Photo courtesy of Counter Culture
Lem Butler got his start at the Daily Grind, and recently won the 2016 National Barista Championship.
, on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, fueled many of my nights while I crammed for finals during my undergraduate years. Open since 1993, it was the place I first tried an Americano and learned to wait before I topped coffee with a lid, instead sipping on the crema while it swirled in odd shapes on top. More than ten years later, as I finished my graduate degree this week on the same campus, those short Americanos and single-origin cups du jour kickstarted mornings of theory-based archive hunting and oral history transcriptions.
DJ Pez was my campus barista back in the early 2000s. I didn’t actually know him aside from the mornings at the Grind and the occasional set he’d spin at a couple of now-defunct clubs on Rosemary Street. As of last week, that DJ/barista—Lem Butler—is the current reigning 2016 National Barista Champion
. He learned his grind at, well, Grind. His kind—our kind, I suppose—will soon be extinct at UNC.
Last week, the school announced that Barnes & Noble College would take over UNC Student Stores. Daily Grind is contracted through Student Stores and housed at a convenient, tiny location on one of the store’s corners, facing the Pit. It sources its coffee exclusively from Durham roaster Counter Culture, which pioneered the direct trade label.
Yesterday, The Daily Tar Heel
published a small news item
saying the Daily Grind would not renew its contract June 30. B&N has not yet confirmed plans for a new coffee shop, though students and professors (me included) fear the worst—a Starbucks. In a virtual demo of the new plans published on UNC’s YouTube channel, there's a sprawling coffee shop labeled simply “Veranda Cafe,” decked in metal beams and bordered by tacky Carolina blue argyle pattern. The charm of the coffee shop’s hand-scrawled labels on local baked goods and the burrito case pushed into a corner against a stack of coffee sleeves and lids seem absent from the campus cafe of the future.
At least until I called him last night, Butler didn’t know anything about the coffee shop’s fate.
“What?! Nooooooo," he said. "They’re slowly erasing my history in Chapel Hill!”
Butler cut his teeth as a barista in 2003 when he answered an ad in The Daily Tar Heel
. Owner Jane Brown, who started Daily Grind as a coffee cart on campus, hired him on the spot. Soon, he was perfecting his foam game, managing the shop and entering barista competitions. He won the Southeast region in 2005. Counter Culture, as sponsors, invited him to Nicaragua as part of his prize. He went from a competitive college graduate “really big into Iron Chef
” to seeing firsthand how direct-trade, single-producer coffee was cultivated, cared for, sourced, and shipped to shops like the one he managed. In 2007, after only serving as a barista at Daily Grind, Butler moved into a position at Counter Culture. He’s still there working in wholesale customer support, the position that catapulted him to the prize.
Yesterday, in the DTH
, Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Enterprises, Brad Ives, said the Daily Grind knew as early as March 2015 its contract would not be renewed. That was news to owner Brown.
"My manager texted me the article that came out tonight," she said. "Wow! That sounded definitive. Still, I have not had a confirmation other than the article.”
Brown says her contract has always been with Student Stores. “Waiting on this decision with them has been a long and uncertain process,” she said in an email. “I and my employees have been waiting for this news for months. And I still do not have a confirmation from anyone, other than the DTH
, that we are definitely closing June 30, 2016. We thought we would have the opportunity to rebid or negotiate with the new company chosen to take over the Student Stores."
Current employee and UNC junior Alice Wilder
was looking forward to celebrating her one-year anniversary at Grind in June. She said she found out about losing her job via Twitter.
“The fact that a student journalist knew about this before the owner is horrible,” she said. “It sounds cheesy, but there are a lot of important lessons and memories there. It’s a gathering space on campus. We play good music, have real conversations. There’s an intimacy with coworkers in that tiny little space."
Brown, meanwhile, said she was tired and still processing the information.
“I truly feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve UNC for almost twenty-three years," she concluded. "I have met so many brilliant and diverse individuals. Getting to know hundreds of exceptional young people, my employees especially, has been an incredible experience. I feel so much gratitude and consider it an honor, really, for having the opportunity to know them.”