Dean, Midwest Account Manager for Ally Coffee, shares his coffee journey, beginning with Starbucks and latte art, unfolding across Guatemalan farms and the coffee communities of America’s Midwestern cities, and concluding with reflections on culture and how we can challenge ourselves to see the world as others might experience it.
My coffee story starts back in 2007, 2008 north of Tampa and New Port Richey in kind of a small suburb. This was about the time that economy ended up crashing. Florida felt it in particular really, really hard.
My father had his own electrical business with twenty employees and everything was just gone, completely decimated at that point. I was looking for some work. I worked at one point in an electrical warehouse, and finally ended up working for my father along with one other employee. I did that for about a year and a half but didn’t enjoy it that much. He ended up having to lay me off because he didn’t have enough work. It kind of broke his heart; I know it was really hard for him to let me go but for me it wasn’t really that big of a deal because I was 19 or 20 at that point. I was really interested in doing something else.
I had some friends who worked in Starbucks; I really loved talking to them. I was also going to college at that time, and I was like, “man, I could get paid to talk to people!” I ended up applying. A few friends helped me get an interview and I ended up at Starbucks. I remember sitting down with my first manager and we had our first cup of black coffee together.
She asked me to take a sip and to go ahead and describe it. I said it tasted “dirty.” She corrected and said, “Earthy.” So that was when I got to learn the coffee lexicon!
My wife and I ended up selling our home in Florida; she missed her family. I ended up getting a transfer to another Starbucks and worked for about a year and a half. For the most part I really enjoyed it. I went through their coffee masters program because I became more interested in learning about coffee in general.
Then I discovered something on the internet called “foam art.” Later I learned it was called latte art and I really wanted to do it! I thought Starbucks was the best, and I didn’t understand why there were other people doing latte art and we weren’t doing latte art. A few employees tried to explain to me why we couldn’t do latte art, that it was the equipment or the espresso or whatever.
I took it upon myself as challenge accepted. On my break I would go in the back and watch YouTube videos for 10 minutes and on my lunch I would watch as many YouTube videos as possible. My manager was extremely supportive of my trying it; she thought it was important to the ethos of the company. And I probably wasted around fifty gallons of milk. But finally started pouring latte art!
It actually helped me win my first specialty coffee job. A girl walked in one day and ordered a tall latte with whole milk and I was really pumped because I knew I could really pour latte art with whole milk and poured this nice little heart. She told me that she was going to be the manager of new specialty coffee shop in the area and she said I should definitely apply.
That was at The Roasterie. I worked at The Roasterie for about a year and a half. There I got exposed to what a specialty coffee shop could be like. It was wonderful. It was much more communal. The fact that they didn’t have a drive through was a big selling point for me.
I really got to know the community there. It was an upper middle class community, but extremely friendly. Two of the regulars, a couple, are now my girls’ godparents. It was a really important shop and community to me. My wife Jessie and I ended up renting an apartment directly behind the café and it was like a four minute walk for me there. I absolutely loved it.
I became a head trainer. I wanted to learn more and progress. Pete Licata moved back into town from Hawaii and I was like, “I’m gonna work with that guy.” I found out that he had some interest in working in Parisi [Artisan Coffee]. I applied there and ended up getting job there at a new café they were opening in same neighborhood I was working in. I was extremely excited for the opportunity.
There I was exposed to competition and ended up competing in Brewers Cup. I did absolutely dismally my first time at regionals, but I scooted through, making it to nationals. From there, Pete, my manager Kate Blackman and I worked together and I ended up placing fourth overall in US in 2013. That was also my first Expo. I got my mind blown with what competition culture could be like, what coffee culture could be like. I was totally infatuated with it and was one hundred percent sold that this is an industry that I definitely wanted to get involved with, no question about it.
had been a barista at that time for about three or four years and had interest exploring different options and opportunities within the industry. Sales was a potential interest, and Parisi didn’t have an opening in sales, so I ended up chatting with Andrea Allen at one point. I really liked Onyx — this was back at the end of 2014 at this point. I was like, “hey, I really love your coffee, I really like and your brand. You guys are awesome. I would love to do sales for you.” But they told me they didn’t really have wholesale manager or anything. They ended up coming up to Kansas City at that point. Jessie and I had dinner with Jon and Andrea, and it seemed like it would be a good fit. They gave me the flexibility to work remotely from Kansas City while they took care of operations back in Springdale. That was my first exposure to sales in specialty coffee, with Onyx.
