Photos by Josh Vasko
Few would consider ‘service’ as the most glamorous aspect of the coffee industry (or any industry, for that matter). It’s the nitty-gritty, dirty work, the sometimes-kind-of-uncomfortable work. It’s the stuff that requires you to separate yourself from yourself, to view your world from someone else’s perspective, to put others needs before your own. Service reminds you of your humility and your humanity. It takes a unique person to not only enjoy this out-of-self experience, but to excel at it. And oh, does L Burleson excel at customer service.
Warm, inviting, friendly, energetic- if you’ve ever been served coffee by L, I’m certain that you did not quickly forget it. A small yet powerful package, L’s approach to customer care is an art. To watch her interact with guests on a busy day at Not Just Coffee is like witnessing the effortless execution of a difficult piece of choreography. She’s a blur of fire-engine red hair and colorful tattoos, meticulously pulling shots, pouring lattes, and pausing long enough from the chaos of her #baristalife to maintain eye contact and connect- I mean, really connect- with the customer in front of her. She makes it look so easy, her eyes twinkling while she’s multitasking like a beast and never skipping a beat. She’s loving every minute of it and coincidentally you, her customer, are a part of that moment she loves.
Joining Charlotte’s coffee community back in 2010, L found within the barista world a job that challenged and stretched her. Intrigued by the science side of coffee (it gets real geeky here, trust me) and fulfilled by the social stimulation it gave her, L soon realized that being a barista wasn’t just a job, but that it was a career move.
L maneuvered around various shops in the region until she found the perfect fit with Charlotte’s own Not Just Coffee. Working as their Packard Place store manager (now open and serving up some damn good coffee), L has made it her mission to curate a culture of service, attentiveness and genuine interaction within the four walls of Packard. From meticulous barista training to strategic bar layout and design, L has spent no small amount of time working to ensure that Packard will be the pinnacle of coffee service in the Queen City.
She explains: “What I am is a territorial person, and what’s important to me is that when somebody decides to come into a shop that I work at, I want to make it their territory,” L chuckles, “It’s like a sort of tribalism.”
My conversations with L-and all of my efforts to crack the secret code of intuitive, dynamic customer service- yield little in the ways of revealing a formulaic approach on her end. Clearly this is something she feels down to her bones. If Burleson’s technique were to have a gimmicky slogan (because who doesn’t love gimmicky slogans?), it would be closer to “The customer is always a person” than “The customer is always right”. Serving her customers well has become much more than a requirement of her job. For L, it’s evolved into her approach to mankind.
“Being able to not just look at someone but to see them, to not just listen to somebody but to hear them, to anticipate their needs before they’re even aware of them… Working in coffee,” she says, “I learn infinitely more about people than ever before. Being in this [barista] role helps me see people in a much more complete way.”
And perhaps that’s the trick: to consider one’s craft as not only a source of expression, but as a lifestyle to be embodied, lived and shared. A creative will allow their work to enlighten their day-to-day, let it follow them outside the studio (whatever that “studio” may be) and permeate their lives. It colors their worldview. Glamorous or not, this deeply-rooted passion for people has propelled L forward in both her industry and her humanity.
“Working in coffee has been so holistically fulfilling in every way,” she says, “I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. [This work] has helped me be a better person.”