Competing for Community


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[A]s we prepared for the San Diego Coffee Network’s first event, a latte art competition at local craft roaster Coffee & Tea Collective, we were a little nervous. The first pour was scheduled to happen in forty-five minutes, and there were seven people milling about, the four SDCN founders included. Where was the crowd? Would there be enough baristas to hold a competition? Why did we do all this if no one was going to show up?

And then they arrived. In wave after wave, the community filtered in and before we knew it, the place was packed, with standing room only if you were lucky to get in. Over a hundred people showed up to watch the return of the San Diego Thursday Night Throwdown, to look on as nineteen local baristas went head-to-head until one was crowned the winner. Clearly we had stumbled upon a demand much greater than we had ever anticipated.

The SDCN was founded by the two of us plus Mike Helms and Jared Wardle, each of us passionate about coffee and offering a different viewpoint on the industry. Mike and Matt were inspired to jumpstart our anemic scene after a trip to Boston for a coffee trade show where they spoke with baristas from around the country who had built strong communities. The four of us met weekly, for months, voicing our visions for the coffee community in San Diego and brainstorming ways to make them a reality.

A Thursday Night Throwdown at Young Hicory in San Diego.
A Thursday Night Throwdown at Young Hicory in San Diego. (Photos: Jared Armijo-Wardle.)

The idea of reviving the San Diego’s TNT, a bracket-style latte art tournament, was immensely popular, both within our group and with the few industry professionals we consulted. Two years had passed since San Diego’s coffee enthusiasts, both professionals and consumers, had been brought together to watch baristas demonstrate their craft, battling it out for bragging rights and prizes. Matt suggested that we follow what other cities had done, and create a season for baristas to compete. In San Francisco, the Bay Area Coffee Community organized a season that, by its third run, had garnered national coverage. A similar season was held by the Los Angeles TNT, and last year the two cities faced off to answer the question of which had better baristas. (Los Angeles won.)

Each of our five TNTs, held at a different host café each month, have drawn well over a hundred people and garnered significant attention on social media. While we have not achieved the same level of publicity as San Francisco or Los Angeles, we’ve laid the foundation for barista involvement that will continue to foster community spirit and ultimately better local coffee.

Baristas hold influence, but TNTs are also a great way for them to blow off steam and have some pure, unadulterated fun.

You might be asking yourself, why barista competitions? Why not cuppings or tasting events? There’s much to be said for investing this kind of time and effort in baristas. Baristas who are passionate about coffee and likely to compete in a TNT are the greatest coffee ambassadors to any given region. Consumers listen to baristas, will go where baristas recommend, and buy what they recommend. Brand promotion and growth are natural by-products to these events, the same way they can be with regional and national competitions like the USBC.

Baristas hold influence, but TNTs are also a great way for them to blow off steam and have some pure, unadulterated fun. It puts their professional work in a personal light, allowing them to show off their well-earned chops. Just add the public to this equation and you have organic energy and enthusiasm that you can’t get from any other form of marketing. Anyone with a camera or cell phone could snap the photo of a barista executing a winning rosetta that goes viral. With so many people using the web to decide where to spend their dollars, getting genuine brand traction in the cloud is priceless. It’s raw, uncontrolled, authentic engagement.

The SDCN is really just a catalyst. We plugged into an excitement that was already there. We gave it a venue, so it could shine. But as much as coffee communities can benefit from these types of events, and their organic evolution, TNTs don’t happen on their own. We realized early on the importance of establishing a team of dedicated individuals. The better organized your team is, the easier it becomes for roasters, cafés, baristas, and the region’s coffee enthusiasts to support your efforts.

Like many cities, San Diego was thirsting for an active coffee community. The SDCN came together at just the right moment. Any later, and someone else would have seized the momentum and support. We hope to harness the enthusiasm generated by our barista competitions to encourage and inspire participation throughout the industry. Your city likely has delicious coffee and talented coffee professionals. With the right kind of effort, you can foster that work and be rewarded, as we were, with an excited crowd craning for a glimpse at that magic.

—Matt Barahura and Jessica Percifield are part of the team that runs the San Diego Coffee Network.

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Matthew Barahura and Jessica Percifield

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