Meet the U.S. Regional Champs: NW Barista Competition—Laila Ghambari

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In the days leading up to the United States Barista Championship and the U.S. Brewer’s Cup, we at Barista Magazine are proud to share with you exclusive interviews with the six regional champions in each competition. We will feature the Southwestern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the Northwestern Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Southeast Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; the Northeastern Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions; the South Central Barista and Brewers Cup Champions; and the North Central Regional Barista and Brewer’s Cup Champions on Tuesday. And stay tuned right here on Barista Magazine’s blog all next week for more of our preview coverage of all the exciting events and parties happening in Seattle in conjunction with the SCAA, and reports and photos of all the action every day through the end of this epic week in coffee.

Laila Ghambari
Director of Coffee
Cherry Street Coffee House
Seattle, Washington

When did you first get into coffee?

My first coffee job was working for my dad at Cherry Street. I used to go to work with him all the time when I was a little kid and do random jobs like bussing, ringing people up, etc. When I was 16 or 17, I actually started making coffee.

Laila outside of Cherry Street Coffee House, which her family owns, in Seattle. While Laila got her start at Cherry Street, she went on to work at such esteemed coffee companies as BARISTA, Urban Coffee Lounge, Stumptown, and Caffe Ladro, to broaden her coffee perspective. he recently transitioned into the role of Director of Coffee at Cherry Street.

Laila outside of Cherry Street Coffee House, which her family owns, in Seattle. While Laila got her start at Cherry Street, she went on to work at such esteemed coffee companies as BARISTA, Urban Coffee Lounge, Stumptown, and Caffe Ladro, to broaden her coffee perspective. he recently transitioned into the role of Director of Coffee at Cherry Street.

What was your first amazing experience with coffee?

I’m not sure I ever really had that big moment in coffee because I was around it so much, but I do remember the time in my life when I realized I really liked doing this and that I wanted to learn more and do more. It really happened when I left Cherry Street and branched out to other cafes and roasters. It’s nice to see it all come back full circle.

As the Northwest Rep for the Barista Guild of America, Laila was instrumental in bringing the Seattle coffee community together for volunteer work, trainings, and celebratory events.

As the Northwest Rep for the Barista Guild of America, Laila was instrumental in bringing the Seattle coffee community together for volunteer work, trainings, and celebratory events.

What was your first barista competition, and how many have you competed in since then?

First barista competition I participated in was the 2010 Northwest Regional Barista Competition (NWRBC) during Coffee Fest Seattle. I was working at the Urban Coffee Lounge and my co worker Andrew Milstead and I competed. I ended up getting third. I then did the United States Barista Championship (USBC) that year, and did the same thing in 2011 and 2012. I took last year off to judge and coach and now I’m back! I like to count [how many barista competitions I’ve participated in by] score sheets however, and I have 13 sets [of scoresheets—thus 13 competitions].

Laila has been competing since 2010, and she’s consistently placed high, though never won first place—until this year. Laila is the 2014 Northwest Regional Barista Champion, and will represent the region at the United States Barista Championship in Seattle in April.

Laila has been competing since 2010, and she’s consistently placed high, though never won first place—until this year. Laila is the 2014 Northwest Regional Barista Champion, and will represent the region at the United States Barista Championship in Seattle in April.

Will you change things up for the USBC?

No. No. No. That is something I have learned from past competitions. I will take the judges’ feedback and only change those things. Everything else stays put.

Laila has made some of her best friends through coffee, including Deanna Moody-Linzmeier (pictured), wife of Laila’s former coworker, Jared, as well as Laila’s longtime boyfriend, Ryan Willbur, who works at La Marzocco.

Laila has made some of her best friends through coffee, including Deanna Moody-Linzmeier (pictured), wife of Laila’s former coworker, Jared, as well as Laila’s longtime boyfriend, Ryan Willbur, who works at La Marzocco.

Laila and her dear friend and former coworker, Jared Linzmeier at the TED Talks conference.

Laila and her dear friend and former coworker, Jared Linzmeier at the TED Talks conference.

Tell us about the coffee you used and why it’s so special to you.

Oh, boy. This coffee. I went to El Salvador and hung out with Emilio Lopez Diaz on his farm, El Manzano, for a week. I learned so much. He also owns the mill and I was able to see every single step. Emilio is brilliant. I mean, like, really, really smart. We ended up with three coffees, same variety, but different processes.

