In frankly wild news, over the past week the international specialty coffee industry has been roiled by controversy involving the prominent Australian coffee education, equipment, and consulting brand Barista Hustle. The company’s CEO and founder, Matt Perger, has admitted to repeatedly using a racial slur in front of a Black employee in 2018.
This is story has played out largely in public, across a series of social media posts and against the wider backdrop of an ongoing historic Black civil rights movement transforming public life worldwide
Back in 2017, Michelle Johnson—a journalist, publisher, coffee professional, public speaker, activist, and community organizer originally from Northern Virginia, now based in Los Angeles—was hired by Melbourne, Australia multimedia company Barista Hustle. The company, a hybrid of educational tools, equipment sales, and digital community, was founded by the international coffee competitor and consultant Matt Perger and debuted in January 2015.
Johnson moved to Melbourne to in November of 2017 to work full-time for the company, and was hired to perform a multitude of roles at Barista Hustle. In a contemporaneous interview with the American coffee publication Coffee Compass, Johnson described her role as including “directing marketing and communications,” working as “the head admin of our Facebook group,” as well as contributing to newsletter outlines, product and website copy, subscription content, in-house video and photo work, and workshop organizing.
Then she was gone. By early 2019 Johnson was giving interviews about her next steps in coffee, having publicly announced her departure from Barista Hustle via public social media statements in August 2018. A series of public revelations in early June 2020 have detailed why.
At 3:30 AM PST June 5th, 2020, the following statement was published on Barista Hustle CEO and Founder Matt Perger’s Twitter. Johnson was not informed in advance of Perger’s public statement but had alluded to the issues behind her departure from Barista Hustle in a Tweet from June 2nd. Perger’s public statement is below in full. These images are presented in an image carousel; please click over after each image to read the statement in full.
The response online to Perger’s statement was swift and almost uniformly negative, playing out in public Twitter replies, Reddit threads, and across public social media related to the coffee industry. Mere hours after Perger’s public statement, the San Francisco based specialty coffee manufacturing brand Fellow Products announced the termination of its coffee equipment distribution portal with Barista Hustle, and at least one member of Barista Hustle’s team, Miranda Hodge, a volunteer moderator of the BH Facebook group, announced their resignation.
A few hours later, at 9:22 PM PST on June 5th, Michelle Johnson responded publicly via public Twitter account. Johnson’s public statement is below. These images are presented in an image carousel; please click over after each image to read the statement in full.
According to the named individuals in Michelle Johnson’s text message excerpt—D’Onna Stubblefield, Ezra Baker, and Tymika Lawrence—the text messages tweeted by Johnson are unaltered and accurately reflect contemporaneous correspondence around the incidents.
In the course of reporting this story, Sprudge has reached out to all involved parties to seek additional comment. This includes Matt Perger and Michelle Johnson, whose statements are below, as well as Michael Cameron, a former Barista Hustle employee now on the communications team at St. ALi, who is named in Michelle Johnson’s depiction of the incidents. On June 6th Cameron commented on the matter publicly in the form of a tweet, which appears here with consent:
I stand with Michelle. Always have, always will. https://t.co/PHf4TZib1L
— Michael Cameron (@strivefortone) June 6, 2020
Michael Cameron has offered this additional public comment:
“I can confirm that Michelle’s statement is an accurate depiction of the events as they transpired. There were two incidents of Matt using the n-word. I spoke to him after the first time about how inappropriate it was. After the second incident, Michelle understandably no longer wanted to work at Barista Hustle. She requested to be paid out the remainder of her employment; there was a counteroffer of five weeks, which Michelle accepted upon signing the deed of release. At this point, I also resigned.
I also want to add I witnessed the emotional turmoil this caused Michelle, not only then in the immediate aftermath, but also for the almost two years since this has happened. Michelle is an incredible human being—full of grace, humility, and humour—and I hope some of the burden she’s had to carry over this has been lifted.” — Michael Cameron
Matt Perger has offered this additional public comment:
“To all coffee people and our broader community, friends, partners, and critics,
I made mistakes in 2018 and I made mistakes last week, and I am truly sorry.
I twice used a racial slur which was offensive to a former employee and stifled their voice with a legal instrument. Last week I then published sensitive details of what happened in a selfish panic.
For all of these acts, I apologise — both to the person concerned, and to everyone in the community who has been hurt as a result of my actions.
I’ve received a lot of criticism in the last few days and have read every word. It has been embarrassing, humbling, and painful. I understand this is part of the process.
I am wary of releasing a rushed list of commitments for myself and Barista Hustle before truly understanding what is required. They will be announced shortly, and we will be held accountable to them.” — Matt Perger
Michelle Johnson has offered this additional public comment:
“I had so much hope when I started working at Barista Hustle, and I’m still heartbroken by the entire experience. I moved across the world only to end up feeling like I wasn’t welcome by someone who claimed to respect me and my work in the years prior. (Remember Tamper Tantrum NYC?)
Now that the truth behind my departure has been made public, I’m refocusing my energy into finding the healing I deserve and finding the best ways to make The Chocolate Barista a resource that not only centers justice, but positive work that should be amplified within the Black coffee community.
I hope Matt learns from this and if not, that’s none of my business.” — Michelle Johnson
This story is developing.
Disclosures: Michelle Johnson is a contributing journalist at Sprudge. See all Michelle Johnson bylines on Sprudge. Ezra Baker and Tymika Lawrence are contributing podcasts hosts on the Sprudge Podcast Network.
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network and the winner of a 2020 James Beard Award for digital journalism.