That year I also competed in the US Latte Art Championship and finished fourth overall in US, which was really awesome. From there I had an opportunity with a roaster in Tampa. Jon and Andrea thought it was a really good opportunity. I missed my family at the time as well. Jessie, my daughter Sophia, and I moved down to Tampa. I worked with the company for a few months and it just wasn’t a good fit overall. At that point we began exploring different options. That ultimately led us back to Kansas City. We agreed that this was definitely where we want to raise our family.
So we just packed everything up. I didn’t have anything lined up, I thought maybe consulting. It had always been a pipe dream of mine, but I thought maybe it was a little soon.
At the previous Expo, in 2015, I met Jorge Ruiz who was creating market access for producers in Guatemala. I had tasted a few of the coffees and I decided to take a leap of faith and head down to Guatemala to visit him, his wife, and the producers he was looking to work with. This was my first time to experience what life was really like for coffee producers. It radically altered my life in best way possible. It pushed me forward in wanting to understand what was happening on the green coffee side of things.
I ended up reaching out to Ricardo [Pereira, Ally Director of Specialty]; I knew him from Brewers’ Cup. He had judged me at one point and we had judged Brewers Cup together in Kansas City. I reached out and said, “Hey, I know some producers in Guatemala and maybe you would be interested in tasting their coffee.” It transformed into a conversation about a sales role in the Midwest working with roasters and connecting them with producers.
The more that we talked the more I realized that it kind of lined up with my values and visions. After the following Expo, I was offered a position with Ally, and that’s about 18 months ago. It has been a whirlwind, in the best way possible.
During all of this I also became a Q grader! I’ve probably taken more risks than most people take in the first seven years of a career, but that’s the way it happened and I went with it. In college I studied psychology and sociology. Having studied sociology and how people interact in communities informs how I think about what’s happening at origin and how that connects to what’s happening here in the coffee industry. What is coloring how they see the world that I might not be seeing through my experience and my lens?
One thing that’s really fun about this [account management] job is that it is fairly vast; I’m connecting with roasters in more than seventeen states, and each region of the country is unique. I was recently in Wisconsin and it has its own culture and values, different from Chicago or Denver. It’s fun traveling across the US and seeing how cities and cultures see themselves, their history and what they take pride in and how they approach the world.
I grew up in Tarpon Springs in Florida, before my family moved to New Port Richey. Growing up I identified first as Greek and then American because I grew up in my own ethnic enclave. Tarpon Springs is the second largest Greek population outside of Greece. My aunt and uncle owned a diner, and then when their kids grew up they owned diners. So there were three diners that my family owned at one point.
It was My Big Fat Greek Wedding to a tee. I joke around with people, that if you’ve ever seen that movie then you’ve intimately met my family. It wasn’t until middle school and high school that I started to see American culture and how that differed from Greek culture.
Last year visited a total of fourteen cities, and a few of them really surprised me. Columbus and Cleveland in particular, were diverse with vibrant food cultures. And this year I’ll be going to Guatemala and Costa Rica on a sourcing trip with clients to continue making those connections. Coffee and specifically the green side of things has provided me with a vast amount of experiences. I love to learn from others and the way they see the world. I am extremely excited that Ally has given me an opportunity to continue learning from coffee professionals, including producer partners. I hope to continue to relay what I learn from producers to roasters in the US and to be one more person in the supply chain making it more relational and sustainable for everyone.