Interested in 0% financing for up to 36 months?
Explore Financing Options
Text the Sales Team at 720-734-6257

An Interview with Frank La: The 2024 US Barista Champion

On March 15th through the 17th, 2024, the final six competitors descended onto the stage at the US Barista Championship to give their final performance before a winner and US ambassador would go on to the World Barista Championship. All six would showcase their signature beverages to the judges and anxiously await the results. At the end of it all, Frank La of Be Bright Coffee in Pasadena, CA would take home the championship trophy and the opportunity to compete on the world stage in Busan, South Korea, this May. We were lucky enough to sit and talk with Frank about his win, his business, and what he’s looking forward to seeing in years to come.

Firstly congratulations on your win at the US Barista Championship! That’s a huge deal! How did it feel to take home first place?

It was very surreal, especially in the first few hours. It felt like I had accomplished something great, but the idea that I was the US Barista Champion didn’t really sink in right away. It took some time to let that marinate a little bit and really realize that I had accomplished it.

I can imagine! Are you excited about moving on to the World Barista Championship in May? Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to about competing on the world stage?

I’m definitely looking forward to taking my skills to the world stage. I think I had always envisioned the possibility of winning in the US, but really considered what would come after and that would mean moving on to the World Barista Championship. Back in the day, I would watch the World Barista Championship videos, and I would think, “that’s really cool! I don’t think I’ll ever be there, but it seems really neat!” So, I’m really excited. A big reason that I actually came back to compete this year is because the world championship is going to be in Busan, Korea, and I’m Korean myself, so it was such a unique opportunity to represent the US in Korea.

So, it almost feels like it was meant to happen for you this year?

A bit, yeah!

On your website, I saw that you had won a competition that involved cold brewing in 2021. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

So, it was kind of a short-lived competition. I believe they did it for two years, and it was in conjunction with Coffee Fest, so they would have this roaming cold brew competition that was hosted in partnership with Alto Cold Brew products. In the format they created, you presented one drink without anything added, and one that was kind of a mocktail, cold brew drink. It was really the first opportunity for our company to compete in anything, so we thought we’d give it a shot. We made a cold brew out of a Mexican Gesha that we really loved, and then we made a mocktail Tiki because the coffee was so tropical and we thought that would do really well, and it turned out to do well enough to take home the cheddar.

That’s awesome! And you said that was the first time you had competed?

It was the first time that I competed for our company. I had last competed at the USBC (US Barista Championships) in 2014, and prior to that, I had competed in 2013 for other companies. I also competed last year and placed in the top six and this year I was able to bring it home!

I’m sure just making it into the final six has to be super exciting.

It definitely is. Last year was a little more exciting because we really had no idea how we were going to do considering I hadn’t competed in the USBC in nine years, so it was a lot of relearning and a lot of reacquainting myself with what the judges are looking for in the new format of the competition. It was definitely a learning experience, and for us, it was almost more exciting because we were coming into it fresh. This year we had a little more of an expectation, and I think winning it all was maybe not quite as exciting, but definitely more emotional.

After this year’s World Barista Championship, do plan on competing in the future?

No, I kind of told myself that this would be the last year that I competed. It’s really just my wife and me that run the day-to-day operations, and we always saw competing as a way to elevate our brand and get our name out there. Competing does bring that spotlight to you instead of trying to get your name out there in other ways, so we see the value in competing, but at the same time, it’s just so much work and sacrifice.

In your routine at the US Barista Championships, you used the Nucleus Paragon, and I’d love to hear what you were looking to achieve with rapid chilling your espresso.

I did! Ever since that technology came out, I’ve been intrigued by capturing more of the volatile compounds through extract chilling. I’d never tasted espresso pulled over the Paragon until we recently got our hands on one, and I was pretty blown away by the clarity and the mouthfeel of it. We would do blind tastings of espresso pulled with the Paragon and espresso pulled without it, and the shots pulled with the Paragon would always score higher, so we committed to that.

