Barista Interview: John Letoto of Blacksmith Coffee, Houston, TX

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After we got the chance to experience what Dave Buehrer is doing in Houston, we were anxious to get down to the newest Greenway Coffee store front, Blacksmith. John Letoto, one of Louisville’s most seasoned coffee veterans and a personal friend to Michael and I, moved down to join the Blacksmith team Jan 16, 2013 – five days before the shop’s soft opening. While we were happy John moved onto Greener pastures (pun intended), we had to get a Q&A with the man that left such a powerful wake in his Louisville coffee path. With all the hype that Blacksmith has been getting, we also wanted to get the low-down on an amazing new shop from the unique perspective John provides. Without further ado:

You relocated 958 miles to work for Blacksmith. Why?

958 miles, eh? Hello, Google Mapper. Hard as it may be to believe, that’s only a quarter of the distance — give or take a large body of water and several States — I covered when I moved to Louisville back in 2003. I spent ten years and two days as a Kentuckiana resident, and, in retrospect, I think it’s pretty easy for me to see some of the bigger reasons for leaving. First, I wanted to really explore what I could do in the coffee community. I’m extremely grateful for the time I spent as a barista and roaster at Quills Coffee, and I’m proud of what we accomplished during my two years there, but in the end I felt an almost overwhelming itch to get out and explore the coffee world beyond the borders of the Midwest. Second, I wanted to take on a role that would give me a little more flexibilty, both in schedule and in travel abilities. Without going into too much personal detail, my parents are both getting to a point in life where I don’t know how many more trips home I’ll have to see them, and I wanted to maximize on what I could, as soon as I could. Third, as far as moving to Houston rather than another city goes, it really comes down to David Buehrer. The guy is as generous and genuine as they come, and his attitude is infectious. Soon after he found out I was “on the market,” so to speak, he contacted me and basically promised endless bowls of pho as an odd form of bribery — I’m only half-joking about that. I had done a little research, and one of the things that stood out about Houston itself was its healthy economy. That, coupled with the fact that I saw possibilities to really grow as a coffee professional while working at Blacksmith, made the move to Houston a pretty easy decision.
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 What is your role at Blacksmith? Has it been a huge transition?

“Coffee. That’s his job title… Coffee.” So said David Buehrer when asked what I was brought in to do. The awesome thing about my job is that I’ve been given a slew of freedom to do what I do quite well, which is doing coffee. That, however, is not at all a full picture of what I actually do, or what Blacksmith is. At some moments, I look at customers seated at the Enthusiast Bar, see them valiantly failing in attempting to consume the Vietnamese Steak and Eggs without looking absolutely gluttonous, and I’m reminded of the iconic American diner, straight out of mid-twentieth century America. The big difference is that they have an espresso prepared by yours truly, as well as food from a menu put together by one of Houston’s most talented chefs, Erin “Vampire-Baywatch-Thorhunter” Smith. Now, if that sounds crazy, Louisvillians might be able to get what I’m saying if they think of The Holy Grale, then flip it around so the menu features breakfast and lunch items, then replace the beer with coffee. If all that sounds a little cool, it is… but it’s also crazy, and as of the original draft of this writing, I hit the ground running and don’t think there was a single day of less than twelve hours working since I arrived. The biggest difference between Blacksmith and almost any other coffee shop I can think of is the level of service with which we engage our customers. When I say that, I’m not speaking of the coffee nerd-talk, though such dialogue does make a rare appearance if it is actually helpful to the customer experience. What service comes down to in Blacksmith is making people feel welcome in such a way that they want to keep coming back, every day if they can. In the back of my mind, I try to think of ways we can go all Danny Meyer on our customers, and see if we can execute. That’s a great challenge for me, because my eyebrows are often way too intense and make my facial expressions seem like I’m pushing the water through the coffee at nine bars with my bare hands… some guy named Four Star already sort of pointed that out. Seriously, though, I’ve loved being stretched and made to get out of my service comfort zone. Bobby and Kevin have done a great job of setting a high standard for that with Anvil, Underbelly and Haymerchant, so Blacksmith is just another extension of that ethos. As far as the actual coffee goes, consider this: Blacksmith features an Aurelia, a Linea, and a custom GS/3, modified by the one and only Nicholas Lungaard so that the pressure in the grouphead is controlled by a little volume knob. It’s pretty crazy to play with, and it makes pulling espresso ridiculously easy. We’ve been open for a couple of weeks now, but the reception has been wonderful… which means I’ve made a LOT of drinks. I tend to do a lot of my shifts on the Volume Bar, where I’m cranking out drink after drink after drink, so the barista rust was gone pretty quickly.

What did you learn working in Louisville?

What didn’t I learn? I mean, the entirety of my formative coffee learning years took place in Louisville! Other than the obvious answers — coffee being chief among them, at least in this context — I think I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I’m capable of utter failure, and that I’ve been blessed with a lot of talent. I learned just enough humility to begin to use that talent, and that failure is often the one ingredient that’s necessary to make that humility stick around long enough for that talent to last. I also learned… well, I tell you what, this is probably going to be the shortest answer I type out, even though it’s the longest and deepest answer in my head. So we’ll leave it at that. I learned a lot in Louisville. A lot.

