Barista Interview: Rachel Haughey of espressoNEAT

Opening a cafe is a dream of many. Whether it’s for the idea and not knowing what to expect. Or after being in the coffee industry for awhile, it’s a dream come true. Whatever you reason to open a cafe or experience in coffee, you should read this first if you are thinking about opening a cafe.

This month, Rachel Haughey, owner of espresso NEAT, tells us about why and how she started her cafe. Along with struggles and successes and some great advice to anyone wanting to open a cafe.

Rachel Haughey_espressoNEATWhen did you start drinking coffee?

I first started drinking coffee when I was in college at UNC–Chapel Hill. Starting in my freshman year, I remember drinking mocha’s or similar sugary, milky coffee drinks from the small shop on campus (where Lem Butler from CCC was often my barista). During my sophomore year, I studied in Paris and my tastes refined a bit. It actually wasn’t the quality of coffee in Paris that impressed me; what I grew to love was the Parisian cafe culture– communal, relational, and not in the least bit hurried.

During this time, I also weaned myself off of sugar and inordinate amounts of milk. When I returned to Chapel Hill my junior year, I set out to find the best cafes in the area, not only for a good cappuccino or filter coffee but also for a good place to study. Although I spent a good bit of time in coffee shops, I was still just beginning to learn about quality coffee.

Why did you decide to become a Barista?

Shortly after getting married, I decided to leave my consulting job in order to pursue things about which I was truly passionate. Around this time, I read an article from the NY Times about “Espresso’s New Wave.” Given my escalating interest in the coffee industry, I was immediately intrigued.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I visited the three shops mentioned in the article (Ninth Street, Gimme!, and Cafe Grumpy), inquired about job opportunities, and gave notice to my boss at the consulting firm (who, by the way, thought I had lost my mind!). Mike White at Gimme! decided to give me a chance, so I have him to thank for my entree into the industry…and Chris Owens (Intelligentsia) too, who gave me much of my espresso training at Gimme!.

What all are you involved with the industry?

Most of my time — and my life, for that matter — is spent in and around Espresso NEAT at 20 Grove Street in Darien, CT. While it’s a small, local business and demands much of my time and attention, I love spending time with my staff and our customers, many who have come to know specialty coffee through our shop.

As a shop, we are a member of the SCAA; Personally, I am a member of the BGA as well. Our shop is close to NYC, so I’m in the city and interacting with coffee folks there on a regular basis.

That said, I have no additional formal attachments to the industry at this time. I do love what’s happening, however, as specialty coffee is on the rise, and I believe firmly that the organizations supporting it are critical to creating the healthy levels of “coopitition” that the wine industry, for instance, has come to know and appreciate.

Why did you decide to open a café?

Honestly, a lot of it was circumstantial…My husband and I had grown accustomed to the quality of speciality coffee in NYC. When we moved to Connecticut in December 2007, we quickly realized that there was a total void out here. The idea of opening a shop to solve that dilemma was often in the back of my mind, but the timing wasn’t quite right.

I was working as a trading analyst at a commodities hedge fund in Greenwich (I ended up there after deciding to pursue my passion for coffee from a different angle– coffee as a commodity). When my fund got hit by the financial meltdown of 2008 and I was laid off as a result of that, my dream of starting a cafe became more real to me.

About the same time, I met Lori, a local Darien resident who was interested in partnering with me to help get the shop off the ground. Although she is no longer involved at Espresso NEAT, she provided a great deal of help and expertise in the first 18 months of the business. Our goal was to create a place for exceptional coffee; I was also intensely focused on and excited about the relational component. I wanted to create a place for community to form in our town.

What struggles did you go through starting your café?

As with anyone starting something from nothing, it’s a long road of simply putting one foot in front of the other, and it’s a never a one person effort. I was fortunate to have partners in the launch that were as serious about good coffee as I was, and I am indebted to them for their support.

The work is not glamorous, and involves a great deal of uncertainty. I also had my share of naysayers and harsh critics as well as those who didn’t take me seriously. Darien, CT is a small town, and I was fortunate to collaborate with the various departments at Town Hall during the process. I think they viewed me as a little kid with a lemonade stand, and I’ll just say that that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing! My greatest advocates and supporters have been Darien’s visionary real estate developers, Penny Glassmeyer and David Genovese. They understand what I am trying to do with the shop and they’ve been pivotal in helping me foster community at the location, owned by Penny.

Do you think working in the industry already made starting your café easier?

My experience at Gimme! was invaluable. The industry has definitely grown a lot since then, and we’re all always learning and growing, but I developed a base frame of reference for all of it during my time there. I fondly recall a formative trip upstate to visit the roastery and spend time with Kevin Cuddeback, the guy behind Gimme!, and the rest of the folks working behind the scenes and/or in the original cafes in Ithaca. Like a sponge, I soaked it all in and learned a great deal from smart and experienced coffee people there.

Also, when NEAT opened, I was the only barista. Had I not been trained myself, we would have been in trouble.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to open their own café?

If you’re not passionate about both coffee AND people, don’t do it.

If you decide to make a go of it, hire and train someone to be your right hand man before you actually open… I didn’t really do this, but I was fortunate to have a friend, Chad McCracken (from Kaldi’s in St. Louis) who actually came to CT and stayed for several months just to help out as we got up and running. He was an amazing support in so many ways, and I can’t imagine what it would have been like without him.

Also, I would say that it’s important to stick to your convictions. For example, we don’t offer size options (and no, our one size is not anywhere close to a trenta), half-caff, flavored coffees, flavor syrups (aside from a house-made vanilla), espresso to-go, etc… A lot of people come in with a certain set of expectations based upon their coffee experiences elsewhere, and you have to be okay with not meeting their expectations, per se.

Hopefully, you end up exceeding their expectations by serving them a drink that is better than anything they’ve known before. But as long as you are kind and explain why you do what you do, I think you’ll find that most people will respect quality and therefore, get your “rules.” Not everyone will like them, but that’s inevitable, regardless of what you do. Oh, and don’t ever stop having fun.
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QOTD– What questions do you have for starting a cafe? Let us know in the comments.

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Jennifer

Jennifer has been in the coffee industry since 2003. She started Daily Demitasse to educate and share her experience with other passionate coffee enthusiasts, from a Barista, Cafe Manager, shop Owner and freelancer perspective. When she's not working or blogging, you can find her at Transpire Life.

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