Kendra Sledzinski: The Sprudge Twenty Interview


Welcome to The Sprudge Twenty Interviews presented by Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2020 Sprudge Twenty honorees please visit sprudge.com/twenty.

Nominated by Kayla Baird

“How do I put into words how Kendra has affected my life and countless others? We met at Joe Coffee in New York five years ago and hit it off right away. Who was this friendly person, I wanted to know! Soon I became aware of Kendra’s influence in the coffee community of Philadelphia. When I went to visit her, everywhere we went, she knew someone. Kendra constantly went above and beyond in Philly to encourage professional development and community with the Joe staff and baristas of Philly—doing palate development and cuppings that were never required, but she knew how to make baristas stay. She works hard for her community, and works hard to lift other people up—and she does so selflessly. Thank you Kendra!”

What issue in coffee do you care about most?

Equal access to education, resources, and professional development and opportunities. The industry is incredibly complex with lots of moving parts and many issues more critical than this, but I say it because it’s within my immediate reach. So many coffee professionals start as baristas. I think back to the days when I subscribed to some elitist coffee thought and language, and I cringe when I think of it.

These days, I want to use my experience as a trainer and educator to empower people with the knowledge they can grow with. This means promoting diversity and giving someone who is only working in coffee because it’s the job they have just as much attention as someone who wants it as a career. It also means listening. I stayed interested in coffee early on in my career because I was lucky to have managers and leaders who took me and my curiosity seriously and encouraged me to grow and learn. When I was training baristas, I would tell them that regardless of how long they occupy the role, knowing how to make coffee well is a valuable (and employable) life skill. I had the time of my life as a barista made easier by safe, healthy, and supportive work environments. Because of that, it’s important to me to help others have a positive experience working in coffee, too.

What cause or element in coffee drives you?

The humanity of the entire value/supply stream. Coffee isn’t possible without the labors of humans and that is a fact that has never eluded me.

What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?

The value of that labor on all ends of the supply stream. Producers are not paid enough for their coffee and baristas are not paid enough to make it, either. I don’t think this is overlooked and certainly do not want to oversimplify it, but I do think it’s an ongoing challenge and conversation that should not stop. I hope we can find ways in our industry to make those challenges and conversations more tangible and accessible to our customers and guests without being polarizing.

It starts with our offerings and even how we encourage them to engage with the coffees they buy—encouraging them to buy what they like, not what we think is best or more righteous. I think the pandemic has put a bit of a lens on all supply streams and how consumers buy and interact with products and goods. Maybe we’ll see some positive impacts of this in the aftermath. Either way, working in coffee isn’t sustainable for so many people. How can we make it so we can all be prosperous? I don’t have an answer but I’ll spend my life’s work trying to make it so.

What is the quality you like best about coffee?

Coffee is an arbiter of human connection, culture, and social change. The industry is a global community and cafes are community spaces. We can diversify and educate our communities by making those community spaces welcoming and inclusive to all. I went to journalism school because I wanted to see and understand the world, but a career in coffee has given me that in a different, more enriching, and meaningful way.

Did you experience a life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your career?

There have been so many moments that impacted my trajectory and kept me going and eager to learn that it’s hard to pinpoint just one. However, there is no doubt that many of those early moments were facilitated by Betty Ortiz at Spruce Street Espresso. Spruce Street closed a long time ago, but Philadelphia coffee wouldn’t be what it is today without its influence.

What is your idea of coffee happiness?

Usually I’d say I’m outside a coffee shop with some buddies and we’re sipping, sharing, and laughing in the sunshine. Because that world doesn’t exist right now, it’s my first cup in the morning. I’ve been using brewing my coffee as a way to practice some mindfulness at the start of my day. I brew my cup and sit in my window to drink it. I don’t look at my phone, I don’t read the news. I just sit, sip, and watch the day get brighter.

If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?

In some ways, I’ve already had the job I wanted for so long. I love sharing the joy of learning about coffee and flavor with others. My own ambitions are still malleable. In my fantasy world, I have the means and financial security to start a cooperative company with a bunch of badass coffee friends. We will be approachable, we will provide a great working environment and pay well. People will want to work with us and we’ll lead by example by having a diverse team, balanced power, and transparent, accountable leadership. This, of course, will be after I live out the other part of my fantasy world that involves me learning everything I can about coffee production by studying or doing research and living and working in a producing country for an extended period of time. I have never wanted to stop learning or growing my coffee skill set and I never will!

