This week we’re taking a closer look at Black & White Coffee Roasters, operating out of the greater Raleigh area (Rolesville and Wake Forest). Founded by barista competition legends, 2016 United States Barista Champion Lem Butler and 2017 USBC Champion Kyle Ramage, Black & White operates cafes throughout the Raleigh/Durham area and is served in cafes across the country, like Hopper & Burr in California, Drip in NYC, and Spitfire Coffee in New Orleans. We spoke with Lem Butler digitally to learn more about Black & White’s design, values, and to find out the meaning behind the company’s Panda branding.
For people who are unfamiliar, tell us a little more about Black & White Coffee Roasters.
Black & White started as an idea with a purpose to create opportunities for coffee people in the coffee value chain just like opportunities were created for both Kyle and myself. A “pay it forward” idea. We created this machine with a mission to make exceptional coffee simple. Simplicity is a lot more approachable. Our three core values (service, community, excellence) drive how we source coffee, roast coffee, sell coffee, hire staff, and partner with other companies. Our core values keep us on track with our mission. In this crazy time, community has held our company together.
Folks might be familiar with the founders Lem Butler and Kyle Ramage—who else is on the team?
We purchased Back Alley Coffee Roasters in 2017 so we started with a great staff of 10. Both Kyle and I worked a lot of different positions in the company but as B&W grew, we saw it necessary to put the right people in the right position to keep the company moving forward towards our mission. We currently have 31 employees fulfilling these important positions. RuthAnne Floyd has been roasting for a couple years and manages our production team; Jennifer Hall is our brand manager and website designer; Andrew Gardner manages our food program in our third cafe; Jake MacFarland relocated from Alabama to manage our downtown Raleigh location; Joel Beever manages our original location, and we hired Anthony Ragler as our new Regional Developer to help us manage local and regional wholesale partnerships.
Tell us about the panda.
Pandas are a rare and endangered animal. I first saw a Panda at Zoo Atlanta years ago. I also won the 2016 USBC in Atlanta. With success on the international stage, I was invited to China four times and during one of those visits, I was fortunate to visit the Panda Research Center in Chengdu. The Giant Panda became my favorite animal. It is pretty rare that only two baristas from the SouthEast won the USBC and we did it back-to-back years so it seemed s perfect fit to have the Giant black & white Panda to represent our brand. We also love rare coffees like what we competed with in 2016 and 2017; Jose Gallardo’s Finca Nuguo.
The visual branding applies flavor notes for the coffee offerings, there are usually three-four flavor descriptors (Arnold Palmer, honeydew lemon, floral, etc). How difficult is it to land on those?
When I finally made it to the final round in the USBC, I was extremely nervous during my practice time. It was also the first time I did not have a team to help me taste. My nerves got the best of me and I could not taste anything. Talk about stage fright. Kyle was working for Mahlkönig so he was already working backstage. I asked him to taste the coffee and see if my flavor calls were still on point. They were and he also picked up on some very specific calls I never tasted. His calls were on point and they have always been on point. I am convinced he is a supertaster and that is a realm where he exceeds. We discuss flavors a lot, but I trust his palate more than mine.
The two founders of Black & White are both seasoned and accomplished barista competitors—does that background influence the coffee offerings at the company?
Indeed. I used to think I had dedicated 17 years of my life to Specialty Coffee; I’ve come to realize, through the origin of Black & White Coffee Roasters, I’ve been dedicating my life to quality relationships. From coffee cultivation, coffee processing, coffee roasting, and coffee preparation, it is the synergy of collaborative relationships and modernized innovation that builds a sustainable community across the entire coffee value chain. Preparing for barista competitions have made both of us better coffee professionals. Winning was a one-time thing but the journey over the years to get there was where we found our calling and that calling (B&W) is what drives us in everything we do.
Who designed the bags?
Very early on we learned a costly lesson that a well-known design firm out of Seattle did not give a crap about our vision and ripped us off. Fortunately, we do have friends locally who stepped up and helped us design our website and our bags. Jennifer Hall is now our Brand Manager because of her skills and ability to see our vision.
You currently operate three locations—tell us about how it’s been going here in July 2020.
At the start of the pandemic, we asked our staff if they felt comfortable working and all but one said yes. We remained open during the shutdown. We took extreme measures to keep our staff safe and healthy. The community embraced us for doing so and although we did operate at a loss, we wanted to make sure our staff was paid (some have families). Now in July as the country slowly opens we are in a good position to keep moving forward even if we are faced with another shutdown. All 30 members of the team are healthy and we are doing our best to keep it that way.
Online retail exploded in May and June (300% increase) and that has enabled us to support our staff, keep buying coffee, and bring Anthony Ragler to the team.
Who is your ideal customer?
We are all on the same coffee highway but we all enter from different on-ramps. Making exceptional coffee simple allows us to meet people where they are. As long as folks come with respect and love, they are all welcome even if we disagree.
Tell us about a few folks in coffee right now that you’re inspired/encouraged by.
Winston Douglas is a three-time South African Barista Champion. His passion and drive to push potential in all African Baristas warms my heart. He is an incredible coffee professional who has influenced baristas across the continent. Breaking from what others expected him to do with his life to do what he wants with his life is a courageous move and I see how his influence has made its way out of South Africa; across the continent and beyond. When I grow up I want to be just like Winston. Jeepers!
Tymika Lawrence is a friend, a colleague, and my sister in coffee. She influences the Black Coffee community like no one else. Her knowledge of the coffee value chain and the importance of POC in that value chain inspires me and every POC I know to do better; to step up our game; to show up and be seen by everyone. Somehow she is always there for me at my lowest struggling point to lift me up literally and spiritually; whether its a random call; message or a panel discussion miles away.
Kim Elana Ionescu is one of my oldest friends in coffee. I went on my first origin trip to Nicaragua with Kim. She started me on my journey to understand the difficulty of coffee farming and the importance of sustainability. I have a long way to go but I am confident that because of Kim’s life work of sustainability throughout the coffee value chain, we all will do our part in moving our industry forward.
Jason Kelloway is the owner of Social Grounds in Jacksonville, Fl. He uses coffee to make a difference in his community. Many veterans return home to some sort of difficult fall and many of us do nothing to help them. Jason was one of those warriors who returned to a fall into homelessness but managed to recover and start a coffee roastery. He uses his company to help those homeless veterans get the help they need, find a new purpose and get their lives back on track. I met Jason a couple years ago and was incredibly inspired by his story, his passion, and his mission to improve the lives of those in his community.
When we’re in Rolesville/Wake Forest/Raleigh where else should we go when it’s safe to travel again?
Let’s start our day with tea and conversation at Jeddah’s Tea in Durham; Chicken and Waffles for lunch at Beasley’s Chicken in Raleigh; have a nice drive to the countryside for delicious ice cream at Maple View Farm on their porch rocking chairs and watch the sunset; we can round out the day with Colombian/Mexican fusion dinner and shots of mezcal at Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria under the stars of the downtown Raleigh sky.
Buy coffee, merch, and gear from Black & White Coffee Roasters today, shipping nationwide.
Zachary Carlsen is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Zachary Carlsen on Sprudge.