Interview: Michelle Johnson of Ghost Town Oats

Friday, 26 January, 2024

What Dreams are Made Of

From Barista to CEO, Michelle Johnson is blazing a trail through the world of coffee, taking big swings and making her dreams come true with bravery and self-belief. 

Interview with Michelle Johnson, originally published in Issue 44, June 2023

Let’s dive right in! You have started Ghost Town Oats with a bang over the last two years! Congratulations on recently being named CEO! Barista to CEO is no mean feat. Can you please tell our readers how you started in coffee?

The story of how I got started in coffee is actually thanks to one of my close cousins, Dierdre. Her mom, my aunt, had let me live with them temporarily during the summer of 2011 when I was in a really transitional period of my life and needed a place to stay. She had one rule for her daughter and niece under her roof: we needed to go get jobs. So we printed a stack of resumes and headed to Friendship Heights, a neighbourhood on the border of DC and Maryland, to find one. We walked into a bunch of restaurants, but I didn't care for working at any of them. Serving food didn't sound interesting to me at all. After leaving resumes at every restaurant in the area, we started to head back and a coffee shop across the street caught my eye. My cousin noticed and asked, "Do you want to leave a resume there?" I shook my head no, even though I'd always wanted to work as a barista. Immediately annoyed with me, my cousin grabbed my arm and said, "Girl, COME ON!" and literally pulled me inside that shop. I asked to leave my resume with the manager, we spoke for a few mins, and they agreed to interview me. A week later, I was being hired on the spot and the next day, started as a barista at Tynan Coffee & Tea — the company still exists in DC today! The rest is, of course, history.

When did you start to dream about owning your company and was oat milk part of that dream in the beginning?

Actually, I used to dream about all the changes I would make if I were in a position of power at the companies I worked at. I would always internally note how we could be more efficient in our workflow or create hypothetical fixes for current systems. The potential for these companies to be even greater than they were was far more attractive to me than ever running my own thing! Honestly, I didn't begin dreaming about owning my own company, let alone oat milk being a part of that, until we were well into building the project that eventually became Ghost Town Oats! 

What were the different roles you held in the coffee industry that drove you to being CEO of a million dollar oat milk company?

First, let's list all of my roles in coffee in order. I've been a: barista, shift supervisor, assistant manager, barista competitor, journalist, DEI-focused public speaker & lecturer, event curator, photographer, marketing director, oat milk marketing consultant, regional sales manager, education manager & trainer, business consultant, chief strategy officer, and now CEO! All of these roles pushed me to either take the lead, create something out of nothing, re-structure something existing, or find creative ways to reach new people and customers. Without even realising it, every position had a hand in shaping me into the person I needed to be for this role. The call-backs to previous skillsets happen all the time, especially just simply being a barista — how else would we have been able to formulate our own oat milk? 

How did it feel to put yourself out there for crowdfunding and what did it feel like to so spectacularly smash your goals?

Asking for money can be a point of contention for some people and it definitely was for us at first. There were two beliefs we focused on to get over that. One, we believed our community cared about us deeply and wanted to help. It's not every day you find out three of your friends/fellow coffee community members are starting an oat milk company! Two, we believed our community 1000% deserved to have some level of ownership of what we were building. We were clear that this wasn't a donation — this was an investment for future equity in the company. Equity can be a an avenue for generational wealth and something we were more than pleased to be able to offer to our community. Raising over $200K through the community round felt incredible!

Did any of your coffee career prepare you for life in a product start-up with funding rounds and distribution channels?

YES! Have you ever had to ask other coffee companies for sponsorship money for an event? I have for events with The Chocolate Barista and it totally prepared me for this! The same mechanics apply: you settle on a funding goal, pitch to everyone you know who might be able to help, and have to provide a clear idea of what you plan on doing with the money. My job as a coffee sales manager also prepared me for understanding the various distributions/sales channels I can sell my product through. In some cases, I'm exploring the same exact channels as when I worked in coffee sales. It's cool to see it all come full circle!

Michelle pictured with her co-founders Ezra Baker and Eric J. Grimm

Please can you tell us about your co-founders and what those relationships have meant to you through this process?

My co-founders are Ezra Baker and Eric J. Grimm. Ezra, Ghost Town's Chief Product Officer, is based in Brooklyn, New York and has been a great friend and collaborator to me since the early Chocolate Barista days. He was a panelist on the first Black Coffee PDX podcast show I put on with Sprudge. We also worked together to put together The Chocolate Barista Party at Boston SCA in 2018. It was during that planning period that we learned how well we work together, and in 2020, joined me as a coffee consulting partner-in-crime. Ezra is the Q Grader on the team and finalized our incredible oat milk formula! He also oversees everything pertaining to the oat milk from the manufacturing facility, freight & shipping, and storage & logistics until it reaches the distributor or coffee shop (if it's direct). Eric, Chief Experience Officer, and I were Twitter-turned-IRL friends who I engaged with more in the coffee competition space through their work with Glittercat Barista. During the 2020 national competition season, I had the opportunity to be a Glittercat and experience their magic as a coach and cheerleader throughout that whole process. Eric moved to LA later that year and joined Ezra and I as consultants. Ironically enough, Eric and Ezra had been coworkers at the same coffee shop in New York for YEARS! As CXO, Eric is all about creating a business-informed-by-hospitality experience for all of our distribution and direct coffee shop customers, so that includes sales and strategic partnerships. I've had my fair share of personal relationships crossover into professional and not work well, but Eric and Ezra are far from that. They are two of my rocks and we truly keep each other calibrated as our business grows far beyond our wildest dreams. I feel so blessed to have these two in my corner encouraging me every step of the way. They're truly the best partners a woman could ask for! 

