On the Espresso Trail in Torino

Torino It was a good day at the main location of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on Ponce de Leon Street in New Orleans. Largely due to the inspiration of Cafe Degas across the street from the coffeehouse the Saturday evening after Bastille Day for something of a block party celebration. We do our small part by waving French flags from the balcony and see who wants a cup of coffee before they head home. There’s good spirit, and it’s not one of the military parades that President Trump greets with such relish, since it’s much more of a family affair.

In solidarity, my companera and I walked the streets of the city from dawn until dusk in Italy in the fascinating city of Turin, as English maps call it, and Torino, as the city calls itself. In a full disclosure, I’m a Fair Grinds blend coffee-and-chicory guy. I squirrel away a pound for an over two-week trip like this and try to ratio it so that I can have one or two cups of home brew every day on the road. Mi companera though has become an espresso girl in recent years. She was a stove topper in the manner that we learned in Buenos Aires for a while. Then she went with an Italian brand made somewhere around Milan. I got her an espresso maker for her birthday last year, and recently she got it working to her satisfaction.

recycling in Torino

But, as they say, “when in Rome,” and in this case we were in Torino, and though I was hoarding Fair Grinds coffee-and-chicory, it only make sense and good company to join my companera for an espresso in a bit of field research for our coffeehouses. Howard Schultz, the billionaire behind Starbucks, famously claimed that his experience drinking espresso in Italy drove him to evangelize for coffee and propelled his chain forward. In truth Starbucks did a lot of things but not as much for coffee as it did for milk, by creating a fetish for all manner of drinks that were not simple shots of espresso.

super recycling station

I’ve had some good espressos with perfect crema, the layer of foam on top, but what has amazed me more is the wide variety in pricing. We had a near perfect cup this morning on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II for one euro a cup and I spent another euro on a delightful nut and confection bar called a “torinocino.” That might not be exactly the right name, so I’ll obviously have to go back and have another and write it down this time to see if we can get someone to make them at Fair Grinds. Darned this field research is hard work. Elsewhere it has been a euro thirty, a euro twenty, and a euro fifty. In France sometimes it was two euros. One euro seems right, since that’s more than a dollar in the States, and no matter how good, there are only a couple of sips to it.

Mi conpanera thought she should help out and wanting something cold she spotted some women at the coffee bar in the marketplace near the River Po spooning a white substance out of their glasses from a machine with Eraclea labeled on it. Turned out this was a granita, and Eraclea makes a bunch of them with different mixes. Hers had a lemon flavor, I thought, and pineapple she felt, so maybe it was both or neither.

one of many public water fountains in Torino

Of course one of the reasons she swears by espresso is that the machines require filtered water to work well, and of course that means no lead to the head. Fair Grinds uses filtered water on all of our machines, and we assume the same goes for the espresso makers of Torino.

There are worse ways to spend your time that trying to figure out the city and stand at a coffee bar and take a couple of quick sips to down an espresso shot.

park bench along the River Po

A glass espresso on Corso Vittorio Emmanuel II

Eraclea granita machine

An espresso along the River Po

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Gilmore Girls Blow up Fair Grinds Coffeehouse

dscn1914Little Rock    It all seemed simple enough. Through the on-and-off challenge of erratic email in Cameroon, I got an email from a marketing company asking if Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, our social enterprise fair trade operation in New Orleans, was willing to do something they called a “Luke’s Diner” pop-up for 5 hours on a Wednesday for Netflix. It seems they were trying to revive the old “Gilmore Girls” television show sometime later in the year. They would pay us for up to 250 free cups of coffee to giveaway. They would do the promo and send us cups, sleeves, and some t-shirts or aprons and such.

What did I know from the “Gilmore Girls?” I might have watched them for a couple of minutes sometime back in the day while flipping through channels perhaps. Sort of a rom-com, adult soap opera of sorts tilted toward a female demographic. I looked at the calendar. It was a Wednesday. Someone willing to buy 250 cups of coffee on a Wednesday morning, usually a somewhat slow day, what did we have to lose, I thought? I forwarded the message over to Zee Thornton, our manager, saying as much, but warning that I was buried, so she would have to pull the trigger on any contract, since I couldn’t sign and scan from Douala.

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I was a little worried when I read the contract they sent over which had a line that they could unilaterally disregard everything they said in the contract on a whim, so I objected to the marketing company. Their agent replied. Hmmm. Then he suggested we just scratch that line out and sign it and see what might happen. That seemed a little sketchy to me, but, what the heck, Zee could handle it, and how bad could this be, Gilmore Girls, maybe 50 or 100 folks would show up. I would roll by and check it out as I left for meetings in Greenville, Mississippi, and Little Rock, Arkansas.