Who are your coffee heroes?

Many of them are also included on the Sprudge Twenty list. What a true honor it is to be here with them! I am also fiercely inspired by Coffee At Large and really any organized group of coffee workers. Taking risks and standing up for what you believe in isn’t easy and it takes a lot of courage. Folks farther ahead in their careers can learn a lot about workplace health, safety, and justice by taking some cues from these folks. I have so much hope for the future of coffee because of them.

And after this year’s Brewers Cup season, it would be remiss of me not to mention Beth Beall and the way she supports and encourages others. She’s a role model to so many, supports her own team’s growth and professional development in a way that makes me aspire to be able to do the same one day. Most of all, she does it with wisdom, kindness, and grace. We love you, Beth! Thank you for everything you do for the greater coffee community.

If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

My late grandmother Elsie Flora Spencer Sledzinski, but she would be drinking tea because she was British and that’s all I ever knew her to drink. She passed in 2009, but I’d like to talk to her openly as a grown adult woman and hear her take on the state of the world. I know she would be disgusted by Trump, and I’d love to bond with her over that.

If you didn’t work in coffee what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Anytime someone asks me this I say, “lavender farmer.” Doesn’t that sound like a nice way to live?

Do you have any coffee mentors?

I wish! I always wanted one, which is why I think I try to be a mentor I never had to others. But I still have so much to learn, and it’s never too late to have one if anyone is feeling generous!

What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?

To not take myself so seriously! I started having a lot more fun when I quit worrying about being perfect or being right. There is absolutely no one way to brew or enjoy coffee.

Name three coffee apparatuses you couldn’t do without.

I feel stumped, especially after spending more time with brewing vessels during quarantine. Going to have to go with a Baratza grinder, a glass V60, and one of my favorite mugs.

Best song to brew coffee to at the moment.

Tell me you don’t want to get back behind the bar and crush a rush when you hear “Space Jam” by the Quad City DJs?

Where do you see yourself in 2040?

Hopefully happy, healthy, and living extra well because I am finally living out my dream of residing in a beautiful place next to a body of water.

What’s your favorite coffee at the moment?

*sips* Jen Apodaca is slaying it with Mugshots by Mother Tongue! I love a coffee that is easy to brew and tastes sweet and balanced.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?

I am one of the thousands of coffee workers laid off from a job I loved. I miss it and many of my colleagues dearly. In the first few weeks, I felt minor relief. Sure, it was a full-time job just navigating the unemployment portal, but with rapidly evolving news made it hard to focus on much of anything but that. Now that more time has passed, it’s hard not to feel discouraged or disheartened. How can I be laid off? I’ve given 13 years of my life to coffee. Am I not good enough? Are my contributions and ideas not valuable? These are some thoughts that have entered my brain despite trying so hard not to. How can any of us in this position not have these thoughts? There’s no manual or reference for how to get through this and it looks different for everyone. We all have different needs. I’ve accepted that some days are just going to be harder than others and truly take it one day—sometimes one hour—at a time. Yet, there is an extraordinary amount of comfort in knowing I am not alone in navigating this. I cannot say I’d be managing it as well if I weren’t connected to so many coffee friends and peers at this time. The shared experience, the empathy; it’s refreshing and it makes me feel immense gratitude for the life choices I made that led me to this work and the coffee community.

I know that one day I will reflect upon this time of cooking projects, 24/7 athleisure, Zoom hangs, movie marathons, and learning the choreography to all my favorite ’90s music videos because I have the time. I know I will ultimately be thankful to have spent it safely in my home with my love and our house plants. Until then, what a way to get better at being patient.

Is there any donation fund or resource in your community we can share with our readers?

I’ve been co-hosting Coffee Break Northeast with the imitable Tommy Gallagher! It’s a way to connect with others in a time of social distancing and we support virtual tip jars, employee fundraisers and coffee businesses in our region daily at 1 pm. We have quite the crew of “regulars” and the camaraderie of Coffee Break has been instrumental in getting me through this time! coffeebreak.group is the website and we do ours at 1 pm eastern. All are welcome!

The Sprudge Twenty Interviews are presented in partnership by Sprudge & Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2020 Sprudge Twenty honorees and a complete interview archive, please visit sprudge.com/twenty.






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