This is usually the time of year when I write about Charles Dickens. It started two years ago with a ‘Coffee Carol’, as Laine and I were just about to leave Toronto to start Quietly. It continued last holiday season with ‘The Chimes’, as I reflected on one-year of running a business. Despite several attempts, I am having trouble fashioning it into a trilogy. Perhaps my reluctant embrace of Dickens was destined to be short-lived or possibly it is difficult to enjoy his specific brand of sentimentality while living through a pandemic.
So I am going an answer another question frequently asked: how is Quietly doing? It does seem a touch strange to reflect on this year, given our deep immersion in its chaos and uncertainty. Moreover, I find my ability to focus or concentrate dissipates with a malign ease these days. But I am always happy to pull back the curtain on my little roaster – with apologies to Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and the rest of that junk.
Year one at Quietly felt like I pushing an overfilled cart. An ongoing struggle to maintain momentum and ensure all the pieces stay intact. From installing vents or roaster probes, just getting up and running was an immense task. But then, building a green menu full of bright, fun coffees and roasting each with diligence and care became small responsibilities against all the ever-expanding to-dos: order boxes, source environmentally friendly bags, answer that endless spooling of emails, deal with that logistical chain of getting bags to shop shelves.
The overall feeling of freedom was joyous. Who needs a restrictive green budget? The menu can mostly be Ethiopia, right? Everything can be big, sweet, and vibrant! The lack of compromise was made all the more rewarding when some truly amazing shops started slinging my beans. With so many options, they were trusting my little weird experiment. The hours were long but the plan from the start was to do all the taxing manual jobs until I could afford to automate. It meant, for example, hand-sorting out rocks, sticks, debris, and any of those overripe or under-ripe cherries which become unevenly roasted beans. Or, using a scoop and scale to weigh out each and every single retail bag. By year’s end, I had surrounded myself with an optical sorter, weight-and-fill, and all matter of other robot colleagues and was ready to start hiring a staff!
However, like all of our collective plans, it did not quite happen as expected. The details of my medical history or the projected costs to ensure a safe work environment are less important than the take away: year two was another solo operation. And it was intense, as if the momentum of that packed cart pulled away from my tightly gripped hands. When shut-downs began, I made a very conscious choice to put wholesale first; Quietly is the direct result of a love of coffee shops. To borrow from my social media rantings: be it exploring a new one or becoming a regular at a neighbourhood local, shops can foster community and provide spaces to tell stories about the producers and people behind the cup. Few things beat pulling up a stool and having a shot, capp and a small drip (it is always too much caffeine) and we are in real danger of losing this great yet simple bliss.
The focus on wholesale coincided with a huge upswing in demand meaning my workload went from hectic to crushing. I had to make the genuinely heartbreaking decision to cut restaurants and offices, as well as put the webstore stock at the very bottom of the priority list. ‘Sold out’ became the new standard online and the whole thing made me feel like a bit of a sell-out. The role of business owner has always been an uncomfortable one. Not to idolize youthful rebellion, but all the punk of my teen years naturally evolved into undergrad courses and reading clubs which would reaffirm that there is no ethical consumption under late-stage capitalism and even small, ‘well-meaning’ businesses operate through the exploitation of labour.
All of this is to say, that there was extra sting to any angry messages about ‘always being sold out’ or a snarky ‘well at least you are getting rich’. Given the limitations of scale (only so many beans fit in the roaster per batch) and labour (with two hands I can only fill so many bags in an hour), I realized that overworked did not translate to overpaid. Especially when I was re-funneling any bits of cash into production line machines. The coffers were as bare as ever. The key change being higher expectations and ever mounting demand. I framed so many conversations this year with “but Quietly is busy, which is great and I am so thankful…” before realizing that the system should take care of everyone and this binary between work-to-death or have no-work is fundamentally terrible.
We either must be grateful and small, appreciating every overworked and exhausted minute of labour, or stress endlessly because we are the expendable casualties fueling a broken system. It is the emotional equivalent of grinding your teeth at night. It does not matter if you are on the top or bottom, a would-be incisor or molar, the unrelenting pressure leads to cracks and fissures that expose our raw and tender nerves. Being-too-busy or not-busy-at-all is a conjoined, precarious headspace that ensures no full nights of sleep. And I don’t mean this in a woe-is-me way because this is less Quietly and more grocery store clerks, food delivery drivers, mail carriers, line cooks, and of course the entire network of front-line workers. There is a audible echo to the way we rely on the producers, pickers, and farm labourers in coffee; while the market may swell with higher price points, it is only the big operations or individual funnel points that reap the rewards.
I want rescue the tone from drifting too close to complaint or grievance because Quietly remains a well-spring that provides fresh delights and sustaining emotional joys. Most of us have switched careers paths a number of times. The largest segment in my trajectory was in the classroom, dreaming of being a professor. On those especially rough days at Quietly, as roast curves defy my tinkering and orders outweigh the hours in a day, I really do miss taking classes and pouring myself into essays. Teaching was an especially fun element of the job, especially in those later years when I found myself in front of new media students. And yet, long before I defended the dissertation or sifted through job postings for colleges in Midwest America, there was the tug of a too-tight shirt or the flabby drag of an old sock. The fit was definitely off.
While working the bag assembly line, I listen to audiobooks and recently I re-visited Gabriella Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Bandages. It is her memoir about reluctantly becoming a chef despite her yearning to be a writer. She articulates this struggle perfectly: “I was supposed to be emancipating myself from the kitchen” and “at least answer the question of my own potential”. But the shine of the ivory tower dimmed, as “the novelty and thrill had thoroughly worn off” and she “could not find the fun or the urgency in the eventless and physically idle academic life” – “it was so lethargic and impractical and luxurious.”
She writes that after this academic break, she found the kitchen more “practical and satisfying” and “so manageable and tactile and useful”. In a near perfect encapsulation, she writes: “It’s a blow to have to admit to yourself that you are not quite cut out for something that matters so much to you” but equally helpful to discover what you “like and need” in both daily minutia and in one’s larger life. So! How is Quietly doing?
I have argued here before that when its sourced, roasted, and brewed well, coffee is an act of discovery. A sensory experience that transports you to cherries ripening in the sun. It translates the decisions of farmers who care for beautiful fruiting trees and the science of processing into an one-of-a-kind taste profile. And despite all the stress of the year, as Quietly got loud, the cupping table always rewards. It connects me to some of my fondest memories, like my grandmother’s cooking and baking. It allows me to make something tangible, which was at the core of all my favourite jobs – be it bartender, bricklayer, line cook or barista. And it remains such a humbling honour to be able to partner with so many truly wonderful cafes and shops. While the pay sucks, the hours are brutal, and the industry is broken, it is what I both “like and need”.
My lesson at the end of the year is that Quietly is at its best when its grounded in honesty and personal experience and it is at its worst when I water it down for commercial appeal or attempt to chase industry trends. To draw upon the Ezra Pound quote that inspired the Quietly name:
a nice quiet paradise
over the shambles
a little rightness,
to excuse his hell
and my paradiso.
A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.
That sounds like coffee to me.
Trust the Process,
PS: it has been a while since I answered any practical coffee questions, so if you have one (impractical questions are also great): Ask Lee!