For the April/May issue of Barista Magazine, Tracy Allen sat down with editor Sarah Allen for a chat about life, coffee and what’s next:
Master Q&A: Tracy Allen—From Barista Roots to Industry Leadership
Interview by Sarah Allen
In a 2011 census report, the sleepy farming town of Lexington, Mo. counted fewer than 5,000 residents, so you can imagine how tiny and tranquil it seemed when Tracy Allen grew up there in the early 1970s. Tire swings and small-town sports, a local drive in and clandestine gatherings with friends around a bonfire—these were the haunts and activities that wove the fabric of Tracy’s early years. Back then, the boy didn’t hint at the man who would travel the world in search of its most quality coffee, not to mention the best coffee craftspeople.
One thing young Tracy knew: farming was a chore, not a career choice, and he went away to the University of Missouri to study economics, to move away from that rural life.
It’s fascinating, then, that Tracy has made a career out of coffee, and travels often to producing countries and regions so remote they would make Lexington, Mo. look like New York City. But plenty of people in our wild world of coffee never predicted a career here. That’s part of what makes Tracy’s story—which started and continues marching forward in coffee—remarkable. He’s been about coffee, in one way or another, all along.
Recruited right out of college by Proctor & Gamble, Tracy’s first professional job was as a beverage specialist in the company’s Folgers and Millstone division. Not specialty, that’s for sure, but it was coffee after all. Intriguingly, Tracy says he had his first run-in with coffee greatness during the time he held that job—it just didn’t happen at that job.
The P&G gig required a lot of traveling, and Tracy recalls “we would at times stumble upon diner-type coffee shops, and occasionally find a true coffee shop in towns that were serviced by small local roasters. I started seeking them out in a sort of ‘stick-it-to-the-man’ break from paperwork and my SKU-driven corporate day.
“There was one shop in particular, somewhere in the Midwest, that I would make a point to visit every time I could,” he says. “ They had espresso at a time when few had ever tasted espresso. Blonde crema and all, it was not only something new to me, but the culture surrounding it felt warm and comfortable anytime I walked in. That place set the bar for coffeehouses and most likely coffee itself, for me at the time. The baristas were the key, as they never made this farm kid from central Missouri feel any different from any other person that entered the building.
“That connection continues to be a driver when I work with baristas,” he says, circling back around to one of the reasons we asked Tracy to be the focus of this article: in April at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) Conference & Expo in Boston, Tracy will be officially announced as 2nd Vice President of the SCAA Board. As such, he will look forward to serving as the president of the board in 2015.
We’re talking about this because Tracy stands out historically from past SCAA presidents for a specific reason: he comes from deep barista roots. He’s worked for retailers and roasters who are active in competitions, and for the past five years he’s grown his own consulting company, Brewed Behavior, to become a sought after entity used to round out and strengthen all the retailing and roasting corners of a host of new companies around the world.
Tracy excels, however, at one-on-one training with competition baristas and staffs at some of the best coffee companies. Most notably, he worked closely for more than two years with multi-time Greek Barista Champion Stefanos Domatiotis.
These days, Tracy is completing work on his own training center for retail and roasting, as well as hands on barista instruction. He’s also debuting an educational course with Nuova Simonelli designed to create communicative flow from quality green coffee to exceptional bar skills.
We asked Tracy to sit with us for this Master Q&A session to tell us more about his past, present and future as a specialty coffee ombudsman.
Sarah Allen: Tell me about where you came from and your familial environment growing up.
Tracy Allen: I was born in 1966. My father and mother divorced early, so I spent most of my childhood with my grandparents while my mother worked a couple of jobs at a time. It’s my grandfather and farming that I credit for the forming of my work ethic. And my mom and grandmother taught me to cook and keep things orderly, and the value of manners. My dad was a Marine, pretty much absentee. He was out protecting our country, so I couldn’t really argue with that. My grandfather was the man in my life; I named my son after him.
SA: Can you recall your first coffee experience?
TA: My mother bought groceries on Thursday nights at the IGA store, and a cashier named Diane would take me on break with her so my mom could shop. I remember seeing that hot black liquid transformed by sugar and creamer until a slight tannish tinge appeared, making it a creamy, caramel-like drink. Once it cooled she’d let me try a sip, and I knew it was something I wanted more of.
SA: Did you hang out in cafés growing up? What role did coffee play in your early years?
TA: Coffee was a part of my life starting sometime in high school. I never drank much in the way of soft drinks and eventually eliminated them all together. At some point in the mid 1980s I found some primitive information about roasting green coffee in my mom’s popcorn popper. I started roasting and got a step ahead in some ways, with lots of trial and error.
SA: Proctor & Gamble hired you right out of college. Tell us about your work there.
TA: I became a Beverage Specialist for Proctor & Gamble in the late 1980s, which meant growing the Millstone Coffee brand in the Midwest. I had foodservice accounts like small diners and cafés. Applebee’s was headquartered near my house, but became a Folgers account. Denny’s, however, opted for Millstone—big volume to say the least. Oh, and I had some office coffee exposure as well, selling businesses on the “employee benefit” of this brand name, higher-quality coffee. One OCS [office coffee service] client truly took risks and helped put both Kansas City and myself on the coffee map was Anthony Simone at NECCO Coffee. When I was selling Folgers and Millstone, he was two blocks from the Folgers plant, part of the Italian community, and had a ton of foodservice and OCS accounts. He was my biggest account and deserves a ton of credit. Uncle Anthony. He helped me set and break my own sales records repeatedly against all the major cities in the country.
