These Greensboro Coffee Roasters Want to Turn the Industry Upside Down

Brewing change

Greensboro's Loom Coffee Co. began roasting beans in early 2021
Greensboro's Loom Coffee Co. began roasting beans in early 2021 (Glasbear Video Productions)

By Eric Ginsburg

Ashley Griffeth had no intention of starting a business. But after being unexpectedly laid off from her management job at Greensboro’s most well-known coffee shop, something shifted.

“I didn’t really have anything to lose,” Griffeth said. “I already lost my job, so what can I do?”

Most Gate City coffee lovers know Griffeth. She’s spent 15 years in the coffee industry, putting in a decade behind the bar at the Green Bean in the heart of downtown. Instantly recognizable thanks to her sleeve tattoos, straight blond hair, and large round glasses, Griffeth was among countless service workers nationwide who were summarily dismissed at the beginning of the pandemic.

Christopher Pierce, a regular who had met Griffeth while sitting at the Green Bean’s countertop bar, felt for her and her coworkers. As a former barista, he’d been dreaming up a different future for himself and the industry before COVID hit.

Ashley Griffeth and Christopher Pierce founded Loom Coffee in 2021
Ashley Griffeth and Christopher Pierce founded Loom Coffee in 2021 (Glasbear Video Productions)

“A lot of people got laid off very abruptly,” he said. “Where do these folks go? And how can we build our own thing where it’s owned by the workers and workers have more equity and protections in those situations where they’re not just at the whim of the ownership and management’s decisions?”

Pierce — who at one point tried to start an indie record label in Asheville and looks the part — convinced Griffeth to join him in launching a coffee roasting business. The prospect would’ve been more intimating if the pandemic hadn’t shuttered many of the country’s coffeeshops at that time in 2020. The duo procured a small five-pound roaster and spent the rest of the year learning how to use it. In early 2021, Loom Coffee officially began roasting.

But this was never meant to be an alternative just to benefit the two former baristas alone. Griffeth and Pierce want to turn the coffee industry on its head.

Loom Coffee is a worker-owned business, meaning when two full-time hires are brought on later this year, they’ll be put on a path to partial ownership of the company, receiving dividends paid out from profits and eventually a vote in executive decisions at Loom after several years with the company. The company will also pay at least $15 an hour — more than double North Carolina’s minimum wage.

That insistence on livable wages extends beyond their burgeoning company. Coffeeshops who want to use Loom’s roasts exclusively will need to commit to paying their workers the same rate, with Loom offering financial modeling to help owners make the math work. Their litmus test is a hard sell in an industry that’s heavily reliant on tips, but Pierce said they’re in talks with a couple café owners who are open to the idea. So far, only one local business has signed on: Borough Coffee, a new mobile coffee operation in Greensboro that is co-owned by longtime Tate Street Coffee barista Austin Jeffries.

“When a living wage is not the standard, it puts us in a position to incentivize a living wage to café owners,” Griffeth said. “For us, the bottom line is a living wage.”

The reception might be warmer in other parts of the state as Loom’s reputation grows. Cities like Durham and Asheville boast thriving living wage projects, certifying businesses that adequately compensate employees. Nothing similar exists in Greensboro, where countless families can’t make ends meet. There is precedent for coffeeshops abolishing tips and paying a living wage elsewhere in the country, though. Amethyst Coffee Company made the switch at its three Colorado cafés in mid-2020 after the initial wave of the pandemic.

Loom — which currently sells about 90 percent of its coffee online, most of it directly to consumers via Instagram — isn’t simply waiting for owners to buy in. They’re agitating and educating fellow coffee professionals with the hope of shifting power in the industry.

“I think what we really need is a labor movement,” Pierce said. “If anything, it’s a labor politics project we’re doing here, even if all we’re able to do is make a fuss and get the conversation going.”

Loom Coffee’s blog is dedicated to that conversation, with posts covering climate change’s impact on coffee cultivation, the importance of a living wage for service workers, and unionization.