What’s unique about Houston? How is it different from other major cities with thriving coffee scenes?

Houston uniqueness? Well, if my census memory is accurate, it’s the fourth-largest city in the country. Now, I could be totally off on this, but Houston seems to go outward more than it goes upward, so I’ve yet to feel like I’m packed into tight quarters at every turn. That one fact makes the whole idea of doing a coffee crawl in Houston a much, much different prospect than would be the case in, say, Portland or New York. In some ways, it’s pretty comparable to Louisville in that most of the coffee folks really know where they want to go for a shot of espresso, and that isn’t going to be a really lengthy list. The good thing is that the service industry seems to be incredibly close-knit, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how warm and receptive everyone has been. From my perspective — and my perspective is positively influenced and, let’s be honest, even skewed by being around David virtually non-stop since my arrival — people really want to take care of one another. I dig that a lot, and it’s made my transition virtually seamless, so far as I can tell. I mean, we go into some restaurants and it feels more like going to hang out with friends than anything else. Does any of this make sense? I think it might be something to be experienced more than told… ’cause it is different, but I get the feeling that putting it into words is a little difficult without sounding a bit pompous, and I really don’t want to do that!

What’s your typical barista garb?

Typical barista garb? Currently, what’s always covering my arse is that pair of Roy Denim RN04 jeans. They’re ten months old, soaked once, washed twice or thrice, and have been broken in much more since my arrival in Houston. They’re in need of a repair, but I don’t think they’ll hold out until the next pair arrives for the Heavyweight Denim Championship 2 (running from 2013 – 2015). Those suckers are going to be heavy, and a lot of people are looking at me like I’m crazy for saying I’m going to wear 25 oz. denim for two years in Houston, but it’s not much different than the looks I get anyway, so I figure I’ll be fine. Of course, other than that, I often wear one of an arsenal of shoes — most often boots — from Camper or Gram. Vests, too… lots of vests from Engineered Garments and Folk, among others. Coffee t-shirts when I’m feeling lazy, but I try not to be sartorially lazy too often, so I find myself ironing shirts on a regular basis. Sometimes a tie, but not much. Last but not least, hats. Lots of hats. Houston has a requirement for ’em if you’re preparing food or drinks, I think, so I wear hats. My current favorite is one from Still Life.

You once brewed with a dirty sock… Does that help you think more critically about extraction techniques? And is it true that you are Nick Cho’s bastard child?

Aaahhh, The Dirty Sock. Must we air my dirty laundry? I don’t know that that little brewing beauty is something that makes me think critically about brewing now more than, say, a year ago, but I do feel comfortable bringing it up and sharing that experience as an example of which variables are more important than others. And, as far as “technique” is concerned, I tend to think more about the scientific principles behind extraction more than any thing I’m doing. At this point, I would probably say that technique — while working on bar, at least — is more about working efficiently than anything else, since the coffee is going to be tasty, provided everything is dialed-in and I’m executing accordingly. I hope that doesn’t sound silly, because it makes sense in my head, I promise! Also, regarding the highly-regarded Mr. Cho, I’m still waiting for him to write a tell-all book on coffee, in which I fully expect absolutely no mention of yours truly… just as there should be.

If you could tell the current coffee community at large one thing (and actually be heard), what would you say?

Oh gosh. One thing? There’s so much! I’m going to cheat and do what Mr. Meyer did in “Setting the Table” and just tell you what I tell myself, albeit bullet-pointedly, and let any gleaning happen as it will.

  • Get better. Every day. Pick one facet of your professional developement to work on for that day, and get better at it. Milk use? Speed? Dedication to ensuring the espresso is dialed-in for an entire shift? Eye contact with customers over the espresso machine? All of it matters, and not one aspect is ever good enough. Ever. Period. If you think it’s good enough, it’s not, so shut up and get better at it.
  • Don’t let the fact that you tell yourself you need to get better take away from providing a wonderful customer experience. For every time your eyebrows want to furrow and make you look scary, look up and smile… hospitality affects how the drink tastes.
  • Sure, coffee is really, really complex and has this old-world feel to it, but it’s a really, really young craft when compared to beer or wine, so don’t get stuck up in traditions that aren’t any older than Dad.
  • Not all extraction occurs equally over time.
  • Balance, balance, balance, balance, balance, balance. Don’t understand? Pour a packet of sugar on your tongue and think about it.
  • No matter how crappy a shift is, there are undoubtedly worse spots you’ve been in, so smile, be grateful you’re there, and keep going.
  • When on the customers’ side of the counter, be a helpful customer. No, that doesn’t mean I set out to bus my own table, but it does mean that I give my orders as clearly as possible, am attentive for when my drink is called, and don’t change my order after it’s been placed. If not for yourself, do it for your fellow customers.

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6 thoughts on “Barista Interview: John Letoto of Blacksmith Coffee, Houston, TX

  1. What a very inspiring post. I, too, am in the process of trying to relocate due West to pursue and learn more about coffee. Its reassuring to know Im not crazy for doing it.

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