While I have my regular cappuccino, she orders tea because the seasons and her rapid schedule got the better of her. But it becomes clear to me from the get go, that a few under-the-weather symptoms could never dampen her charisma. Elizabeth Chai is all herself, a woman who wears inspiration on her sleeve and is dead-set against anything less than leaving her mark on the world.
Last summer, a sizable dent was put in that determination. With warm drinks and a cool, California breeze, Elizabeth tells me about a road trip that would set her creative senses on fire.
It started with buying and refurbishing a teardrop camper, turning it into a 1960s-retro-inspired-dream-mobile. While sitting behind the wheel in a small blue MINI cooper, she towed the camper from Atlanta, Georgia to Portland, Oregon.
– When I realized I’d be driving a MINI cooper, towing a mini teardrop camper, with my miniature greyhound (which she quaintly calls, “Mister B”), I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to put a La Marzocco Linea Mini espresso machine in here?’, Chai fondly recalls.
Instead of archiving the thought in her drawer of good ideas, like most people probably would have, she rather pitched the idea to La Marzocco Home’s marketing director, Scott Calendar.
– I said, ‘I’ll take pictures along the way, it’ll be fun!’ I was shocked when they said, ‘let’s do it.’
She giggles and continues, “I have all sorts of wacky ideas like that, and in my line of work ideas are everything.”
Elizabeth Chai is a designer, photographer and connoisseur of the visual world.
Starting off as a designer for a branding agency in Atlanta, Georgia, and doing her work in cafés, Elizabeth found herself immersed in the specialty coffee scene. Unlike most café-goers, the items on the menu were not what stood out to her, but rather the menu itself. It was a café’s unique menu design, space design, coffee bag design, and interior design that enthralled her.
Already having taken in the surroundings of the café we’re sitting in, she tells me “I started keeping an eye out for everything coffee. How it pertained to me was the visual aesthetic of it – the strategy of it.”
After spending a few years doing freelance design for Atlanta coffee companies like Counter Culture, Steady Hand Pour House, and Octane Coffee Bar, Elizabeth found her niche and her home in this culture of coffee.
She shakes her head; “I couldn’t get out of coffee at that point. It became such a family to me that I didn’t want to leave.”
But as most have experienced, sometimes you have to leave family and go out on your own in this world. And so came the decision to kick her career into high gear and make the move to Portland, Oregon.
– It was very clear that Portland is a Mecca for design and coffee… some of the best coffee in the world, I think.
The fast way would have been two thousand five hundred and ninety five miles, but Elizabeth took any way but the fast way. Her main objective was not getting to her end stop, but enjoying the adventure along the way. Detouring from the map, she stopped at every coffee shop she had ever heard of, parked her camper in front of it, and hung out with baristas from all over the United States.
With an adventurous grin she says, “I think the whimsy of it all made moving across country so unpredictable. I just got in my car and drove west. I didn’t even know my route.”
A route that was marked only by the different cafés she had catalogued in her mind.
– When I travel, all I want to do is see coffee shops.
As Elizabeth made her way from coast to coast, she gradually grew her own brand. Taking photos along the way and promoting her venture on Instagram and other social outlets, word got out about the #crosscountrycampercoffeecrawl – her clever hashtag for the excursion. When baristas heard of her coming, they would peak their heads around the corner to watch her drive up.
– Some treated it sceptically, but the cafés I had the best experiences at, though, were the ones who were open and enthusiastic to spur of the moment encounters. The ones who said, ‘There’s an espresso machine in our parking lot, wouldn’t it be fun to go see what it’s all about and put our beans in it and make some coffee?’
These were the places that also treated her like family.
– The standout shops took me in and showed me their town, or other coffee shops I could visit. I think that was my favourite part of the trip: the people I met.
After reminiscing over new and old friends she met along the way, Elizabeth tells me about the moment when she finally reached the West Coast.
– After LA I wanted to get to San Luis Obispo to meet up with Chris Baca (of Cat and Cloud Coffee) to pull espresso ocean side. But I got stuck in LA traffic and it was dark by the time I got there. But we did it anyway! He was so enthusiastic about it. We stayed out on the beach for a while and then he showed me around downtown San Luis Obispo.
On her journey, Elizabeth would pull espresso on the sides of cliffs, in parking lots, and with some of the best in the coffee business. She learned about what makes coffee visits memorable, what makes a shop stand out, and what makes this culture worth investing in. She also gained miles and miles of inspiration. I was so lucky, as to have her share some of that inspiration with me.