Lets talk a little bit about dairy alternatives as a category. Why do you think oat milk has had this huge surge forward over the past couple of years, after nut milks held the floor for so long?

I think oat milk has become so popular because it's one of the few dairy alternatives that came out on the market and tasted/felt/performed the most like full fat dairy milk. That's exactly why I made the switch in the first place — I wanted something that blended as seamless with coffee as regular milk does. Additionally, people with nut allergies can drink it and depending on the brand, folks with gluten sensitives can too. When you also consider that it's more environmentally friendly than the production of almond milk, it seems like a no brainer for most people to switch to!

What makes your oat milk different? From composition of the oat milk to positioning in the market? One thing we do know is that your aesthetic is gorgeous! How has that played in to your unique positioning?

What makes our oat milk different begins with the fact that baristas were a part of every part of the process. That messaging not only resonates with everyone who engages with Ghost Town but deeply informs our formulation process, too. We approached this with a barista's mindset and three things were important to us from the start: taste, function, and versatility. We placed taste first because we wanted everyone, including the general public, to be able to enjoy this no matter how they used it. Plus, there are enough not-great tasting dairy alternatives out there! Function was obviously important because we know baristas have a preference for working with whole milk for its ease. We replicated that ease with Ghost Town, too. Finally, versatility was a nod to all the people out there who don't want to pay top dollar for a milk they're only going to use for one thing! We made sure Ghost Town is usable in other ways like baking, cooking meals, eating cereal, or just enjoyable straight up! The aesthetic is another marketing tool: it's supposed to catch your eye and immediately pique your curiosity. Also, the ghosts on the back are filled in black for a reason. I noticed that many character logos, including in plant-based milk, are black and white but I wanted to send a subliminal signal that we are a company with founders of colour who are deeply considering communities of colour in everything we do. People of colour are far more likely to be lactose intolerant than everyone else but rarely are marketed to directly, so we are clear about including everyone in who we speak to and how we show ourselves off. We're an oat milk for anybody on every block!

Please tell us about The Chocolate Barista and the space that you have created to celebrate black coffee professionals and black excellence. What was your intention behind starting the platform and what would you like people to take away from it?

The Chocolate Barista was started in 2016 purely as my outlet to creatively express how I lived life as a barista. From dropping themed playlists to showing off my on-and-off bar outfits and speaking directly to my local coffee community, this was my place to show that being a barista didn't have to look like everyone else. It could be authentically and unapologetically you. Later that year, I posted a blog called "The Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black In Specialty Coffee" to talk about my personal experience as a Black woman in the specialty coffee industry. From there, it grew into a platform that celebrated racial diversity and pushed hard for it. I've spoken on many stages around the world about this topic, and I'm blessed to still see the ripple effects of that work today. Prior to talking openly about this topic, seeing myself reflected in coffee media was nearly non-existent, but I didn't let that stop me from showing up. I'm so happy to see us everywhere now, including the covers of coffee magazines (mine will come someday, I'm sure haha). I want people to take away that you DO have a place here in coffee, regardless of what someone may say or do to keep you out. If you have to carve out your own space, I highly encourage it because that's what I did. You don't have to do any more than show up and be your true self. We need to see you. And you deserve the shine!

What keeps you going strong as an inspirational and active representative of minorities in the coffee industry?

What keeps me going is knowing that my legacy is showing itself to me through people, programs, and the connections people are able to make with one another as a result of my work. It makes every bad day worth it. On the days I don't have it in me to keep going for myself, I think of the people who've taken the time to share with me how I've changed their life. There are more lives to change for the better, and I'm planning to stick around for it.

What are you listening to on repeat at the moment? (Music, podcast, any earworms)

I'm listening to three podcasts on repeat: a pop culture podcast called, The Read, my astrologer's podcast called, Cosmic Guidance For All/Astrology That Hits, and I'm listening to a lot of Ice Spice!

Whats a little known fun fact that people might find surprising about you, but is integral to who you are or how you move through the world.

This may sound random but I picked up the guitar in high school because I wanted to learn how to play Jonas Brothers songs. This is actually super important to knowing me. I'm the type of person who will learn something completely brand new to achieve anything I want to do. Guitar, coffee, building an oat milk company, roller skating. Literally anything. I never let my goals scare me away from trying new things. And if the Jonas Brothers ever need an extra guitarist, I'm here!

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