An Interview With Felton Jones, Roastmaster for PJ’s Coffee

As part of NCA Next Gen’s ongoing interview series, Everett Brown, Managing Director at Westfeldt Brothers, Inc., recently had the opportunity to sit down with Felton Jones, Roastmaster and Coffee Buyer for PJ’s Coffee. In this conversation, Everett and Felton discuss Felton’s industry experience and what the coffee industry can do to provide more opportunities for underrepresented groups.

Everett Brown: Felton, thanks for sitting with me. Could you tell me a bit about your background and how you began your career in coffee?

Felton Jones: I started with PJs Coffee of New Orleans back in the 90s as a part-time employee and eventually had the opportunity to move into a full-time position. I was doing everything from making cold brew to delivering coffee. In my time as a delivery driver, I had many opportunities during my downtime to learn from Phyllis Jordan, the founder of PJs Coffee. I used those opportunities to join Phyllis and my predecessor, Scott Reed in the cupping lab. I was always willing to learn from the team, and the rest was history.

EB: You and I have known each other for many years, and we recently spoke about underrepresented groups in coffee – particularly, how there aren’t enough opportunities to get into positions of influence. As an African American in the industry, what does representation in coffee mean to you?

FJ: In one word: opportunity. If opportunities were out there, African Americans would be able to go for those opportunities and positions of influence. The coffee industry is extremely relationship-driven, in the best way. But on the other hand, if you’re not in on those relationships and don’t have the ability to be in on those conversations, it’s hard for those opportunities to trickle down to other people.

I see more black and brown people in coffee at the barista level. I think we need a bridge that connects the barista world to the rest of the industry. The opportunities that could benefit those workers are tremendous, and once we create that bridge between the front line and higher levels in the supply chain, I think we will see a wheel begin to turn. Those relationships will give underrepresented groups the opportunity to get into more positions of influence in coffee.

EB: Do you see more representation among the Next Generation of coffee professionals?

FJ: I believe representation over the last 20 to 30 years has been stagnant. However, I do see representation from a more individual perspective. I think about people like Phyllis Johnson, President of BD Imports and Founder of The Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity. There are more independent businesses and owners getting started in coffee that are coming from newer groups.

EB: What measures do you think the industry could take to provide more opportunities for underrepresented groups to get into the coffee supply chain?

FJ: As I see it, the most obvious opportunity is outreach and introduction of the industry to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Whether it be through a general assembly, seminars, or curriculum, this is an opportunity to make an appeal as an industry to individuals who are wondering “What’s next?”

I think about my youngest, who is beginning to start his senior year in college and will be approaching this big moment in life soon. As an industry, we could capitalize on this opportunity to reach out to young people and say “Hey, what about coffee?”

This strategy could be a bit exclusive to those who don’t attend college or have the opportunity to pursue higher education. There are opportunities to reach out to high schools and get to people who enter the workforce early. Connecting to coffee shops on and around college campuses or in cities to show interest and outreach would work as well.

EB: What hurdles and challenges did you experience in your career that you hope to help others learn from?

FJ: I have been in the coffee industry for 30 years, and the last 10 to 15 years have been increasingly easy for me. My company stood behind me and sort of made me the face and name of our brand. It’s amazing to have a brand that sticks behind you. It adds a level of credibility to your name when you are entering those decision-making situations. I have our company, PJs, to thank for all of that help.

I have also seen internal challenges, though. Usually, these are challenges in trying to separate the business side of things from the artisan aspect of coffee. It’s a matter of not looking at just the balance sheet, but saying “We really are a coffee company. We know what we are talking about and we’re not just saying stuff.”

EB: Are there any organizations in the industry that you see doing good work when it comes to furthering the representation of underrepresented groups in the supply chain?

FJ: The only one that comes to mind immediately is the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity. The group was started by Phyllis Johnson, who I mentioned earlier. Phyllis wrote a letter a long time ago that was published to challenge the industry to show more support for groups that don’t have as many opportunities in the coffee industry. Phyllis started the CCRE to create a group and space that would fight for those individuals to receive racial equity within the industry.

EB: If you could go back in time twenty years, what advice would you give yourself about pursuing a career in coffee?

FJ: I would say have patience, be willing to get dirty, and don’t be afraid of change. I’ll be candid with you: I was having a conversation with an employee who looks up to me as a mentor and he told me “Mr. Jones, your generation is so much more loyal than my generation. If an opportunity presents itself, we’re probably going to take it.” That was an enlightening experience for me because, when I was starting out, we really didn’t move around much. But, because of that, there were opportunities that might have passed me by or passed people in my generation by. So, experiment when you are younger with moving around in the industry but also don’t give up a good thing that you have going just because.

But honestly, there’s not much I would change about my personal path. I’m happy with where I am and happy I’ve stayed with it. It’s a long journey and there are so many lessons to be taken along the way.

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