Photographer Ashley Tomlinson originally dreamed of opening her own cafe. She trained at the American Barista & Coffee School and dove headfirst into the coffee industry. But instead of a brick-and-mortar space, Tomlinson developed one online instead: The Little Black Coffee Cup. From her current base of Toronto she explores the world of specialty coffee through photos and words both on her site and through her Instagram feed, @thelittleblackcoffeecup.
We caught up with Tomlinson to learn more about her work and her process.
How would friends of yours finish this statement “Ashley is…”?
…curious. They would also probably say I’m obsessed with coffee!
What is the general goal with your feed? What type of photos are you trying to post and why?
Generally, the photos I post reflect where I am, the cafes I’m exploring, and the coffee I’m drinking. I also share images that correspond to whatever article, recipe or collaboration I am featuring on my site. Posting original photos is really important to me. I have shared other peoples’ images when the story necessitated it, or when I’ve collaborated with a photographer, but 98 percent of what you see is shot and edited by yours truly.
In terms of the why: I’m very influenced by Seth Godin’s work, and I like to keep the concept of adding value in mind when I am posting or creating something. To that end, am I adding value to whatever coffee shop, cup of coffee, person, or business I am posting about? Is it a nice photograph? Will it add aesthetic value to someone's news feed? Is this a thoughtful story? Will these words or ideas be valuable to someone else? Of course, I don’t always nail it, but adding value is the general and ultimate goal.
How did you get started doing your work? How has your work evolved since then?
A few years before I got into coffee, I embarked on a personal challenge to buy nothing new for a year in an effort to simplify my life and live more sustainably. A side effect of not spending time and money shopping for things was that going out for a nice cup of coffee became the luxury in my life. I grew to love my experiences in coffee shops around Los Angeles and had the idea that I might like to open my own one day—all I needed was to fully understand how good coffee was made and what other shops were out there. Little did I know that coffee is like a rabbit hole…
I started The Little Black Coffee Cup in 2013 with the intention of visiting and reviewing cafes in Los Angeles—which I did a bit of—but it didn't feel right. Thankfully, I didn't write too many reviews or share too many opinions before I realized the limits of my coffee expertise. Instead of attempting to be an authority on things that I didn't know much about, I decided to shift my focus onto learning everything I could about specialty coffee. To that end, my work has evolved into a journal of sorts, which is reflective of my coffee education, experiences, and my personal preferences.
What are some of your favorite recent pieces?
I am all about collaborating at the moment. I think the most exciting things happen when people team up. I recently did a couple of cascara-cocktail collaborations with Kyle Jones, who is the resident cocktail expert at Young's Fine Wine in the Bahamas. I created a cascara simple syrup and a cascara iced tea, while Kyle was tasked with making cocktails using those ingredients. He rocked out some incredibly delicious beverages and presented them in beautiful barware that was a dream to photograph. It's really fun collaborating with people who are experts in their given fields and having the opportunity to showcase their talent. To me, that's when the magic happens.
Aside from that, the work I'm most proud of to date is called For Here Or To Go, And A Few Other Questions. The article focuses on the environmental impact of single-use coffee cups and offers a few ideas on how to change our industry's relationship with them. It also calls out our collective role in perpetuating a disposable coffee culture through social media. I had a blast writing and illustrating this piece since it combines my passion for sustainability with my love of coffee. I really enjoy challenging coffee-industry norms and questioning consumer behavior. I tend to get fired up about this kind of stuff, so I'm sure you will see a lot more sustainability-focused articles coming from my site.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your creative process?
Since I feature a variety of content through The Little Black Coffee Cup (Instagram pictures, long-form stories, collaborations, recipes, interviews, etc.), every piece I post or share is unique and demands a different approach. That said, no matter what I am creating, the one thing I require is a deadline. I thrive on the pressure that comes with having a deadline—whether it’s something as simple as aiming to have a picture up on Instagram before noon, or a researched and illustrated article ready to post by next Friday at 9 a.m. In general, I think the process of establishing a framework and adhering to it is key for anyone in an entrepreneurial, freelance, or creative space. Time limits work for me.
I like how you not only post beautiful photos, but most of them come with a story and often a question to your followers. Why is it important for you to focus not only on the images but also the text and the engagement with followers?
Thank you! Yeah, I enjoy posting little stories and I've started asking a lot more questions recently. Sometimes people engage and sometimes they don't. As my work evolves, more and more I think it's important to present something relatable and to be open to having a conversation online—after all, social media is intended to be social.
I'm not trying to sell a particular product, so the real prize for me is to make connections. I really appreciate Instagram accounts where the human running the feed is approachable and accessible, so I'm attempting to allow for that in my own. Ultimately, the people I've had the opportunity to engage with through Instagram are invaluable, so I'd like to encourage more connectivity.
Tell us more about your #ThingsThatGoWithCoffee series
The idea behind #ThingsThatGoWithCoffee is to share simple and healthful recipes that are either inspired by a particular coffee, contain coffee, or are intended to be paired with a coffee. Think: banana muffins, coconut coffee ice cream, vanilla almond milk. To date, I have created most of the recipes myself, but I have also showcased other people’s recipes. I’m really excited about this series, so far I’ve only really scratched the surface of its potential!
Where did the name The Little Black Coffee Cup come from?
The name came out of my initial intention to review cafes in LA. It was a caffeinated play on The Little Black Book or The Little Black Dress—something essential, exclusive, and simple. Of course, that’s not what the site evolved into, but I’m still rolling with the name.
What are some of your inspirations?
Oh gosh, I find inspiration everywhere! I get inspired scrolling through my Instagram news feed and checking out what my friends or other folks in the coffee world are up to. I love listening to entrepreneurial podcasts or reading books that present different ways of thinking or doing business. I’m inspired by minimalism as a lifestyle. I get excited by thoughtful design. I am generally inspired by the hospitality industry—by people who open restaurants or cafes, baristas, waiters, bartenders, and chefs who labor for their love of it. Or by anyone who has the guts to follow their dreams. I actually just finished reading Danny Meyer’s Setting The Table and I feel particularly moved by his enlightened hospitality ethos. Being in nature is pretty inspiring, too.
What coffee are you drinking right now?
I’m currently finishing up a bag of semi-washed Sumatra Suku Batak from Brio Coffeeworks—a roaster based in Burlington, Vermont. It’s earthy, sweet, and displays lots of body on both the V60 and French press. This coffee is also extra meaningful to me since it’s my first time sampling Brio Coffeeworks. I connected with Magdalena Van Dusen at Barista Camp back in 2013, just before she and Nathan launched their roasting business, so it’s a pleasure to finally experience the fruits of their labor.
Favorite coffee shop?
Boxcar Social. As part of my continuing coffee education, I spent a year working on bar at the Summerhill location of this Toronto-based multi-roaster. I have a lot of respect for their coffee program, which was developed, and is continuously curated, by Alex Castellani. Aside from having the opportunity to work with coffees from some of the most well-regarded roasters in North America (George Howell Coffee, 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, Heart Roasters, Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters, to name a few), the community I got to spend my days slinging coffee with and for were lovely. I think that's probably the most important thing I've learned in my coffee career thus far—delicious coffee is nice and important, but it's the people and community around the coffee that matters the most.
If you could drink coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
There isn't one person, in particular, I'm eager to have coffee with. I think the most enriching conversations happen in unexpected moments with unexpected people. So, more of that, please!
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in the American Pacific Northwest, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.