Sara Frinak is the Southeast Account Manager for Ally Coffee’s Specialty Division. At our team meeting she sat down over a cup to share her coffee story and love for local food and everlasting Southern hospitality.
I started in coffee through working for bookstore in Alabama. There was a woman who was roasting in the back and I was working in the bookstore. The bookstore ended up going non profit and went out of business but she wanted me to stay and stay in the same building, so I ended up reluctantly getting involved in the coffee industry that way. I worked as a barista for that shop and eventually as a roaster for Mama Mocha’s.
I worked with [Mama Mocha’s owner Sarah Barnett Gill] for five and half years so that’s how I got involved with barista-ing and roasting. I got into management as well, helping her business partner open a second location. That’s the nature of small towns, where you wear as many hats as necessary.
I got to go to my first SCAA Expo with Sarah, which was great. I wanted to get into green coffee, especially with Southeast Asian coffees. I graduated from college and worked several places but wanted to sort of make it on my own in coffee. I ended up moving to Atlanta and helped open a multi roaster location called Spiller Park owned by a big restaurant group in Atlanta. I dove headfirst into the service industry in Atlanta. I worked at that coffee shop and handled samples for their multi roaster program.
It was in Atlanta that I got more involved with competition volunteering. I do stage management for Brewers Cup. I started volunteering with competitions timekeeping just to get in for free to Expo and different events. I saw a lot of issues with the score sheet and logistics. I wanted to be more involved with the logistical side of things and worked well with competitors, so I was doing more competitor and stage management work with barista competitors, helping them get out on stage.
Then Brewers Cup had a glaring need, so I started stage managing Brewers Cup, which basically just means taking care of the schedule and holding judges accountable for the time limits; also getting competitors on stage, making sure rules are being fairly enforced. It gave me an opportunity to see what is valued, especially when it comes to manual brewing and coffee quality. That was really eye opening.
In Atlanta I ended up getting hired as a customer relations representative for Counter Culture. It was a good fit because I have a very deep and unwavering love for the South, so I was able to act upon a lot of the relationships I had with Southern businesses and people who were making coffee in the Southeast region.
Green coffee and the origin supply side of the chain is where my interest lies and I really appreciated the way Counter Culture buys and markets coffee and farmers. It was really great to learn from them.
The South is an interesting economy and culture. You have a lot of smaller communities that are very tight knit but more isolated from each other. That’s changing, with bigger cities likes Birmingham that are developing very quickly, extending into the suburbs and there are more organizations of smaller towns now. I grew up in a relatively small town in Alabama, and coffee shops were a very nice place to hang out and get stuff done. It’s kind of that third place model — it’s not a gas station on the corner where everyone used to hang out; it’s a place with couches!
Coffee has a really strong potential for community engagement. With that, a lot of potential for elevating standards of quality, or refocusing people’s understanding of what they put in their bodies. Especially in Alabama and Georgia, there’s a reclaiming of farming and growing food and distributing food, as opposed to this concept of huge farms that grow corn and raise cows and ship them off to wherever; people are like, “we have land here; we have local farms in the city. Let’s pull more from that and reclaim our understanding of what food is.” I think coffee is riding those coat tails, in the South, especially.
The industry is weird in this region because people have worked really hard to build up their businesses and you have a lot of competitiveness, but there is also comradery and loyalty and the way that people interact with each other is very different here. Every time I get a chance to leave I can’t do it!
In Atlanta, there are a lot of urban farming projects. Kind of slow food, food distribution projects. There’s a group out of Emory University that’s doing a lot of research into the financial details of the supply chain for coffee and trying to provide data for establishing a standard for coffee pricing. They have connections with farmers in Nicaragua, so they teamed up with local vegetable farmers, food farmers in Atlanta and had a big dinner with coffee and coffee cocktails. They had a four course meal, trying to integrate the same mentality of people being fairly paid and compensated for the work that they do [for domestic farming] into this international coffee industry.
Service is so important in the South. If you serve someone something terrible to someone else, it’s not only going to be on Yelp forever, everyone in the whole town is going to know and they’re never going to go there. Everyone is going to tell your mom and you’re going to be super embarrassed. There’s a lot at stake and a lot of pride; obviously, it’s the South!
I’ve always wanted to work in green coffee. It was like that distant dream ever since I started roasting. There’s so much work to be done in regards to fairness and equality with representation and compensation; I wanted to be a part of the solutions being created. There’s something magical about that dream of every coffee being traceable, fairly purchased, and good quality — all at once with no compromises: like treating farmers as business owners and not marketing tools. Most of my family is still in Southeast Asia, so to be able to play a part in that economy is really important to me, just as working in the Southeast United States and being a part of this economy is important to me. I’ve always wanted to work in a way that keeps my connected to my people and my communities, and working with roasters through my role at Ally is, the best way for me to do that.