The “Gilmore Girls” blew up Fair Grinds! It was crazy! When I got there at 730 AM, an hour after we opened on Ponce de Leon, the line stretched from our counter, out the door, and snaked down the street, and around the corner of ’s grocery store at the end of the block. I took a picture from our balcony and, having seen many marches and demonstrations, it looked like Fair Grinds was the target of an action! Luckily Zee had showed up for a look too, so she was behind the counter with two baristas. The opener said that when he got there at 530 AM, there was already a line. I left at 8 AM to hit the highway after trying to reassure folks along the line that we were slinging the coffee, and it wouldn’t be long.

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I asked the crowd of largely younger, white women, what was up? Many said they had watched it with their mothers. The series had run between 2000 and 2007. This would have been its 16th anniversary. One young woman on a bicycle who used to work at Canseco’s told me when she was working in the neighborhood, she had told her parents that this whole neighborhood reminded her of the Gilmore Girls neighborhood. Unlike most crowds, they were totally mellow, chitchatting as they inched along, patient, just sort of grinning about being at some kind of a Gilmore Girls lovefest. It could have been drugs, but I don’t think so.

It turned out we were out of the free coffee before 9 AM, and had used all 500 cup sleeves not much after that. Netflix worked this promotion in 200 coffee houses and cafes around the country. I’m not sure it cost them much more than $100 – $150000 nationally. We had radio, television, and newspapers before, during, and after the event. It was a total happening! I looked on-line, and USA Today had a story about a similar line and Luke himself showing up at a joint in Los Angeles.

Wild. My son, Chaco, the Fair Grinds assistant manager, who showed up luckily to restock and help out, posted on Facebook that he was going to have to check this show out now and see what was up.

You think you know something about organizing and moving a crowd, but there’s always something to learn!

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Please enjoy Hiss Golden Messenger’s Biloxi. Thanks to KABF.

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Tipping is Not Only Bad for Workers, It’s Bad for Legal Businesses

tipsLittle Rock    Sara Jayaraman, the co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the Food Labor Research Institute at the University of California at Berkeley recently wrote an impassioned op-ed largely trying to put pressure on Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, to extend the increase in wages from fast food to all workers in the state. She made many excellent arguments including the racialized history of tipping, the progress in Europe in moving away from tips, and the low waged ghettos of largely women workers dependent on tips and often vulnerable because of that dependency, One argument she didn’t make is that by eliminating tipping as part of food service workers pay, we would be bringing the restaurant industry out of the gray market of dodgy, illegal wage practices and putting all businesses on an equal legal footing.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is clear. When tips are part of the income paid the worker, the employer is required to pay withholding, social security, unemployment, and workman’s compensation on the full sum of the wages paid. As every employer knows the full package often is 25% to 30% more than the wages themselves. The FLSA requirement is not just for restaurants using the $2.13 per hour tip credit wage and offset the gap between $2.13 and the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour my adding the tips in, but for all workers no matter what the hourly wages paid and what level of tips are collected.

Logically and justly, this is the way it should be obviously. A food service worker should have the same opportunity for unemployment as other workers and the same opportunity when they reach retirement to collect on their full and actual wages – including tips which often exceed their hourly pay – when they are elderly. The Department of Labor doesn’t live in a fantasy world, and there is no pretense that even a fraction of employers are paying the full package. Basically, they look the other way. There have been enforcement strategies where there has been a mandated percentage, starting at 8%, paid on the assumption of unreported tips dating back more than 30 years. Ironically, there are more rules and enforcement about employers keeping their hands out of the tip pool than there are rules to make employers pay what they are required in benefits for their workers on the tips.

All of which puts legal employers at a huge financial disadvantage in the market. Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans is a 100% fair trade, small, social enterprise L3C business, supporting ACORN International’s community organizing in Latin America, India, and Africa. We pay a non-tipped minimum wage of $7.25 and a tip pool adds another $6 to $8 dollars per hour, depending on the season. We pay, as required, the full package of benefits to our workers. We are, in fact, members of ROC, but we are at a huge disadvantage in the marketplace as well.

Arguably, the straight wage is compensated by our community of customers that buy our coffee, tea, and food. The tips are hypocritical gratuity, where on both sides of the transaction the customer and worker pretend it’s a gift, knowing full well that it’s a vital part of wages. Fair Grinds though has no income stream that gives us the money to pay our 30% legal obligation on the tipped part of the wages though. We in effect are subsidizing the “gift” of the customer and the wage of the worker.

Meanwhile Starbucks acts like it’s a hero for paying $10 per hour and like almost all restaurant employers, looking the other way on the tips. And, the small time competitors just look the other way and hope they don’t get caught, while quietly and directly exploiting their workers. Danny Meyer, the big whoop high-end New York restaurateur, has gotten huge publicity for raising wages and eliminating tips at his restaurants and doing so by raising prices. Not sure why he gets praise for this, since he just saved his operation money, because if he were operating legally like Fair Grinds he would have been paying the package out of his own pocket, and now by raising prices he is paying his workers legally out of his customer’s pockets and clearing more money by doing so.