In competitions, you always tend to see change when there’s some sort of new tool or new gadget being used, especially when a winning barista uses it in their routine, and that kind of becomes the standard. We knew, going into the competition, that a lot of people were going to bring extract chillers, and we didn’t want to do it because others were using the Paragon, but because we genuinely believed that it enhanced our espresso and would help it to score higher. For our routine, I even called it out to the judges, saying that it helped us to capture those volatile compounds, but more importantly, I wanted to ensure that more of the flavors captured by our producer, Nestor, make it into the cup. That was the main thing. I wanted to make sure that we were capturing those flavors that Nestor worked so hard to achieve and present it to the judges, and I feel that the Paragon allowed us to do that.

And did you bring any other tools of your own to incorporate into your routine?

We brought a few other tools, like the Barista Hustle AutoComb, and we used a spring-loaded tamper that would ensure that we were hitting 30 pounds of pressure with each tamp. I also used Weber Workshop tools, like the blind shaker as a way to dose our coffee into the portafilter baskets.

Let’s talk a bit about your business. You’re the owner at Be Bright, and I was hoping you could talk about what got you started in coffee?

So, I started back in 2010. I’d just graduated college with a business degree, and it was really hard to find a job because it was right at the height of the recession, so not a lot of companies were hiring. Also, because I was fresh out of college, I didn’t really have any idea of how to enter the workforce, nor did I know what industry I wanted to get into. So, I wasn’t really sure what to do, and nobody was hiring for even entry-level positions, so I decided that I was going to take a year and work somewhere and use it to gain experience before entering an actual career. It just so happened that a friend of mine owned a small coffee shop in L.A., and they were looking for a barista, so I took the job. I worked for three or four days a week in the beginning and just quickly fell in love with coffee.

About three months into my working there, they started letting me on the espresso machine, and that’s when it really started for me. I was just kind of like, “wow, this is so cool.” The opening shifts were my favorite because we opened alone. I would get all of my opening tasks done really quickly to maximize my time in front of the espresso machine. I love those quiet moments when it’s just you and the machine and you feel like you’re up and awake before everyone else, just trying to make your coffee taste as delicious as possible.

I also had a very high interest in the culinary side of things. At one point, in my younger years, I wanted to be a chef and I quickly realized that cooking in a professional setting wasn’t quite as glamorous as one might think. The thing I loved about cooking is sharing food with people, but in a professional setting, you don’t really get to do that. Working in coffee, though, you do get to share something that you made with people because people drink it right in front of you, so the satisfaction I was looking for in cooking I found in coffee as well. 

Moving forward from there, what made you want to start your own coffee company?

At that point, I had been working in the coffee industry for about ten years by 2020, and I had just finished this project that I was working on with the company I was working for, Copa Vida. A few of us left to open coffee shops inside of stores in the Dallas area, but that didn’t really work out, so I kind of found my way back to Copa Vida, but the only position available for me was for a general manager at the existing mothership location in Pasadena. It was a job that I had done in the past, and in many ways, I felt like it was a step back for me. Not in a way that was a sort of punishment, but because it was the only position that was available. I’ve always wanted to challenge myself and to see what it would be like to be the person making the decisions.

As much as I was involved with Copa Vida and the decision-making process, I was one voice out of many, and I always envisioned and wanted to take on the challenge of being the sole decision-maker. So, right in the middle of the pandemic, I decided to leave and start my own business. My wife had just given birth to our daughter in 2020, and I had this drive to want to provide for my family and kind of bet on myself.

We first started as an e-commerce business, so selling coffee online direct to consumers, and of course, when you do that it’s always slow-going at first, especially if you don’t have a huge marketing budget. At the beginning, a lot of friends and family members were ordering, and it was really nice to have those people supporting us, but you’re really not making it until you realize that you don’t recognize half the names on the orders. We had some wholesale accounts and we continued to grow that, but we didn’t really have any plans to open a cafe, but then we had an opportunity to start a pop-up in L.A. For me, that was like going back to the roots of everything. It was a part of my brain that I hadn’t exercised in a while, and we saw a really positive response. That’s when the idea of opening our own cafe really started to trickle in. We opened our first cafe in October of 2022.

When you started Be Bright, was there anything in particular that you were hoping to contribute to coffee culture?

