Girls Who Grind, aka Fi O’Brien and Casey Lalonde, are having a rough Monday morning. Their coffee roaster is broken. They have until the end of the day to fix it, because Tuesday is roasting day. So, while Fi and I talk, Casey is busy taking the roaster apart to identify the problem. Girls Who Grind is a coffee roastery ‘run on grrrl power’ in Wiltshire. Its two founders do everything themselves.
“Coffee can be a bit ‘boys and their toys,” says Fi. “There’s a coffee-bro culture and a lot of machinery involved, so it can be a little bit intimidating. It’s kind of assumed that women don’t have the skills for the grinders, the espresso machines, and particularly the roasting side of things.”
Casey perfectly disproves this assumption, by fixing the issue with the roaster and putting the machine back together again.
Girls Who Grind started life in a baby yoga class. Fi and Casey, both mums, bonded over their backgrounds in coffee: Australian Fi ran a café back in Melbourne. Casey, originally from upstate New York, began her career as a coffee roaster in Vermont. Both settled in Frome, Somerset with their families, and, after becoming friends, realised they were itching to get back in the coffee game.
“The name came first,” says Fi. “I wanted to do something celebrating women in the coffee industry, perhaps a festival, but without really knowing what it was going to be. Casey and I got talking about what we did and didn’t like about the coffee industry. Her dream was to have her own coffee roastery. We put the two things together and it’s worked really well.”
Girls Who Grind sources all its coffee from female-run farms, or from organisations and co-operatives who empower women. “70 to 80 per cent of the people involved in coffee production are women, but a lot of them don’t get to own the farms,” explains Casey. One farm that bucks the trend, and supplies Girls Who Grind, is run by the Boza sisters in El Salvador. “The three sisters, Alexandra, Daniella and Karla, weren’t going to get a look in. It was only because their father didn’t have a son and was getting too old, that he gave his daughters some ownership and power over the farm. Otherwise it would’ve gone to rack and ruin. The Boza sisters have done their own agricultural training and are learning lots about the future of coffee and coffee pricing. They’ve made the farm more contemporary.”
In fact, the partnership with Girls Who Grind began when Karla messaged them on Instagram. “We started emailing and Casey got talking with the importer to see how we’d get the coffee over here. Coffee farming is more forward-thinking now. It’s an exciting time to connect directly with the producers, through social media, email or at coffee festivals.”
Girls Who Grind got off the ground quite quickly. In spring 2017, Casey and Fi were meeting up at a local café to hone their business plan and apply for a loan. They found premises on a nearby farm, borrowed a roaster and produced their first batch of coffee in October 2017 for a London festival run by the breast cancer charity, CoppaFeel. The response at the festival spurred them on. They soon had their own roasting machine, and were preparing for the biggest date on the caffeine calendar: The London Coffee Festival, in March 2018.
The festival was an exhilarating experience both for Fi and Casey, and for the young women who flocked to their stand. “The response was absolutely insane. Some people were quite emotional about what were doing. We also had lots of female baristas coming up to us who were visiting from other countries, particularly the Middle East, who were so excited. It gave them a sense of empowerment as well.” Fi and Casey sold out of all their coffee and left the festival with a bulging contacts book. The business has been growing quickly since. Their coffees, sourced from countries including Brazil, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Kenya, are now stocked in independent cafes and shops around the UK, as well as available to order online.
Girls Who Grind has clearly struck a chord in the coffee business. The industry is dominated by men from beans to baristas. I wonder whether the sexism is usually overt, or more subtle; given that independent coffee shops are supposedly havens for the woke-minded? “It can be a bit of both,” says Fi. “It really depends on where you’re working but I’ve worked in cafés where the male chefs can be so derogatory. In a lot of cases, women don’t progress. They stay as a barista and the men get promoted to management.” Fi says it was never their intention to launch the business during the height of #MeToo: “It just happened that it all exploded at the same time we were launching Girls Who Grind. It definitely helped that those messages were out there, and people wanted to discuss these issues, especially within workplaces.”
Fi and Casey bring complementary skill sets to the business. Casey heads up the roastery, while Fi – who also has a background in creative strategy – looks after branding, social media, wholesale and events. They’ve recently taken on their first employee, to help label and pack the coffee. “Before that we did literally everything: packing the coffee, going to the post office, the whole shebang,” says Fi.
Getting the business off the ground has certainly not been a nine-to-five affair, with the two doing a lot of work out of hours from home: running social media and replying to emails. But running their own roastery has given them the freedom to work in the industry they love while raising their families: “If we worked for someone else, we wouldn’t have the option to leave at 2.30pm for the school run,” says Fi.
2019 is shaping up to a busy year for Girls Who Grind. In June they’re opening a coffee concession within concept hair salon and music venue, Glitch, in Bristol. If it goes well, Fi hopes that a Girls Who Grind café will follow. “The plan was always to have a café, but the Glitch opportunity came up and I think that’s a good way to start. Everything’s happened very quickly for Girls Who Grind. Before we’ve had a chance to think about what’s next, it’s already happening.”
However big the business grows in the next few years, Fi and Casey are confident that they’ll still be able to source their coffee from female producers and organisations that empower women. “When we first started, a lot of people said ‘you’ll be able to do this to a certain point, then you’ll get to a stage where you run out of female producers. But that’s not been the case at all. We’re inundated with choice. Because we’ve put our message out there, importers can source those beans for us knowing there’s a market it for it. The hard part now is saying no to small producers because we want to support all their causes and farms, but we can’t buy everything.”
From sourcing from female-run farms, to opening a café and running their own roastery (not to mention fixing the roaster when it breaks): Girls Who Grind are empowering women at every stage of coffee’s complex journey from bean to cup.
This article is part of Virgin's International Women's Day series.
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