While people pretend to be oblivious of how workers’ pay and employers’ obligations work, social enterprises and straight shooters like a Fair Grinds who are not in a market position to simply charge a premium to cover the costs that our competitors ignore, businesses rip-and-run over their workers and their wages with the implicit permission of lax and lazy government enforcement and explicit support and pretense of their customers.

We need to end tips to put all workers on solid footing and all businesses that employ them on the same even playing field.

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Flyering Door-to-Door is a Constant Neighborhood Education

11096396_1064931363535826_3795957975232855805_oNew Orleans     Opening a new location of our social enterprise Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans was a relief even if we’re still shaking out the kinks, installing the ice machine, this and that.  How we get the word out for our soft opening and early weeks has been a constant conversation filled with many ideas.  One will say how we need to update our social media on Facebook and our website.  Ok, let’s do that.  Another will say, let’s open up for events, a baby shower here, a violin recital there, and a local meeting here and there.  Sounds good, Ok, let’s do that, too.  But, you can’t take an organizer off the streets, so what I wanted was flyers and lots of them and bigger flyers that I could put up on telephone poles, bus stops, and wherever people might gather.  Would it work?  Who knows, but it’s what I know, and what I like, so….

A week of rain finally stopped and I had a commitment from my son, Chaco, to hit the streets with me, so he could take one side, and I could take the other.  I wanted to hit the immediate neighborhood behind our offices and the coffeehouse that was still in the throes of change between a lower income – working African-American neighborhood and the first waves of urban pioneers and families grabbing something semi-affordable in one of our last slivers of a neighborhood in transition, but still close to the French Quarter and the red-hot Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods.  We had cloudy skies, bright pink flyers, and away we went.

Going block to block, door to door, and flyering is always an education, and it’s hard to get one better than street-side.  You miss things from the windshield that are uncovered walking your dogs along the sidewalks and up and down the porches.  The added benefit on a Saturday afternoon is that you also have some stoop sitters, mailbox checkers, and random walkers and workers on the street that can be engaged in conversation.

Until the rain drove us off the turf, Chaco and I managed to cover the grid for an hour.  Almost half the houses are in transition, either “fixed and fine” or under construction in one way or another.  I had not realized this corridor was going so fast.

On the street, neighbors were making the adjustment.  An African-American couple sitting on their porch yelled out at a young 20’s something white couple with the young man uncomfortably wearing a tie, that they looked good dressed up, while the youngsters tried to laugh it off as they walked down the middle of the street.

We had conversations on both sides of the line.  Old residents, some barbequing on their porches or sitting in the shade were uniformly friendly, usually asking if we served breakfast.  They knew our location as next door to the beauty supply house.  Newcomers knew us as next door to the hipster-punk bar, Sibera.

One bicycle rider reminded me that he was already a regular. Right on!  A guy working on his house asked through the window if we were connected to ACORN and then said that he had been a midnight to 2 AM DJ with a woman named May in 2008 and 2009 at KABF in Little Rock, and I told him to get his act together to do the same thing on WAMF once we were on the air in New Orleans.  A big guy bushwacking around the old, abandoned Annunciation church buildings told me it would be some years before they were returned into community service, but they were starting.  He knew about the coffeehouse and returned the flyer so we would save money.  The grandson of the Cuban tire dealer who sold us the building was on St. Rock behind the new food court that just opened, but said he would be by soon for a cup of coffee.  Chaco found outstretched hands from all of the service workers behind the building who were desperate for a place to have a cup of coffee that was away from their workplace.

Raindrops as big a dimes started falling on us as we came back towards the coffeehouse where a baby shower was in progress behind the iron gates and pink ribbons were tied above the sign saying, “closed, open at 6 am.”

We had the flyers out and were really part of the neighborhood, both old and new, now.

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“Soft” Opening for Second Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude

IMG_2909New Orleans        They call it a “soft” opening because it’s a way to cushion the hard falls that come when something like a fair trade coffeehouse makes its debut.  After three-and-a-half years running Fair Grinds Coffeehouse as a social enterprise supporting our organizing in another neighborhood, we aren’t exactly rookies anymore, but no matter the amount of preparation, something is going to give.

Set to open at 6AM on what we called “No Fool’s Day,” I drove over in the pre-dawn minutes before the gates would open officially to find Stella Giblas, our barista, standing on the street with her bicycle leaning against the gate – locked out!   How about that for a worst case scenario?  After getting her in, we were darned if we could figure out how to turn on the new lights over the entranceway.  We even panicked about whether or not we were turning on the espresso machine correctly, especially since it could be years before we ever turn it off again.  Needless to say all of this was no big deal, but it is why soft openings exist.

