Cole Coffee is a bright and bustling shop located on College Avenue in Oakland. The cafe is usually full of regular customers, many of whom have visited Cole Coffee for years, if not decades. As I waited for Alaa to take her break, a friendly customer named Norman noticed my camera and started chatting with me. He is a former filmmaker who frequents Cole, so he gave me photography tips and expressed how much he appreciates Alaa’s sunny personality and bright smile.
I sat at the bar while waiting for Alaa to go on her break, and had a front-seat view of a day in her life as a barista. She was busy switching between taking orders at the register and making drinks at the espresso machine. I was impressed with Alaa’s confidence and poise as she ran the cafe on her own for some time! When we found a quiet moment to chat, Alaa was was nervous but opened right up.
Alaa wasn’t always interested in coffee - in fact, when her caseworker at the International Rescue Committee first mentioned 1951’s training program, she had little interest in participating. Eventually, Alaa changed her mind and decided to try out the program. She recounts, “When I went to 1951, I was like ‘Oh my god!’ My sister Esraa and I were shocked. I was like wow, that’s fun! I didn’t miss any days of the training class. Even when I was sick, I wanted to go! I want to keep going, keep going, keep going… I love 1951, it’s the best.”
I asked Alaa what the class helped her with, and her answer was surprising - she said it helped familiarize her with American accents. Alaa’s first language is Arabic, and she learned British English growing up in Egypt. After moving to the states, she wanted to work on her American accent and she found that the training program was a good place to practice. She also mentioned that she used to be more shy, and the class helped her come out of her shell.
Alaa added, “The training program was amazing, and we learned a lot. Not just the latte art and espresso, we learned so many things… so much! I liked the program, and our trainer Dee was patient and tried to understand what people are saying. 1951 opened my eyes. It’s not just about coffee! I learned so much about culture. It was a short program, but it makes a big difference.” After graduating from the program, Alaa interviewed at a few different cafes, and found a great fit with Cole Coffee. She describes her barista role as involving “everything! Doing beans, and food, and making drinks… and training people”. Alaa likes being busy at work because the time flies, but she also expressed a lot of love for her regular customers. “They’re like family! I like to come to Cole Coffee, even on my day off.”
Desiree, Alaa’s manager, describes Alaa as “always amicable, pleasant, respectful… a big part of our community at Cole Coffee”. When Alaa first started at Cole, her coworkers were amazed by how quickly she learned everything. Alaa even shared some tips and tricks from her 1951 training, such as practicing milk steaming using soap and water.
She is, like I mentioned, quite glamorous and it came as no surprise that she loves art and design - and she often models for her photographer friends. In the future, Alaa hopes to open a business with her sisters. They’re currently saving money and working towards that dream. Alaa is also a fan of art and design, and is planning to attend school for fashion design, which she says she can do while running her own cafe.
We wish you the best of luck, Alaa!