Definitely. Our mantra is, and always has been, that we what to make coffee simple and easy. Our main tagline is, “Coffee Made Simple”. With so many great coffee roasters out there, sometimes I think we kind of miss the point with understanding our customers. Not everyone is going to be inclined to the specialty coffee language and jargon. A lot of times, when I talk to customer about different coffees, I noticed that some of the language would kind of go over their heads because I think it can be a little intimidating. It kind of reminded me of when I first started drinking wine. I would go to the supermarket, look at the wall of wines, and have no idea which one to choose. Most likely, I’d end up choosing one with a cool design or something that was at the right price point, and I think that’s, sometimes, the experience that our customers have. They see a wall of coffee bags and they may not have any idea what these coffees are going to taste like, so we wanted to shorten that gap.

Every customer has an idea of what they like, whether it’s something chocolatey, or dark, or a little bit fruity, or maybe a little funky and wild, and we wanted to create categories that we felt customers could choose from that would get them into the ballpark for which coffee might fit their tastes best. We created four categories: we have Dark & Bold, Rich & Smooth, Bright & Lively, and Unique & Surprising; each of these categories has multiple coffees. That way, people can figure out which category they might fall into and choose a coffee from there. Most likely, there will be something there to suit their palette. That was kind of our main goal.

On our website, we have a button that directs customers to a quiz that has five questions. Once that’s filled out, we match you with a coffee that we feel you’ll like. We’re trying to take the guesswork out of it and we want you to get the kind of coffee that you want and get you going with your day.

Having been in the industry for so long, where do you see the future of coffee headed? Do you see more automation taking place, or maybe something else?

I think it’s inevitable that more automation will take place, and I think, in ways, that’s great, but I also see it as a crutch. I think if you start your career in coffee right now, you might be at a disadvantage compared to someone who started ten years ago. When I started, I had to be much more in tune with coffee because we didn’t have these automated tools that allowed us to do the things that happen now. For example, we had to manually stop our own shots, tamp our shots by hand, and distribute our espresso, and I think that really brought us a lot closer to the product.

With automation, as great as it is, it does kind of disconnect us a little bit. With that said, I do think advancements in automation is helpful, but only if we really know why they’re helping us and how to use these tools in a way that’s beneficial, but doesn’t take over the process. I’m sure we’re going to see more and more automation happen, but we still need to be in tune with the coffee and really understand what this automation is helping us to do.

I’m curious what you would, personally, like to see more of in the coffee world?

I would really like to see coffee companies create opportunities for career baristas, and I think more companies are figuring that out. We, as a company, are definitely trying to figure that out. We want to figure out how we can create environments within our own company where we can create career opportunities for baristas and not have them rely on a promotion or a step in a different direction to advance their career and provide for their families. I’ve seen baristas working in coffee and the only way they can move up is if they decide to become a manager or move to sales, and sometimes it’s not to their skillset or what they want to do.

A lot of these baristas love working with coffee, but they’re making just above minimum wage and it’s not a salaried position and they don’t get time off. If they do get time off, it’s not paid time off. I’d also really like to see companies think about how they can structure those things for their baristas and not just for management. Maybe offering health care, 401Ks, and a livable wage for their baristas. In order to grow in our industry and make more of a career, you find yourself actually moving further away from coffee. If you’re working in wholesale, how often do you actually get to make coffee and dial in espresso? I’ve always thought that baristas will make the best anything in our industry. Baristas will make the best green buyers, roasters, salespeople, etc. because we know the product, we know how to handle it, and we know how to express the flavors we’re tasting.

Being a barista is definitely a passion-driven position. Do you think that’s why baristas tend to do well in other areas of the industry? Because they bring the same level of passion they have for making coffee to purchasing green coffee or roasting?

Definitely. I think that baristas are the most passionate about coffee in general, but unfortunately, the other side of passion tends to be low compensation, so the question is: how do we take something that we’re passionate about into something that we can make a living off of? And that’s what we’re trying to figure out.

We want to thank Frank for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to sit down and speak with us. Beginning on May 1, 2024, Frank will be competing in the World Barista Championship in Busan, South Korea, and we wish him the best of luck. Be sure to follow him on Instagram at @flaless to see his journey through WBC, and be sure to follow Voltage at @voltagecoffeesupply, as we will be posting updates on Frank’s progress as well. Also, be sure to take a look at Be Bright’s website and grab some coffee!

Interview performed and written by James Baxter.

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Subtotal $0.00
Shipping, taxes, and discounts calculated at checkout. Checkout Continue Shopping