Parlor Games with Stephanie Dana

Stephanie Dana

Every now and then, we'll be highlighting a member of Parlor's team with a bit of coffee talk. The format is a play on the 18th-century parlor game that would later become popularized as the Proust Questionnaire, centered around questions to reveal one's personality. (Admittedly, our version has a coffee-influenced twist.) 

Stephanie Dana, Operations Manager
Hometown: Sacramento, California 
Current roastery jam: Blondie, "The Tide Is High"

Where are you from?
Sacramento, California. It's a place that wasn't on the radar when I moved to New York, but now there’s a major motion picture about it [Lady Bird]. A lot of people like to conflate my own high school experience and move to New York with that movie, which is something that I never thought I would see represented on film. 

Did Greta Gerwig [creator and director of Lady Bird] go to your high school?
She went to the other all-girls school, but we both did theater at the all-boys high school: a Jesuit, artsy place with the best theater program so a lot of us would go and do productions there.

What would you consider to be your marked characteristic?
Independence. 

Had you been to New York before you decided to move here?
Once. It felt really comfortable. Washington Square Park immediately felt very comfortable. It was cool seeing the diversity - I was attracted to how many different people were in the city and all the different things you could do. I already wanted to go to Gallatin [NYU's interdisciplinary school] and they were all about creating your own major, mashing different interests into one educational track. Neuroscience and music were what I started out studying. That didn't work out past the first year. 

What did you end up majoring in?
Political theology [laughs]. I went completely the other way.

Is Lady Bird true to form? What was the Catholic all-girls school scene like?
It was very much a place of—well, it was oppressive because of the root of Catholicism that is oppressive—but it was also empowering, being a very female-focused space. We all felt empowered to use our voices and to support one another. I think that’s what fascinated me most about religion and why I gravitated towards that as a major in college. But I definitely split ways with my own faith because of oppressive situations. I remember being home the summer before my junior year of college; I was about to go study abroad in Prague. I went to church with my family and the deacon decided to go on a rant. This was at the time when Chick-fil-A was being blatantly homophobic, and he was like ‘we need to follow in the example of Chick-fil-A and that’s a good example of faith.’ And this was in a very crowded church on Sunday morning. I just stood up in the middle of church. I looked around and was so shocked that children were there and listening to this and not a single person was batting an eye. So I walked out down the middle of the aisle and slammed the church doors open.

Where did you go when you walked out?
I went and sat on the steps and cried. It was such a wake up call for me. I knew this was a thing that happened. But when it’s right in your face and no one’s doing or saying anything… at the time, I still kind of felt like a kid and was thinking ‘Am I allowed to leave? Am I allowed to do something or say something?’ And that moment of realizing yes… I don’t have to be here, I don’t have to put up with this. This doesn’t represent me and I don’t have to be witness to it. 

How did going to Prague influence you?
I definitely became a lot more open to meeting new people. I didn’t know anyone going and met a whole new group of friends that I’m still incredibly close with. I spent a lot of time by myself too, which was really wonderful, and it’s actually where I started drinking coffee more regularly. I came to think of the coffee shop as my place to be independent and be away and that’s always existed for me.

Where did you first discover coffee in New York?
The first coffee shop I went to was with an old barista from my favorite place in Sacramento. He had just moved to New York as well and was like, ‘I found this place called Third Rail, it’s the best coffee I’ve had in New York!’ I basically spent the next four years living there. But I don’t think I could tell you more than one barista’s name who worked there. I always had my nose in a book or my journal and it was just a place for me to be alone and write a letter to a friend. There’s something really special and magical about spaces in such large cities that can still hold such intimate, private time.

How did you start working in coffee?
During my senior year, I started working at Joe. I just knew I wanted a coffee job, I wasn’t really sure why. I already had another job working for the Senior VP of NYU, but it was very stifling just sitting at a computer all day being someone’s assistant and I wanted to do something where I could get out of my head a little bit and interact with other people. I really saw the value in doing some hard work behind the counter and didn’t think much else of it. I started out working as a barback at their Grand Central location, taking out trash and brewing filter coffee in one of the busiest cafes in New York. Meanwhile, I was writing my thesis and still taking classes full-time. I was working non-stop and I loved it. I really enjoyed being busy.

What were your impressions of Grand Central, having worked in its depths?
I’ll always have a soft spot for Grand Central. As for Midtown... if I never went back there again, I would be very happy. But Grand Central… even within the terminal, there was a community. There was a bottle shop next door to the cafe that’s still there, where all the guys that sold beer were our buddies. There were the ladies who worked at Murray’s Cheese inside the market - they would come over for ice, then we’d go over and buy cheese and they’d give us free loaves of bread and it was just a cool place. That community was really special and I stayed with Joe for a long time as a result. It was a place where everyone had interesting lives and stories to tell and great personalities; it was also a refreshing change from NYU and the pressure of going immediately to grad school.  