Here is Laila with Emilio Lopez Diaz, whose coffee she used to win the Northwest Regional, and Phil Beattie, Green Buyer for Dillanos. In January, Laila traveled with Dillanos to Emilio’s farm in El Salvador—and it was a successful trip. Dillanos bought and roasted Emilio’s coffee for Laila—the same coffee she won with.

Here is Laila with Emilio Lopez Diaz, whose coffee she used to win the Northwest Regional, and Phil Beattie, Green Buyer for Dillanos. In January, Laila traveled with Dillanos to Emilio’s farm in El Salvador—and it was a successful trip. Dillanos bought and roasted Emilio’s coffee for Laila—the same coffee she won with.

With so much experience in barista competitions, what did you do differently this time?

I didn’t over practice. I used to burn myself out. Spend hours in a lab doing nothing productive. This time, I thought about it for a long time first. Then went straight into full run-throughs about two weeks before and visualized my routine a lot. I only physically did a full run through about four times before my competition slot, but I bet I did it over 100 in my head.

Laila has competed in 13 barista competitions.

Laila has competed in 13 barista competitions.

You recently left Caffe Ladro to go back to your family company, Cherry Street. How’s that going? What are your job duties?

My title is Director of Coffee, and coffee is my main focus, but I’m doing a little bit of everything. Product development, retail experience, merchandising, social media, etc. I’m learning a lot and taking it one day at a time. I feel a lot of pressure since it’s my family, but I also have a lot of support because of that, as well. I’m really excited for the future of Cherry Street.

Laila visits Tehran, Iran, frequently to visit family, and while she’s there, she likes to meet with the local barista community to share skills and knowledge. Laila’s support has really inspired these baristas, who recently formed the Iranian Barista Guild.

Laila visits Tehran, Iran, frequently to visit family, and while she’s there, she likes to meet with the local barista community to share skills and knowledge. Laila’s support has really inspired these baristas, who recently formed the Iranian Barista Guild.

The Iranian Barista Guild people are probably flipping out right now with excitement for you. Your coffee success has inspired them so much. Why has it been important to you to work with them and help them get a foot hold in the international coffee industry?

I’m all about community. I’ve really given a lot of myself to the Seattle coffee community and the barista community in general. It’s rewarding, and I get so much in return. With Iran, I felt like I had to give them that same attention. That is my heritage, my people, my family. I wanted to see them succeed. All they really needed was someone to believe in them and support them. I really have not done much, it’s all their work. It’s very impressive. They just needed a little push. They look at my success as their success, and that feels really good.

Laila has demoed home espresso machines for Delonghi, including this time on Fox’s morning program, where she had a lot of fun making coffee for the hosts.

Laila has demoed home espresso machines for Delonghi, including this time on Fox’s morning program, where she had a lot of fun making coffee for the hosts.

Tell me how you feel about winning the Ecuador trip from Café Imports—it’s such a super special prize.

I really believe that baristas going to origin is the best learning opportunity imaginable. I cannot express my gratitude enough to Café Imports for giving so many people this opportunity. I’ve been to origin but not with other baristas, and I’m really looking forward to that experience.

As the Origin Trip Sponsor for the Regional Barista Competitions, the USBC, and the WBC, Café Imports gives winners a helluva prize: the green coffee importer based in Minneapolis takes all six regional winners, plus the USBC and WBC champs on an all-expenses-paid trip to a producing country. Laila and her fellow champs will travel with Café Imports to Ecuador this summer. Laila is beyond excited. While she has traveled to origin before, she says she;s never done it with a group of baristas, and she knows that will be a really special experience.

As the Origin Trip Sponsor for the Regional Barista Competitions, the USBC, and the WBC, Café Imports gives winners a helluva prize: the green coffee importer based in Minneapolis takes all six regional winners, plus the USBC and WBC champs on an all-expenses-paid trip to a producing country. Laila and her fellow champs will travel with Café Imports to Ecuador this summer. Laila is beyond excited. While she has traveled to origin before, she says she;s never done it with a group of baristas, and she knows that will be a really special experience.

 

About the Author

Sarah

Sarah Allen is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.