After 10 years away, Laila Ghambari is back home, though she never left Seattle.
After leaving her father at Cherry Street Coffee House for her own coffee career, she’s back working with him again. Her job now is to refresh the 20-year-old, family-owned business. As the new Director of Coffee for the nine locations throughout the Seattle area, including one in Capitol Hill, she is in charge of the coffee that they purchase, the equipment that they use, and staff training.
“It’s good to be back working with my dad. I’m ready for it. I worked for him as a barista for a few years when I was young, and then I left and spent many years working for his competitors. When I was the Director of Education for Café Ladro he saw what I was doing there and got jealous,” she told The Capitol Hill Times, laughing. “He had a business meeting with me and said it was time to come back.”
And for Ghambari, it’s a good time to be home. In April, she won the 2014 United States Barista Championship, which was held here, in Seattle. Destiny seemed to play a part in the win, since it happened only a few months after she rejoined Cherry Street. She had spent the last five years trying to win the championship while working for her father’s competitors.
“I honestly couldn’t imagine a better way to win,” she said. “It was so amazing. I won for my family. They were there; my friends were there. It was completely surreal. It’s not often that the person who wins does it in the city they live in, surrounded by everyone who loves them.”
Being the best barista in the land isn’t easy. This isn’t just a matter of making a delicious latte; this is serious business. The competition is fierce, with baristas battling it out at a regional level before facing each other at the national championship.
They’re judged by four sensory judges, two technical judges, and one head judge, and the rules for the competition are 24 pages long. Baristas must serve a beverage for the sensory judges from the three categories of judgment: espresso, cappuccino, and a signature drink. 12 drinks in 15 minutes.
“It’s incredibly nerve-wracking,” Ghambari said. “Everyone is watching your every move, and the competitors are all very skilled. But the judges really loved my signature drink this year. There were oohs and aahs.”
It’s easy to understand why. Ghambari visited a coffee farm in El Salvador and decided to use all parts of the coffee tree to make her drink. She made a syrup out of the coffee fruit, which looks a little like a cranberry and has raisin-like qualities. She then used roasted beans from the tree for the espresso and finished the drink with smoke from the coffee tree bark, which she ignited and captured live on stage with a smoke gun.
“Every part of my signature drink was from that tree,” she said. “It showed the life cycle of the coffee, from the berry to the death in the smoke.”
And now it’s the life cycle of a coffee shop that Ghambari is most interested in. After 20 years of business in Seattle, Cherry Street Coffee faces new challenges.
“The coffee business has entirely changed in the last two decades,” said Ghambari. “When my dad first opened Cherry Street, coffee shops basically just served a dark-roasted Robusta and called it good. Now there’s so much competition and so many choices. Price points are really important to consumers, too.”
Another major concern for Cherry Street? The new plan for the $15 minimum wage in Seattle.
“It’s such a difficult subject,” she said. “We love our employees; they’re really like family to us. But we will have to reconsider things. Can we continue to expand the business? I mean, we can’t take on the cost alone; customers will have to help with this 25 percent increase. And that’s just the start. We need to give other employees raises too then. You want to support your staff, but you’re still running a business.”
Ghambari said that she’ll be busy helping her dad figure out these challenges over the next few years. But one day, she’d like to start anew by opening her own coffee shop.
“I’ll always be in coffee,” she said. “I love it. But I think the future will involve more food and a great overall experience. And I really hope that we can work everything out with the cost of running a coffee shop in Seattle. Because this is my home and I would like to stay here.”
The Hill’s Cherry Street Coffee House is located near Seattle University at 1223 East Cherry Street.