I first met Chris Deferio in Madison Square Park at the original Shake Shack kiosk. I had just arrived in New York with my friend Kenny Smith to compete in the World Latte Art Open Championship at CoffeeFest. It was a cold and rainy March evening, but we thought a cheeseburger would help calm our nerves before the competition. As we huddled under an awning we looked over and noticed one other person crazy enough to brave the icy rain for a Shack burger. “I think that’s Chris Deferio,” said Kenny.
Since that chance meeting, Chris has become a friend and even a sort of mentor in the coffee industry for me. For younger baristas who don’t know their OGs, I like to mention that Chris had a Latte Art instructional DVD out before I even drank coffee. Chris is now a full-time podcaster and consultant, sharing his rich coffee and managerial experience on Keys to the Shop. I recently caught up with Chris over Zoom to learn more about his production process, and what it’s like to have more than 400 episodes out. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
I’m curious, what was the first coffee shop you had keys to?
I guess it was my first coffee job — the one I got fired from. It was a location of a company called Arsaga’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It’s not an Arsaga’s anymore. That particular location has since switched hands. It was bittersweet. I deserved to be fired, I’m not going to deny it. I learned a lot from that though, and obviously, kept going in coffee. I believe that was 1999.
I’m amazed by your creative output. How many episodes are you releasing these days?
The average is nine episodes a month. Tuesdays, which are full-length, Shift Break on Thursdays, and Founder Friday, which is the last Friday of the month.
The show kind of grew a life of its own. When I started I just wanted to do a show a week. I wanted the show to be a resource that was focused on supplying tools and great, actionable take-aways.
Something we love about your show is that you interview a lot of people who aren’t in the coffee industry. How do you find these outsiders?
From the beginning I wanted to have both inside and outside input. Part of the impetus for the show
was that I was getting from other sources a lot of useful information to apply to my coffee journey.
There’s this whole rich world out there of management and leadership, and entrepreneurship. I remember thinking there was something specifically for coffee. It’s one of the reasons I started the show, in particular for coffee retail. We tend to be pretty myopic in our focus, in terms of who we listen to help us become better.
All of the little things you do [to run a coffee shop], there’s somebody out there who specializes in that.
Has there been any person you were geeking out about interviewing?
Early on when I got to interview Dave Stachowiak of Coaching for Leaders, whose podcast was really an inspiration for me. Now I’ve kind of struck up a friendship with him as a fellow podcaster. He’s been on the show now three times, and I’ve been on his show a few times. Another one was Bruce Tolgan who wrote the book It’s Okay to Be the Boss.
David Schomer was on the show. Here’s obviously a coffee icon, and someone who was instrumental in my own history in coffee. I was quite nervous to ask the right questions. I wanted to make sure I was able to draw out the right information.
Recently, We had James Hoffmann on the show. Officially it’s the most downloaded episode in the history of the show.
I wonder if you can relate to my experience. You have a particular set of skills and expertise, but then essentially you started a media company, which is a whole other business model. What was the learning curve like?
It was a steep learning curve. I don’t consider myself technically abled.
I consumed large amounts of information about podcasts before starting– listening to hours of Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income. It was similar to how I learned latte art– I found a video on coffeeresearch.net and I just watched it over and over.
I didn’t know anyone who could teach me, so I had to learn for myself.
I had to get used to the sound of my own voice. I hate it.
For the gearheads out there, what can you tell us about your set up?
I’ve never really upgraded my equipment. I’m working on a Craiglists-find MacBook Air.
I don’t record on software, I record into the SD card of a Zoom audio recorder. From there I go into audacity, which I really like for taking noise out of the background. I transfer that into Garage Band where I have the theme music. And I do final arrangements there and export the audio to an mp3 file.
The microphone Audiotechina 2100. I have a pop filter on that. Everything goes into a small mixer, and back out into the recorder.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you a question about coffee! What’s your relationship with coffee look like when you’re producing an episode?
If I’m interviewing someone I’m rarely drinking coffee. But when I’m editing it’s usually a V60 of whatever coffee I have on hand. That changes with the seasons. Typically that’s going to be something more developed and darker in the colder months. These days I do tend to like a darker and more developed roast. Right now I have Night Owl from Quills Coffee, some Red Bay Slow Burn espresso, and some experimental coffees from Chris Owen’s Secret Coffee Project.