” says Pierce, who worked in horticulture before getting into coffee. “And I think that to really have quality, you’ve got to have a marriage of both.”
One of the main issues that both Pierce and Griffeth say they see in many coffee shops is that they don’t pay their employees enough to care about their work, or to see making coffee as a viable career path.
“The businesses models that we see in Greensboro are predicated on cheap coffee and cheap labor,” Pierce says. “Folks don’t want to see the price of a cup of coffee go up. They assume that coffee should be cheap and is a ubiquitous commodity. And when it comes to the labor side, those types of the business models tend to rely on the tipping system to pay pretty close to the minimum wage.”
A quick look at barista wages on Indeed, a job searching website, confirms Pierce and Griffeth’s claim that those who work in coffee shops often do so for low pay. While the average base salary for a barista in the US is $12.68 per hour, a map shows that in North Carolina, workers are paid 14 percent less than the national average, which would put the hourly rate at just under $11 or $21,450 per year.
As past baristas both Griffeth and Pierce know what it’s like to create drinks for customers for low wages.
“When you’re not appreciated professionally, there is that type of resentment,” says Griffeth who is the company’s lead roaster. “It’s like, Well, I don’t want to learn more. I don’t want to make money for you.”
But in order to enjoy great coffee, you need not only a great starting product, but also skilled, incentivized laborers, they say.
“When someone’s working for close to minimum wage, they don’t see that as a career and you don’t see cafés offering intensive training and a path to growing their skill set,” Pierce says. “So I think that what we want to bring is a place where people can gain skills. Where they can think of themselves as a craftsperson and not just like ‘a barista.’ There’s no unskilled labor in any part of the supply chain.”
Currently Loom is working with just one coffee shop in Greensboro: Borough Coffee, a mobile coffee cart that operates at different locations throughout the week. (Disclosure: Sayaka Matsuoka’s husband, Sam LeBlanc, is an employee of Borough Coffee.) They say they’re in conversation to partner with other businesses, but only if the shops confirm that they are willing to pay their employees a living wage — $15 per hour.
“Specialty coffee for me speaks to the level of incentives and elevating the experience of coffee in its totality,” Griffeth says. “You’re offering education to baristas and career opportunities to kind of stoke that passion for coffee which I think by necessity translates to the customer. When someone is excited about something, it’s something that people can tell and pick up on and it’s also a little contagious and you want to learn more.”
They know that it can be hard for shops to immediately pay all of their employees $15 per hour, so they say they’ll work with owners to map out a plan to eventually get them there. But they have to be willing to work with them.
“If the situation at a café is such that their business model would crumble if they paid a living wage, then what good is that?” Pierce asks. “That is literally a system of oppression.”
And while the two are concerned about those making the coffee drinks getting paid, they also focus their efforts on only buying coffee from importers who pay living wages to the farmers at origin. One of their suppliers, De La Finca out of Holly Springs, is a fifth-generation coffee farmer from Honduras who started importing his family’s coffee to cut out the middleman. It’s about creating an equitable pipeline all the way down to the consumer, they say. That’s even where they name of their company comes from.
“We often use this metaphor that quality coffee comes from a tapestry of cooperation,” Pierce says. “And we imagine those individual threads as the individual stories of different people involved. So the more that we can share the stories, the more we enrich the coffee experience and the more we understand about the interconnectivity that happens along the supply chain.”
The two have big plans for their business, despite being a small operation. As of right now, they roast to order and mostly do online sales, but they’re looking to sell in local shops too. They’re also waiting on a larger roaster to be delivered so they can start producing more product. And who knows? Maybe a few years down the line, they’ll get to open their own coffee shop. But for now, they’re working on shifting the ones that already exist.
“Our business model is based on us having the best coffee in town,” Pierce says. “So if these other brands want to interact with our brand and want to carry our beans, they’ve got to get in alignment with our values.”
Griffeth echoes Pierce’s explanation.
“The quality is the incentive to make these changes,” she says.
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