Laila Ghambari practically grew up in the barista business.
Her father, Ali Ghambari, opened the Cherry Street Coffee House in Seattle when she was a child, and her first jobs were working in his cafes.
It wasn’t until she left Cherry Street to pull shots elsewhere that she started competing in barista championships. But it wasn’t until she came back to Cherry Street as its director of coffee that she won her biggest honor yet: Ghambari, 26, was named the 2014 United States Barista Champion at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) competitions over the weekend at the Washington State Convention Center. Next, she’ll represent the United States at the World Barista Championships in Italy in June.
Ghambari said Monday that her start in the business “really happened because of Cherry Street.”
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She realized after her starting jobs that she truly loved the field and wanted to explore all it had to offer. “The thing that’s fun about coffee, to me it’s like an art form,” she said. It involves learning a lot about the raw ingredients and how to manipulate them and present them. Then, she said, in the big picture, a barista’s job generally involves making people’s days better.
“That’s a pretty fun job to have, when you get to talk to people all day and make them smile,” she pointed out.
The SCAA event required making espressos, cappuccinos and a creative signature drink. Scores were based on measures from flavor to the consistency of the foam.
For the signature drink, which involved engaging the judges for a 15-minute presentation, Ghambari went with a concoction she had developed after visiting a farm in El Salvador.
Though her involved performance drink is not one that customers are likely to see at Cherry Street, Ghambari herself is in the nine stores “all the time,” and one of her responsibilities is training baristas. She rejoined the company just three months ago — other stints have included Stumptown and Caffe Ladro — after her brother’s first child was born, when her father wanted more time to “be a grandpa” and step back a little.
“The thing about coffee is, it’s changed a lot in 20 years,” she said. Cherry Street is loved as it is, she said, and she doesn’t intend to change it in her new role — just to update it and help with training.
While world competitions might not be directly applicable to the cafe setting, “I’ve learned a lot about customer service and how to talk about coffee” through that work, she said.
Rebekah Denn writes about food at seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat