Bad Batch: Dana McKnight
Dana McKnight is a Coffee Educator at Epoch Coffee in Austin, TX. She has worked extensively in 2nd and 3rd wave coffee shops in Buffalo, Atlanta, and Austin. Altogether, Dana has 17 years of experience in the coffee industry. She is a published author, art space founder, and all-around amazing human. If she isn’t writing or working, she is tending to her family of plant babies. We caught up over beers in a park on a sunny afternoon to talk about the many many issues that people of color, queer/trans folx, and women are faced with in the workplace. Beers were opened, incense was lit, and a blanket rolled out before we dove into her interview.
Tell us your coffee story: how did you get your start, how long have you been in the industry, and how are you involved now
As a teenager, Spot Coffee was the coolest place in the city. I would take train to get down there after school. It was five stops down on the subway, around the corner from another high school; Hutch Tech. It had the most diverse, eclectic range of people. It was awesome. The baristas were badass. More than that, all the ravers were there, the club kids, the goth kids, the hiphop heads, literally everybody was there. It was the most diverse space I had seen. At the time I was living deep in the hood. I went to a predominantly white school. Going to Spot Coffee allowed me to hang out with amazing humans and get turnt on coffee. I found my first coffee gig on Craigslist in 2001. I was 18 and had just gotten out of high school. I got hired to work at this coffee kiosk at the University of Buffalo. We pulled shots on an old rinkity-dinky manual lever machine that looked like it was out of the movie Howl’s Moving Castle.
I traveled abroad during college, picking up random under-the-table bartending gigs to supplement my nonexistent income. When I got back to the states, I spent some time in Atlanta and then moved back to Buffalo. A barista position opened up at Spot Coffee and I went for it. That’s when I started getting into specialty coffee. When I started working for Jesse Crouse at Tipico, I realized I could have a career in coffee. I was interviewed and hired with the idea that coffee was a career. I had never considered this before because most baristas I know use coffee as a financial supplement for personal projects. After Tipico I started working at a winery. My friend was a vita-horticulturalist who was tasked with saving vines from blight. Our job was to go in and fix the vineyards with technical pruning (it’s like the brain surgery for horticulturalists). During my time there, I learned there is a lot of crossover between coffee and wine. Vineyards are set up just like coffee farms. There are micro-lots and everything is hand-picked. I learned how to taste the difference in quality. I was able to see the relationship between the farmers and the workers. It gets really shotty. You have to have a representative for the workers to guarantee fair wages. Farmers were trying to slight us! I experienced this first hand. Low-level labor will not produce a quality product. We were hand-picking everything!
After that, I moved to Austin. I tattooed my face to ensure that no matter what job I worked, people would accept me for who I am. I was looking for a place that fit my ideals. I found Epoch through my partner’s sister. I trusted her judgment, she drinks decent coffee. I am currently the Coffee Educator at the North Loop location. I’m in charge of 12 folks, who are all amazing baristas. I curate the coffee offerings, order coffee, organize cuppings, train new hires, and work baristas on continued education. I’m really curious to see how Epoch is going to evolve when we have five locations (currently, there are 3). The baristas are super excited about coffee and learning. I love getting people curious about coffee. I want to continue on this Coffee Educator path for as long as I can. I love it.
You and your coworker Travers Laville are starting a Black Barista’s Guild. What are your plans for this guild? Why is this guild necessary?
It was Travers’ idea. He approached me because he knew of my background in organizing groups. When I was in Buffalo I ran an art space called Dreamland, which often melded LGBTQIAPK and art. The idea behind the guild is to give space to black baristas and let them know they are not alone. There is amazing comradery between black baristas because there are so few of us. There are specific things that only black folks in the coffee industry deal with. It doesn’t matter how many allies you have, the experience can still be isolating. The guild will be half old-school message board and half directory for POC. Something amazing about Epoch is that there are more baristas of color on staff than I have ever seen in my life. It’s wild. On one hand, there are a small percentage of black baristas who will test your skill set to see if you are up to snuff, but the large percentage will “Elmo-style” flail when they see another black barista in a shop. It’s interesting to see what tokenism does in any alternative industry. I’m a metalhead, and the same tokenism exists within that community. There’s a running joke between black people in the metal scene: they either acknowledge you boisterously or ignore you completely. Which is a really fucked up way of creating space for people. It’s important for coffee shops to go the extra step for people of color. I’m pretty community oriented and I’m glad because marginalized groups are becoming more visible. In the next few years, I hope the guild gets into competition-level stuff.
What can specialty shops do to make a welcoming space for queer/trans/women/poc?
The pretention level needs to drop significantly. There isn’t enough interest in relaying or breaking down the barrier of specialty coffee. You can make things more layman and colloquial. We should explain our coffee offerings to a doctor or a construction worker or a black kid in the same way. I’m super tender with black folks that come in.
Have you experienced racism in the workplace?
I haven’t experienced outright racism in the workplace. I have experienced it at shops that I have walked into. I’ll get a cold response or it will take forever to even acknowledge my presence at the counter. That means I have to be over the top with my coffee knowledge before I can be told the current offerings. I’ve had more instances of sexism on the job accompanied by unwanted sexual touching. It’s even more disgusting because those people know I’m not going to reciprocate. It’s crazy because it doesn’t matter how many queer women I work with, that’s never been the case. Personal space is very important to me.
When a specialty coffee shop opens in a predominantly black neighborhood, this often signifies gentrification. Do black people have the same accessibility to specialty coffee?
There are a lot more black and brown folks working in second wave shops that have a particular potential interest in going farther. Second waves shops are more approachable. Third wave shops tend to be located in areas that contain mostly post-academic or pre-academic demographics which contain few black folks because of existing racism and classism in America. If we approach people who are working in second wave shops, I think we can find those folks who don’t know they have the option to further their careers. I want to get folks working at Dunkin’ Donuts into specialty coffee. Until Tipico, I didn’t think a career in coffee was an option. I don’t think we can do this until we debunk the myth of what specialty coffee is. People are deterred from going into places that are higher end and only have one demographic of customer. When I go into any space I am hyper-aware of getting into trouble for being there. I want to be an SCA instructor. I want to be able to create a safe space for trans/queer/black folx to step into the higher education realm. I don’t want to be the face of specialty coffee, I just want to get black folks and women deeper into the industry. The biggest snafu, sorry—fuck up, of the SCA was under-representing women, black people, and queer folx to the point of making the decision to host a competition in Dubai. I joined the SCA after this incident, but I did so in order to represent a more diverse membership.
Do you have any tips on how to network and gain exposure within a community?
I go to as many events as possible. If you don’t go to events, it isolates you from the community. It’s like a coven: you need the power of three! If you are surrounded by people who share the same passion you will be inspired to push yourself further. Talk to people. Show up. Hold true to who you are and be yourself. You don’t have to be an extrovert. I think I’m more approachable because of my “alt-mom” look and general non-give-a-fuckery. Getting over imposter syndrome is real. Having a boss that did some emotional labor to make me feel qualified really helped. Recognizing my imposter syndrome was easy, but getting over it was not. Positive encouragement goes so fucking far. Imposter syndrome is like herpes, you will always get flare-ups. You have to keep recognizing it and understanding it and push yourself out of it.