Holly Birrer, Gabriella Mulisano and Christina Snyder met me on a rainy July afternoon at Clifton’s Rohs Street Cafe, where the first two work as baristas. The third, Snyder, just finished a roasting session for Deeper Roots, where they work. Typical coffeehouse ambiance fills the moment: wafting conversations, the clanging of ceramic mugs, soft music.
The trio feels unified despite not having known each other for long. There’s a reason for that: Bitchy Baristas. The group’s Instagram page (@bitchy.baristas) was founded in early July with the goal of creating a safe space for Cincinnati’s specialty coffee community to openly discuss barista rights and, ultimately, create change for the better. (Barista is a non-gendered term.)
It was an idea that Birrer says she first began brainstorming over two months ago as she “was fuming just thinking about all the things that are happening in the specialty coffee world,” especially locally. She wanted to do something but at the time she didn’t know exactly what that was. It was through a woman she had worked with five years ago at another workplace coming to her and discussing problems she was facing as a working barista that made Birrer come to the conclusion that she could no longer keep quiet.
“The fact that she felt safe enough to come to me was like, OK, that means there are other people,’ Birrer says. “Since then, I’ve had a couple of other people come and talk to me, confide in me and I’ve helped two people get jobs; I just want people to be in safe places that value and respect them.”
Bitchy Barista’s initial Instagram post reinforces that sentiment: “You are not alone. Your voice matters, your experience matters. And we are here for you. We deserve to feel SAFE in our workplaces without fear of upper management. We deserve living wages and transparency. No more theft of labor. No more sexual harassment. No more discrimination.”
Aside from helping people land jobs locally and holding conversations, they also helped organize for Rüya Coffee — a People’s Liberty grant recipient that brought traditional Turkish coffee to Over-the-Rhine — to have monthly pop-ups at Rohs (the first is next month).
Birrer started working at Rohs earlier this summer and when she first voiced her idea for Bitchy Baristas to Mulisano, she was completely on board — as was the management at Rohs. Snyder feels the same support from Deeper Roots. But they’re quick to note that not all baristas or roasters have the privilege to work in such supportive environments.
In part, Bitchy Baristas found inspiration from a group in America’s coffee capital, Seattle. In June, a group of five baristas from popular coffeehouse Slate Coffee Roasters taped their resignation letters to their storefront’s door, alleging late paychecks and the management’s failure to address what they called a “toxic work environment.”
Following the walkout, they formed Coffee at Large, which has since amassed over 8,000 followers on Instagram and is in the process of becoming a nonprofit “to shed light upon workplace injustice in the specialty coffee world.”
Birrer says she reached out to the organization when first forming Bitchy Baristas — they have been supportive from the start. One of Coffee at Large’s founders, Felix Tran, even designed Bitchy Baristas’ logo, a portafilter cleverly designed like a scepter from Sailor Moon. The trio points to a host of other organizations that have inspired them. Among them is #CoffeeToo — which aims to provide resources to put an end to discrimination and harassment — and Get You Some Gear, which sends coffee gear and education materials to minority baristas who otherwise cannot afford or access it.
As of now, Bitchy Baristas has three main goals. For starters, they want to be a safe space for anyone in the coffee industry to feel free to express themselves and connect with each other. Birrer says that they want to focus on underrepresented minorities — i.e. people of color, LGBTQ individuals, women, etc.
To foster this, they plan to host monthly meetups — their first was on July 9 — to get to know one another in a fun, positive environment.
“What’s so nice about specialty coffee is it gives you the opportunity to make people feel special,” Birrer says. “But you yourself can feel special, too.”
The second point hinges on the concept of baristaship, which takes into account not only a barista’s professional development but also their personal well-being. With their organization, they hope to create a space for baristas to teach their peers skill sets. The same goes for roasters. Many specialty coffee businesses ask that their employees become certified in varying techniques, which more often than not require classes that can be costly if paying out of pocket. (Rohs pays for their employees to take courses.)
“Maybe we can’t have people get certified or anything, but we can improve their everyday knowledge and give them the competency to learn on their own,” Birrer says. “Because sometimes people are so afraid to even start learning on their own.”
She adds that they hope to host events like a women’s/non-binary latte art throwdown, panel discussions, coffee cuppings and provide coffee gear to burgeoning baristas who otherwise don’t have the means to access those tools.
As Snyder says: “There's such strength in marginalized communities teaching other marginalized communities together.”
Currently, Snyder is working to create a guidebook that lays out how to navigate mental health and emotional well-being in the workplace and how coworkers can help support one another. Snyder also formed a committee with another employee, saying that Deeper Roots gave them “free rein” to write out policies on how to deal with harassment from both customers and fellow employees.
“A common thing that I hear from every single person within this industry is that they feel alone, still,” Snyder says. “...So, I mean, that’s why this group needs to happen. Even if you just have baristas hanging out with each other, there’s power in that.”
By next year they hope to have a table at the Cincinnati Coffee Festival. Also on the horizon, they want to partner with employment lawyers willing to volunteer their time to speak to them about employee rights and discrimination. But, certainly, they’ve already made waves in the local specialty coffee scene.
The root of all outrage, Snyder says, is compassion. To that point, Mulisano says that she has felt the fear of speaking up and seeming like a “bitch” simply because she’s using her voice, but through connecting with Birrer and Snyder, she feels safe and supported. Together, their voices are stronger and louder — if that makes them seem bitchy, well, as Birrer puts it, “Fine. I'm a bitchy barista then.”