Life Before Coffee

Lemuel Butler, one of the world’s most celebrated baristas, had a string of odd jobs and dropped out of college before devoting himself to his craft.

Ron Harris / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

In the United States Barista Championship, baristas have 15 minutes to make and serve espressos, cappuccinos, and a unique coffee drink for judges. Lemuel Butler, 48, has won more coffee championships than nearly any other barista.

While he’s now a co-owner of Black and White Coffee Roasters, and has worked at Counter Culture Coffee for more than a decade, he entered the world of coffee relatively late in life—after working at a gas station and Hardee’s, among other places. I recently spoke to Butler about what he’s learned about people from working in the service economy, his decision to drop out of college at the University of North Carolina where he’d been studying politics and government, and that time his hip-hop band opened for The Roots and Busta Rhymes. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Lolade Fadulu: What kinds of jobs did you have before your first job as a barista?

Lemuel Butler: I had tons of jobs. It was a whole other life before coffee. I started in music as a kid. Then when I got to college, I just kind of dropped the formal training, like classical music and jazz, and picked up guitar and piano and DJ-ing. In college I had opened a music and video store. And that kind of morphed into an old-school hip-hop band. We passed our CDs to all these college radio stations, and got invited out to do all these shows. We ended up opening for The Roots, Outkast, Busta Rhymes...

Fadulu: What was the name of your group?

Butler: Sankofa. The night kind of lifestyle wasn’t for me. So I wanted to change gears, and the first job I saw in the newspaper was for a coffee shop.

Fadulu: Let’s go through the tons of jobs you had. What was the first one?

Butler: I had a paper route. I worked for The News and Observer. Imagine this 10-year-old kid biking around the neighborhood, doing his papers, and then at the end of the month, knocking on doors, collecting everyone’s money that they owed me. That was the tough part, because a lot of folks thought they can get one over on a 10-year-old kid, and be like, “Yeah, I don’t have it today; come back next week.”

Fadulu: What next?

Butler: My dad got me a job working at a gas station. The gas station was near the fairgrounds and it was owned by this family. You actually paid at the window, and the window was a part of a trailer, and the family lived in this trailer. My job was to clean up the parking lot.

And that guy was also a carpenter and he needed an assistant. He would fix floors. He would replace carpet. He would fix whatever a mobile home needs. Like the fake wood panels inside of the trailer, he would replace those, if someone kicked a hole in one or something. So I would go around with him, fixing up trailers.

That was my introduction to country music, because that’s all he listened to. I got into country a little bit, the whole summer. I was 13 at that point.

Fadulu: I’m just thinking about 13-year-old you walking around, listening to country music with this guy in a trailer park.

Butler: I had a pretty afro, too. It’s like, this big white dude, he weighed probably 300 pounds, and this little 13-year-old kid with an afro from the hood, listening to country music, going to fix up mobile homes.

There was this older white guy who lived in this stone house across the street. He would always sit out on his porch, and whenever I’d finish, he’d call me over. He had these apple trees, and he would give me a basket of apples if I just sat there and listened to him. He liked to tell me the history of Raleigh and how it’s changed.

Fadulu: Then what?

Butler: The banquet hall was at 14. That was when I “got the big bucks rolling in.” I was making $3.18? I remember putting food out, burning my hands, and standing along the wall with the other folks, waiting for everyone to finish eating. And then we would go collect their plates for them and send them to the dishwasher.

Fadulu: I’ve been to a couple of events where there’s food, and I’ve definitely been at tables where people were very sloppy eaters. Did you encounter any of that, where it was sort of, “Really? Come on,” when you were collecting the plates?

Butler: I think it was more of, like, “Wow, you didn’t eat all that steak? That’s messed up.” I would’ve crushed that. Things were really hard to come by with my family growing up. So I would always notice how wasteful people were.

Fadulu: What’s another job you had?

