2014 US Barista Champion: Laila Ghambari

Words by Bekah Friesen

The first time I met Laila, I was working as a barista at Caffe Ladro in Seattle. Laila had recently been hired as our coffee educator and was there to not only improve our process but to bring us up to an entirely new standard. She was intense. She was focused. She made me a nervous wreck.

I can laugh now, as Laila and I have become friends.  She is fiery and tenacious and one of the most determined people I have met. It has been fun to watch her grow and succeed in the coffee world. She has a special place in my heart. She and her fiancé, Ryan Willbur, were generous enough to make and serve some world-class pour over and cold brew coffees at our wedding last April using Laila’s competition blend. It was perfection.

Laila is the real deal. She holds the standard high and is an incredible example of a woman who puts her mind to something big and watches it bloom in front of her.

Laila, now 26, grew up in her father Ali Ghambari’s coffee shop in Seattle, Washington called Cherry Street Coffee House. After taking some time to work for other coffee houses, she is back working alongside her family as the Director of Coffee, which she enjoys immensely. I was able to pick Laila’s brain recently about her journey with coffee. Her 2014 US Barista Championship win and her involvement in the first ever barista championship in Iran were chief among my curiosities.

Let’s start at the beginning, Laila. You grew up in your father's coffee house in Seattle. At what age did you realize coffee was in your blood also?

I had been going to work with him since before I was in school. I've always loved the smell of coffee. It’s very nostalgic for me. My first barista job was for my father when I was about 16 but it wasn't until I left Cherry Street and started working for other cafes that I really got into coffee. I would say that when I realized that I really wanted to presume this path was when I was about 20 years old and I started working for a cafe in Kirkland, Washington called the Urban Coffee Lounge. They serve Stumptown Coffee Roasters and I had the opportunity to learn a lot more about coffee than I ever knew existed.

I’ve always loved the smell of coffee. It’s very nostalgic for me. My first barista job was for my father when I was about 16 but it wasn’t until I left Cherry Street and started working for other cafes that I really got into coffee.

What were some key moments that got you where you are today? Defining moments, if you will.

It has always been my goal to move forward in this industry. As I've gotten older, I've realized that working for the cool coffee shop is not necessarily what is going to do that. It’s not about who has the coolest logo or who has the most expensive equipment, but finding a company that will invest in you. I made three big moves in my life. The first was moving from Seattle to Portland in 2010. I had never lived outside Seattle, away from my family, and getting out and being independent was a huge step forward for me as an adult. This also bled over into my work.

The second was taking a huge leap and moving back to Seattle to become the Director of Education for Caffe Ladro. It was a large undertaking, with little-to-no actual experience in that role. They took a big risk on me and I pushed myself to make it worth it. I learned so much in that role and I'm really thankful for it. Lastly, the biggest and best decision I made was coming back to work for my father. It was always an inevitable decision, but one I struggled with for a long time. In the end, the timing could not have been more perfect. Taking risks and pushing myself outside my comfort zone has always paid off for me. It is not easy though.

Explain a little of the process in becoming the US Barista Champion in 2014. What did your timeline look like to prepare for that? What were your emotions? Who were your biggest fans/supports?

I went to El Salvador to visit the farm where the coffee I was using was grown and spent time with the producer, Emilio Lopez Diaz, getting to know as much as possible. I then won my regional and spent the next three months practicing every single day.

Well, getting ready for this USBC really started in 2009, when I first competed. Experience has played the largest part in my success. When you have down something enough that you don't have to think about every motion, it opens up a lot more room for new ideas. For the 2014 competition year though, I starting getting ready in December 2013. I went to El Salvador to visit the farm where the coffee I was using was grown and spent time with the producer, Emilio Lopez Diaz, getting to know as much as possible. I then won my regional and spent the next three months practicing every single day. I read a really impacting sports psychology book that helped me practice to win. Emotionally, I was really all over the place. I knew I was in a good place because I knew I was practicing more than anyone else was, but it was also all I thought about for months. I was very obsessive about it and there were a few dark moments. Through it all, Emilio the producer and Phil Beattie from Dillanos who roasted my coffee were my teammates and great supporters.

Since your win in 2014, and even before, you have also been a major force behind the first ever Islamic Republic of Iran Barista Championship. Explain to me your passion for this and why it is close to your heart. How are the women in the coffee culture received?

This year they hosted their first ever barista competition and it was an absolutely amazing experience. Seeing dreams come true is pretty impacting. As for woman in coffee in Iran, there are very few, but they are present and active.

Iran is where my father was born and so I've had the chance to visit a few times. I was there two years ago and met a few baristas that were really proud of me for being Iranian and being a leader in the coffee industry in the US. They wanted so bad to learn and grow in this industry but had no support.  I promised them I would do what I could because I knew that I was fortunate to have access to what I did in the US and felt like the least I could do was help them out. Over the last couple years I grew a strong bond with them and they grew a culture. This year they hosted their first ever barista competition and it was an absolutely amazing experience. Seeing dreams come true is pretty impacting. As for woman in coffee in Iran, there are very few, but they are present and active. There was no feeling of male dominance. If anything, all the men were so happy to see woman participating and were rooting for them. I really connected with those girls.

How has coffee culture, in general, been received in Iran? How long has it had a presence there?

Iran is mostly a tea culture. They drink black tea like 5 times a day. However, Iran is an Islamic run country meaning there are a lot of things that you can't do. Alcohol is prohibited so there are no bars, men and woman dancing together is prohibited so there are no clubs or dances. There is not a lot for the youth to do and they crave being a part of something bigger. I feel like coffee shops are the perfect place for young people in a country with such restrictions to hang out, socialize and feel free. So, although the culture is new, and might take time to be received by the older generations, in a country with something like 70% of the population under 30 I think the coffee scene has huge opportunity for growth.

What are your current goals with coffee? Anything new or major on the horizon for you?

I’m in my second year working back with my father’s company, Cherry Street Coffee House. I’m running the coffee and retail operations, as well wearing a few other hats. The company has been here for 20 years and has 10 cafes, with more on the horizon.

I'm in my second year working back with my father's company, Cherry Street Coffee House. I'm running the coffee and retail operations, as well wearing a few other hats. The company has been here for 20 years and has 10 cafes, with more on the horizon. It’s a huge project for me to take on. I'm taking things slow and making small changes that make large, positive impacts. It’s a really great learning and growing experience for me. I'm still incredibly involved in the coffee industry, working with the Barista Guild of America and now, even more, involved with the Iranian Barista Guild. There will be a new USBC very soon and I’m actually looking forward to handing the crown off so I can focus a little bit more on myself.

What would your advice be to those wanting to excel as baristas? What about young women who want to pursue big things, like you have?

There are a lot of resources at your fingertips. This is the age of information sharing, so get lost online reading blogs and watching videos. So many smart people just handing you all the secrets! Don't focus on latte art too much, it’s a very small part of what makes coffee great. Join the Barista Guild of America and get involved. Volunteer and be a part of any and all events you can and even create some of your own. Being a woman should not hinder you in anyway if you don't let it. Do “you” and don't worry about what others think. Be positive and work hard. You will get what you give in this industry so it’s really in your hands, what you want out of it.