In the 1970’s I used to think it would be a great idea to have a combined coffeehouse, bookstore, etc, etc, place, so I actually like the ambiance and community of a coffeehouse and find it both compatible with the work and kind of fun in its own way.  Our first customers establishing the new culture of our second location were incredibly interesting.

A Parisian woman and her boyfriend who is interested in Mayan signs and permaculture were the first.  Since she had helped do the menu, she wasn’t quite a civilian, but almost one.  Three tourists who had gotten one of the flyers that my companera, my son, and I had distributed on Sunday afternoon came in.  I’ve always been a big believer in flyers, so here was proof again along with an $18.00 ticket!  A woman biked in who spoke French and was on her way to work.  One of our local librarians turned up who I had flyered yesterday.  A lawyer who does our notary work was there early, as was our electrician.  The first table was occupied by a local gardener who lives in the neighborhood.  She was chatting with an art teacher and her friend on the way to yoga class.   He looked closely at all of our plants.

Stella was on her game behind the coffee bar.  She recognized the plant guy from the paper.  Bingo!  She made some Guatemalan quesadillas, while she was waiting for the first customers, which were not only delicious but big fan favorites.  My office over looks the coffeehouse on a short balcony.  I can hear my daughter, who was the architect and designer of this space, talking downstairs.  I’m a happy man!

Now we need the crowd to multiply so we can squeeze some money from all of this love and labor.

It might be soft, but it seems like a solid start.

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Underpaying Servers Cannot Be Solved by Tipping Technology

gnn-slide-show-TIPNew Orleans               Because the restaurant industry has dominated the lobbying process around past efforts to raise the federal minimum wage in the US, servers, bartenders, and others who receive tips are not paid the current minimum of $7.25 per hour as a guarantee, but have to hustle that wage from a base of $2.13.  Despite all of the calls to reduce inequality, there has not been an increase in the federal minimum during President Obama’s first six years in office, and it’s not a sure thing, but it is a very safe bet there will not be an increase in the last two years of his term.   Meanwhile campaigners, community groups, and labor unions have raised the banners for low wage workers in fast food, Walmart’s, and other bottom scraping employers to pay $15 per hour and the President has proposed raising the federal to $10.10.   Just when the dawn was darkest, the tech industry has joined with the service industry to come up with a solution for this stalemate thank goodness.  They want to make it easier for you to tip and to tip more!

You think I’m pulling your leg right?  If you think this has to be the height of hypocrisy, you are close to the facts.

It seems that this is a multi-faceted campaign of moving the responsibility for the workers to the customers while the owners shuffle and smile.  At one level, the American calculation of 15% as a fair tip for good service has suddenly, according to the wizards writing and interviewing for the New York Times, become 20%, and rising, even for small purchases in their reckoning, like a $3.00 cup of coffee.  A $3.00 cup of coffee!  We have a 100% fair trade operation at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, but we sure would be out of business if we tried to juke a cup of Joe up to 3 bucks!

One bunch of fancies had used some tech doodad to allow customers to separate tips for the servers and tips for the kitchen.  A customer was supposed to get the notion that this was a fine and progressive thing being done by the restaurateur, as opposed to a slick move on their part to make fair pay for the kitchen the customer’s responsibility in the same way they have so long shifted the burden of low pay to the customer for the server.  There have been decisions from appropriate jurisdictions limiting the ability of owners to take the tips or direct the distribution of pooled tips, but there is no restriction on owners creating a voluntary culture of sharing with the kitchen, bus staff, bartenders, and others, which is common in busy and lucrative dining markets whether New York, New Orleans, or San Francisco.

More pernicious were all the tricks owners were playing with their new tech tools or those they were getting from the geek-get-rich-squads establishing “choice architecture” that would force the buyer into higher, semi-mandatory tips or going through a process of deliberately resetting a tip level themselves.  One trick had to do with presetting iPads used as point-of-sale registers at certain levels.  I’m not a big Apple fan, but we have had great luck converting from an old computer system to an iPad POS system, and there is a tip line when someone pays on the Square through the iPad POS, but for goodness sake, it’s not preset.   There seem to be a dazzling variety of choices for other gee haws for coffeehouses and restaurants to suck more tips out of their customers.

The Restaurant Opportunity Center has tried to get establishments to sign up to voluntarily be good employers.  Fair Grinds Coffeehouse was quick to do so when approached.  By paying the full federal minimum wage of $7.25 and pooling tips, our baristas make between $13 and $17 per hour, which is a great hourly wage rate in New Orleans.

The solution isn’t in the tech, it’s with owners paying fair wages and communicating that to their customers rather than shilling their customers and shirking their own responsibilities.

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