Butler: I was at Hardee’s. I was a cashier. And they did this outsourcing to the women’s prison, so you’d have these women prisoners making biscuits every Saturday and Sunday morning. And I’d be hanging out with them. I don’t think I stayed there longer than two months because someone had pooped in the women’s bathroom on the floor, and they told me to clean it up. And I quit that day. I think I was 17 at this point.

Fadulu: Are there any conversations with the women prisoners that you remember, or some lessons that you learned?

Butler: Don’t go to prison. They always told me to stay in school.

Fadulu: Why did you decide to study politics and government at UNC?

Butler: In addition to the women prisoners who told me to stay in school, my parents were always saying, “You’re going to college, you’re going to college.” I was the first one to go to college. But once I got there, my parents were like, “Okay, see you later. Let us know if you need anything.” I’d finally arrived, I’d made it, I achieved this goal—but there was nothing after that. What do you do when you get to college?

You’ve got to declare a major. So it’s like, “Well, my uncle, he’s a lawyer, and he’s really cool. I’ll go to law school.” But what I found when I got to UNC was you had to take all these general college requirements. It just felt like high school all over again, except you’re on your own. And I just hated it. Halfway through, it’s like, “Yeah, college isn’t for me. I probably won’t go to law school. So I need to figure out what I want to be before I waste any more time.” So I left.

Fadulu: So you took a job as a barista, and then you started really getting into the coffee industry. Was there a point where you felt you went from being a normal barista to one of the world’s best baristas?

Butler: (laughs) I mean, 15 years seems like a long time, but literally it seems like just yesterday I was in the middle of a really tough shift at the Daily Grind, sweating it out, wondering if there was ever going to be any end to the morning rush.

I feel like things come a little more natural now as far as understanding coffee. I have way more knowledge now than I did starting out at the Daily Grind, just knowing where coffee comes from, different coffee varieties, the different nuances. Pulling a certain coffee variety from one country and planting it in another country, that alone is going to affect how that coffee tastes in the end, in addition to processing, shipping, sitting around in a warehouse, and then roasting, and then what a barista does with it.

Fadulu: How did you get to owning your own store, along with your co-founder Kyle Ramage?

Butler: Kyle and I were very fortunate in our situation. He was my coach in 2016 for the U.S. Barista Championship, and I won, and we both went to Ireland to compete in Worlds, him as my coach.

We walked into cafes in Ireland and we went, “Oh, these are really cool shops.” I like this shop because the equipment’s all white, and he’s like, “I like this shop because the equipment’s all black.” And then we came up with this idea of having a café called Black and White Café.

One of his old professors had a café and roastery. He asked Kyle if he wanted to purchase it. Kyle said, ‘This is our chance.’

So we formed Black and White Coffee Roasters and bought Back Alley Coffee Roasters, which had a café and a roasting production facility. We just rebranded everything and brought to the table what we’ve learned over the past 10 to 15 years about coffee.

We felt like there was a bit of pretension that comes with specialty coffee where there’s this kind of elitist circle of people that enjoy the flavor notes of Geishas and Bourbons, and the average coffee drinker is like, ‘Uh, what? I just want some cream and sugar in my coffee.’ Anything black and white is pretty simple and straightforward, and we wanted to do that with coffee.

Fadulu: Was there anything from these different jobs in the service industry that was helpful for you working in the coffee industry, specifically?

Butler: Coffee is all about bringing people together. People come together in the coffee shop; people come together in these competitions. Even on the farming side of it. I study Central American politics, and my first place that I went to see coffee grow was in Nicaragua. I saw how former Sandinistas and former Contras were working together in a co-op in order to get their coffee out of the country. They fought each other in the civil war, and now they’re working together over this thing called coffee.

All these jobs that I’ve had, I’ve seen people in all kinds of incredible, different lives. Whether it’s on one side of the counter or the other, you get to know people the more and more you work with them.

Fadulu: What have you gotten to know about people?

Butler: We’re not loners. We need to be with each other. You can’t go into any relationship with anyone with preconceived notions about that person. It’s tough. There’s nothing easy about relationships. If it was easy then we’d probably have a better world that we live in.