Eventually, I started roasting and sourcing at P&G on and introductory level in Seattle, where I got to see specialty coffee emerging. I thought, “Oh gosh, this is going to be a big deal in my lifetime and I get to be a part of it.” I didn’t clearly see it as specialty yet, but I definitely knew it was special. My biggest takeaway from P&G, besides the sweet paycheck, benefits and job stability, was learning the science of consumer behavior. Not one day goes by that I don’t feel that knowing this is a huge advantage in our spectrum of coffee. This was the inspiration for naming my business Brewed Behavior.
SA: When and how did you make the jump from regular to specialty coffee?
TA: For that I have to credit Danny O’Neill and The Roasterie in Kansas City. He had started a small air roastery and focused on sourcing directly, and everyone in town was hearing about it. He heard I was looking to bail on corporate coffee and had his staff track me down. He was the president of the SCAA at the time and had lots of distractions pulling at him, so he asked me to be his director of operations and hold down the fort, which I did for the next two-and-a-half or three years. It was a great way to enter the specialty world, with lots of opportunity for trial and error, and I am grateful. So many dedicated, Midwestern-values type people worked hard everyday to help us grow that brand. In fact, the first official SCAA-sanctioned regional barista competition took place right there in Kansas City during that time. Danny remains a great self-marketer and visionary.
SA: Your work and vision in barista competitions started early—you were the first ever chair of the World Barista Championship’s (WBC) Rules and Regulations Committee. But when did you first start taking notice of barista competitions?
TA: At P&G, we learned to always be looking beyond the bright shiny object for the next big thing. The effort that company puts into studying consumer behavior is meant to identify the next trend so they can prepare for it. Using some of that methodology, I knew the baristas were about to get their due in the United States. More importantly, a generation of post-millennials was about working for a cause, more than a paycheck. The pieces were about to line up and produce a self-oiled machine for developing a cultural incubator for entrepreneurs.
SA: So you had a gut feeling back then, like ‘damn, this is big.’
TA: I felt that if we allowed the past and current baristas to guide the future of competitions we would see a new culture built for the long term, a launch pad for coffee careers and ambassadors of every step preceding the delivery of that cup. I did my time as chair of the WBC, and then bowed out to make room for fresh ideas closer to the barista. Knowing when to excuse yourself is as important as any other skill.
SA: Let’s talk about Brewed Behavior—tell us what your mission is.
TA: Our biggest service is helping small- to medium-sized specialty coffee roasters operate more efficiently. We review their concerns via email or phone, typically sign an NDA, and then schedule an onsite visit to see the company in operation. Ten days before the trip, I ask for the past three years’ financials. I review these myself, looking for SWOT in the numbers. After our discussions, financial analyses, and the visit, we are then equipped to report our findings and present qualified recommendations for next steps. Often it’s understanding and controlling the price/quality challenge in green sourcing. There is such a major expense and so little information for roasters at those volumes. Once we form a plan for green, we review their current offering and how it matches their target demographic. This is simply matching your green and roast profiles to your customer base. Often this gets lost in what the green buyer or roaster prefers— they don’t always match up with whom they’re selling to. It’s a science, with a proprietary formula to apply it to coffee, but it works to make the client much more efficient. We buy green for 15 or 20 roasters at the moment.
We create profiles, we manage QC on a monthly basis—anything to maximize the focus on consistent quality coffee for the client. We offer peace of mind. Should operations, sales, etc. be areas of opportunity, we go back and create templates for operations, work with salespeople in the classroom and in the field. We just opened a brick-and-mortar facility to support our QC lab business, in addition to offering private roasting, cupping and business classes.
On the producer side, we have built coveted relationships with producers over the past 20 or so years, at times when the path for them was to keep doing what your family did, producing quantity because quality was extra work. For that we feel they deserve to be rewarded. We do QC for them at no cost, and provide neutral feedback. We take roaster clients to visit them and bring them together at our private cuppings during the SCAA events each spring. We have a spoken agreement that if we introduce a roaster and they buy, they need to commit to a three-year relationship.
SA: You’ve worked closely with the specialty roaster-retailer Taf, which operates in Greece and has produced several coffee champions. Can you tell us a little about your work with Taf?
TA: Taf is an economic study in its own right. [Owner] Yiannis Taloumis came to me during the WBC in Copenhagen [in 2008] and we discussed helping him prepare a plan for growth in the Greek market. We did in-depth demographic studies, and hatched plan to prepare for growth. Ironically, the wheels began to fall off the Greek economy around the same time. I’ll let Yiannis expand, but by creating a specialty coffee focus to compliment this 65-year-old, family coffee company, we prepared Taf to combat the downturn with a strategy focused on quality.
SA: Switching gears: tell us about why your barista background plays a big role in your appointment as 2nd VP of the SCAA?
TA: Mad props to the Roasters Guild and [its members’] contribution to the leadership of the organization. Thinking about this question makes me not only aware but proud of how this barista movement has progressed, as well. I guess domestically you could say it’s grown up into the future leaders we always had hoped for, upon its inception. I think of all the shop owners, like Bad Boy Billy Wilson, who now has a family and three shops in Portland—watching people like him evolve into what they are now is so fulfilling. Again, this is a people business. Coffee is the catalyst to improving lives both in producing and consuming countries.