“We are at a major turning point when it comes to labor in the U.S.,” the most recent post reads. “Workers are fed up with low-wage jobs and unfair, unsafe treatment by employers… One possible solution that many workers are not turning to, especially in the coffee industry, is the organization of workers unions.”

A change, however nascent, is indeed brewing in the industry. After workers successfully unionized two Starbucks in Buffalo last month, three more are already set to vote on unionizing. Employees from Knoxville to Denver hope to follow suit. Unionizing coffee workers at Starbucks or more broadly will be particularly challenging in the Carolinas — the two least unionized states in the country. Yet Pierce sees a sea change in the service industry more broadly, pointing to a union drive at Amazon in Alabama, where a second vote is scheduled for next month.

“It’s definitely not exclusive to coffee, that’s just the thing we’re passionate about,” Pierce said. “We’re just trying to advocate for that labor movement within our own industry, but it does speak to a bigger systemic problem in this country.”

Griffeth can understand why workers are fed up. The emotional labor required to please customers can quickly wear down baristas and other service workers, and employers can be callous.

As a former barista Ashley Griffeth understands the emotional labor required to please customers
As a former barista Ashley Griffeth understands the emotional labor required to please customers (Glasbear Video Productions)

“There’s a lot of built-up resentment that comes from those interactions,” she said. “I can think of times I was yelled at by my job for being sick. I can’t imagine what that type of dynamic would be like now.”

There were times Griffeth felt resented for being good at her job, she said. Under previous ownership at the Green Bean, Griffeth and several of her coworkers discussed unionizing because the owner at the time “did not have our best interests at heart.”

“There tends to be a divide between ownership and staff where ownership is not necessarily super interested in coffee or general employee contentedness,” she added. “When that sort of livelihood and wellbeing is put on the backburner, there isn’t really much to feel like you’re coming to work for.”

But back then — just like now — most baristas were too scared to ruffle management’s feathers. With most coffeeshops in the area offered similar wages and menu prices, Pierce said, it’s hard for workers to feel like they have much agency. That’s where Loom’s outside pressure might make a difference, Griffeth said.

“As roasters, it’s very low risk for us to be middle persons between management and workers,” she said, adding that ideally unions wouldn’t be necessary if coffeeshop workers were taken care of and had stability.

Part of the solution is convincing café owners to sell more than just “brown water in a mug,” Pierce said, switching from the cheapest imports to a specialty coffee product like Loom’s roasts, which deliver a quality that also necessitates a higher price for customers. It’s better coffee, no doubt, but Loom also seeks out farmers and importers “who also have that labor empowerment agenda” to supply its green coffee beans, Pierce said — similar to Durham roaster Little Waves Coffee.

Christopher Pierce wants café owners to sell more than just “brown water in a mug”
Christopher Pierce wants café owners to sell more than just “brown water in a mug” (Glasbear Video Productions)

“We don’t feel that there is unskilled labor at any point in this supply chain,” Griffeth explained.

Consumers across the country have proven they are happy to pay a higher price for quality and to support Loom’s mission, driving enough sales that the fledgling company has already purchased a new roasting machine that triples its capacity. From their 2,500-square foot office and production space in a nondescript business park in southwest Greensboro, Pierce and Griffeth hope to give their former colleagues a piece of the freedom they’re feeling.

“What we would like to foster is excitement about coffee and all there is to do in the industry,” Griffeth said. “I never saw myself in a leadership position, I never saw myself as self-starter. This feels so different. It’s the same industry, but it’s a very different energy than working for another person that doesn’t necessarily have your best interest in mind.”

About the Author

Eric Ginsburg

Eric is an independent journalist based in Raleigh. His work has appeared in Bon Appétit, VICE, Wine Enthusiast, Teen Vogue, Serious Eats, Business Insider, and many other publications. He previously worked as an editor and staff writer at Triad City Beat and YES! Weekly in Greensboro and as an editor at INDY Week in Durham.