LaChrista McArthur has been an unseen force in Charlotte’s growing coffee scene on and off for more than six years. Working with renowned local companies like Undercurrent, Hobbyist, Not Just Coffee, Summit Coffee and others, she has crafted creative menus, won Barista League competitions, formulated marketing plans and earned her barista certification — all while cultivating an online community for coffee enthusiasts and professionals alike.
In early January, McArthur left the Charlotte coffee scene to take a role as senior marketing manager for Middleby Coffee Solutions, one of the largest espresso machine companies in the world, based in Seattle, Washington.
In the lead-up to her cross-country move, we sat down with McArthur to talk about her journey in coffee and why she felt the need to address racial inequity in the industry through social media, a decision that will have a lasting legacy not only in Charlotte but for women of color in coffee around the country.
The beginnings of a coffee career
LaChrista McArthur first found herself behind a coffee bar while working on a capstone project in high school. She knew she wanted to tie the project in with her plan to study fashion merchandising abroad after high school and needed to find a skill or profession that could help her pay her way on that trip.
“I need to make this something that can be a skill that I can learn and take with me so I can easily get a job wherever I go, whether that be art school in L.A or Paris,” she thought at the time.
That’s when it hit her: Coffee shops are everywhere — at home and abroad. Learning the industry could be a transferable skill that could help McArthur pay for food, an apartment, and other miscellaneous expenses, with flexible enough hours to attend school.
Once her coffee idea was approved, she needed a location to center her project. She considered Starbucks as well as local mom-and-pop businesses, but many of the shops she looked into offered frappuccinos and other Americanized drinks — items that wouldn’t carry over if she were to go abroad.
Eventually she partnered with Summit Basecamp in Davidson, which allowed her to take over the store for an evening. She named the pop-up shop ‘After Hours,’ creating a mini-menu from scratch, serving pastries her mom helped her bake and making the drinks herself.
At 17, McArthur got the chance to act as an owner, barista and cashier, gaining experience over one night shift that would take most team members years to obtain.
After high school, McArthur was accepted to an art school in Paris, but tuition proved too high to make it viable. Besides, McArthur had caught the coffee bug during her senior project, and was now considering making that her new career path.
McArthur did make it abroad eventually, moving to the UK in 2020. It was there that she launched The Barista Coalition, an Instagram account made for coffee professionals to come together as a community and strengthen bonds with baristas from other shops.
While in the UK, she launched a series of Instagram videos featuring content from a number of locally owned shops that included walk-throughs, featured drinks, profiles of shop staff, and more.
It was content familiar to those who have come up in the influencer era, except McArthur set herself apart by beginning discussions about and addressing racial injustice within the coffee industry.
McArthur explored her own experiences at Charlotte coffee shops where she was subjected to microaggressions that, with hindsight, she recognized to likely be racially motivated.
“There were jobs that I had that I didn’t understand why I wasn’t being promoted,” she recalled. “I didn’t see it as a race thing at the time because I grew up in an environment where it was like, ‘Of course white people love me.’”
When she started discussing her own experiences during the summer of 2020 — inspired by Black Lives Matter protests taking place across America, which she watched intently from overseas — she learned that she was not alone in experiencing diversity issues in the coffee industry.
“I had these filters on of like, ‘Oh, my teacher treats me like shit,’ but I’d never know why,” she continued. “It was just like, ‘Oh, she just didn’t like me as a person.’ I didn’t see the microaggressions because I grew up in environments where white people would be pleasant, but there would be this underlying treatment that I wasn’t aware of.”
According to a USA Today report in August 2023, for every one Black Starbucks worker in 2021, there were six white employees. The Minnesota-based chain Caribou Coffee reported the same 1-to-6 ratio in 2020. Despite being headquartered in the multicultural San Francisco Bay Area, Peet’s Coffee was less diverse, employing eight white workers for every one Black employee in 2019, the latest numbers available for that company from the federal data.
Unmasking racial injustice in coffee
To understand the history behind racial injustice and lack of representation within the coffee community, it’s important to discuss the effects of slavery and how the demand for coffee in the U.S. exacerbated those effects.
Tracing the bean from its discovery in Africa to its spread across the globe, it didn’t cross the pond until the 17th century. Slave owners placed forced labor standards to ensure supply of production met demand. As coffee’s popularity grew, so did enslavement. African enslavement was the source of labor for coffee production in Brazil, the Caribbean and West Indies.
That historical context also inspired LaChrista McArthur to start conversations about contemporary labor practices in coffee farming.
“How dare I preach about sustainability and not care about farmers and the conditions and making sure that this farm is getting paid fair for the lot that we’ve just made thousands off of? We sell a pound for $25. And how much did you pay for the lot?” McArthur said.
Looking more deeply, McArthur began to expose the racial overtones in every aspect of the coffee industry, from shop design to marketing.
Specialty coffee shops are typically known for their modern, minimalist aesthetic that translate into coded visual and environmental language, according to the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity, with a lot of infrastructure quite literally being white.
In coffee marketing, Black people are mostly depicted as acting only in service roles — and that’s just the few people of color you do see behind the counter — while their white counterparts are seen as owners or in leadership roles
“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” McArthur said. “The sad part is — people have had the opportunity to make changes and try to make it a better industry, and people are falling short. It takes mental space because you have to think about the wrong and the bad and the evil, and then you have to deal with the psychological side of that.”
When asked what advice she has for those who continue to work in the scene — especially women of color like herself who are so often underrepresented in the industry — McArthur’s answer unsurprisingly centered the importance of community building.
“I think if there’s a word of advice to this industry, especially here in Charlotte, just link in arms and uplift each other,” she said. “We need to see more pouring back into the community. That means putting people of color in positions of leadership. That means if an opportunity comes, create an incubator space — make sure that it could be a Black- or brown-owned business.”
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