Were you considering grad school?
There were some interdisciplinary programs I was considering - or potentially straight theology or political science. But it never felt right. I saw the personalities going into those programs and I respected them very much, but it felt very detached from reality. It was wonderful working in a space where I felt surrounded by people that were brilliant and cultured and were still slinging coffee everyday for whatever reason they had at the time. I could be another one of those.

What do you value most in your relationships?
I would be lying if I didn’t say humor. That’s huge for me. Someone that I can’t just be silly with... I don’t have anything to relate to with that person at the end of the day. Someone that genuinely enjoys living life.

And how did you find Parlor?
When I was hired at Parlor, I was brought on as an account manager, which was such a fun job. Sometimes I still want to be an account manager! It was, again, a really fun way to combine a lot of my interests: doing a bit of tech work, working out in the field, chatting with people and really feeling more that I was someone’s support network than anything else. I was training baristas but in a way that was a bit more centered on who we are at Parlor and why we do the things we do and less about making a shot the fastest way. Instead, we focused on bringing our partners into the roasting space and training them more on what this community can be.

What’s challenging about the industry for you?
There are a lot of women who are doing amazing work to expose the f*cked up things that are happening in this industry—it’s everywhere though, not just this industry. I definitely want to link to some articles and podcasts to highlight their work. I do remember being told by previous managers that I was overreacting or blowing things out of proportion when I was raising concerns in general or concerns specific to problems I was seeing that I interpreted as… that were sexist, there wasn’t really any interpreting that needed to be done. It was both internal and it was coming from customers; experiencing it from all angles was overwhelming. It’s important to create a space to talk about it more, because there are frustrations where I wonder if it’s because of my gender or if it’s just being an adult professional. Sometimes it’s really hard to parse those things out. It’s a scary thing to say, ‘If this is a problem, then what am I going to do about it?’ More often than not, it’s meant having to leave one’s job, and that’s not acceptable. That’s definitely changing, and it’s really exciting. (See additional links at the end of this post.)

How have things evolved in your time at Parlor?
Earlier this year, my job shifted to new role that, at the time, was largely undefined. Often it still is. Now I’m Parlor’s Operations Manager - coordinating production while also dealing with day-to-day things that need to be tackled, making sure the place is still running and, you know, has electricity. I very much enjoy being able to put my hand in a lot of different parts of this operation and help out where it’s needed at the time - calling things out where they need to be called out, making sure that things are being thought through.

What’s one thing on your bucket list?
I really want to go to Buenos Aires. This summer I’m planning to go to Mexico City... maybe I should just jaunt farther down to South America! That would also be amazing to take a huge road trip like that, something really crazy and life-changing. It’s not really my style, but it’s fun to imagine.

What is more your style?
I’m a homebody at the end of the day. Even living in a big city. I nest, and I want to create a beautiful space. I like to bake bread and hang out with my cat.

When you’re talking to someone about coffee, what’s a lesser known attribute that you like to talk about with people?
I do really like talking about the mouthfeel. It’s one of the forgotten things when we get so flavor-obsessed. Talking about that tactile quality of coffee—soft coffees, juicy coffees—those are mouthfeel descriptors. That’s usually what makes me want to keep drinking a coffee. The flavor, when I’m paying attention to it, I’ll usually be more concerned about the flavor - but if I’m just relaxing on a weekend and mindlessly sipping coffee, it’s not necessarily the thing I’m actively thinking about.

Favorite Parlor coffee?
Kenya Kangocho. It is sweet and it’s very soft - there’s something very comforting about Kangocho that I can’t exactly place. Guatemala Pulcal was such a great coffee as well for that reason - the coffee I wanted to make all the time. And Colombia Los Angeles. I brought it to Hawaii when I went… the feeling of sitting on a porch in nice weather with a book or newspaper and having a really delicious cup of coffee that’s not necessarily hitting you in the face every time you take a sip. That’s probably one of my favorite things.

(Stay tuned for news about Kenya Kangocho, Guatemala Pulcal and Colombia Los Angeles, all slated for a return to the Parlor menu later this year.)

Photo credit: Erin Sweeny

Additional Reading + Listening

Steamed Up: The Slow-Roasted Sexism of Specialty Coffee

Boss Barista (podcast)

Michelle Johnson + The Chocolate Barista

On Gender and Racial Equity in the Coffee Industry