Boss Barista: Pouring Out the Truth

Words by
Tess Malone
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Boss Barista: Pouring Out the Truth

Since 2019, former barista Ashley Rodriguez has published a Substack and podcast, Boss Barista, on all things coffee culture. From the infamous hipster barista meme to Starbucks union analysis, her stories blend in-depth reporting, humor, and probing conversations—and put the focus on the workers who power the coffee industry. Morgenmete interviewed Rodriguez to learn how she got started, discuss the process of monetizing a Substack newsletter, and delve into labor issues in coffee.

How did you start Boss Barista?

In 2016, there were two guys hosting a coffee podcast that said they were opening up a roasting business and retail space but no women had applied even though they “were super married and won’t hit on you.” I sent an email that said, “Just because you’re married doesn’t mean they’re safe spaces for women.” At first they engaged, and then it got weird. I thought if these fucking clowns can do this, I can do this. Boss Barista started as a response to the idea that if these are the guys talking about coffee, and people are listening all over the nation, there needs to be a counterpoint. I was reading once how Liz Phair wrote “Exile in Guyville” as a feminist response to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.”; I had that in mind when I started the podcast in 2017 and the newsletter in 2019.

What is it like running a Substack?

I quit my full-time job in January 2021, and I brought in an editor. Anything that sounds good is because of my editor, Claire Bullen. She works a couple hours a week editing all my pieces. I make a pretty rigorous publishing schedule: I publish the podcast on Tuesday, a response to the podcast on Thursday, and then a longform piece the following Thursday. I was so resistant to going paid for the Substack. I don’t want to paywall anything, but in April 2022, I was approached by somebody at Substack about applying for a food writers group, and I got that. It was a $10,000 grant with pretty rigorous coaching. They told me to go paid and see what happens, and that you don’t need a paywall, so I did, in August 2022. I have 117 paid subscribers right now and 2,700 regular subscribers [as of September 2023]. It makes $8,000 a year, but Substack takes 10% of that.

How do you come up with your newsletter topics?

I am very observant. I notice everything and try to put it all together. I try to stay on top of news, and I still have a lot of colleagues who are connected to coffee in some way. With most topics I often think, “How is no one else talking about this?” I pitched my hipster barista piece to everyone, because it was the 10-year anniversary of that meme. There was definitely a time when baristas were standoffish, but I’ve never been treated like this meme. Really, the barista meme is about a culture of not knowing versus knowing about coffee. But baristas are not empowered to be friendly, which comes from management and training. That’s a failure of leadership, not the barista.

What’s the future of Boss Barista?

I am still the only person writing about coffee in the way I write about it, but Boss Barista has really evolved. It started as a feminist response to these two coffee bros, but that’s not what Boss Barista is anymore. The focus now is on labor, and I don’t see other coffee publications talking about labor very seriously. I was talking about the opposition to the Starbucks union to somebody who asked if it’s about money, but it’s absolutely not; it’s about power. It’s a

gift: The workers have given [now-former Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz a union. They’re telling him in a beautiful way, “We want to work here, and we want to make your business better.” If he acknowledged their union, Schultz would win a Nobel Peace Prize.

How much coffee do you drink?

I drink a normal amount, nothing after 12 p.m. I will wake up and make a cup or two in my Kalita Wave—black. If I am out and about, I might get a shot of espresso. I have an espresso machine at home, but I would never tell someone to get one. Just go to a coffee shop, because they’re going to make it better.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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