Beyond the Counter: Stories of Local Baristas


Illustrations by Sunflowerman

Coffeehouses have long been brewing grounds for inspiration. They,re the spots where laptops, tablets, novels, journals and sketchbooks work overtime as the shop,s community of patrons toil with their next great ideas. So, it,s no surprise that those behind the counter are some of the Fort,s most inspired — and inspiring — people. Here,s a taste of their stories.

Johnny Chou
Craftwork Coffee Co.

by Shilo Urban

Order a latte at Craftwork on Camp Bowie, and you might see a swan swimming in your cup. Creating whimsical latte art is just one of Johnny Chou’s many talents. Born in Taiwan, the 34-year-old barista is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who has lived on four continents. But his current obsession is delicate, colorful and fragrant: orchids.

“I have over 100 now,” Johnny confesses. “I just like the blooms.” Watering his collection of the notoriously finicky plants can take over two hours. The flowers are a fitting infatuation for the globe-trotting Johnny. Orchids bloom all over the world, from the tropics to the tundra, and they have an amazing ability to adapt to any environment.

Johnny arrived in Fort Worth in 2017 after a long and circuitous journey. “I feel like my life is bound with Texas,” he says. As a teenager, he traveled to Dallas with a school group for several months one summer, visiting tourist spots and studying with locals. “They learned Mandarin, and we learned English,” he recalls.

His first impressions of Texas? “Super hot. When it was raining, there was literally steam coming up from the ground. That was scary for me,” he laughs. “And there were tons of fireflies. That was the first time I had seen fireflies, and it was awesome.”

Johnny returned to the U.S. a few years later to attend San Francisco State University. For the first time, he experienced total immersion in the English language. “I was having a hard time,” he admits. “I felt like it almost killed me. I didn’t even know what my professors were talking about on stage.” With the help of tutors, he made it through a difficult first semester. “I survived … and then later, everything just went so well.”

He returned to Taiwan to complete a year of compulsory military service before being admitted to a prestigious business school. But his heart was elsewhere. “I always wanted to do cooking,” he says. After earning his graduate degree, Johnny enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Sydney, Australia, to master classical French cuisine. Five years later, he jumped at the chance to work as a chef in Dublin, Ireland, at the landmark Gresham Hotel. In Dublin, he learned to decipher the Irish accent and prepare local favorites like shepherd’s pie and high tea.

He also met his husband, Jacob. But there was just one problem: Jacob lived an ocean away in Austin; they had connected via the dating website OKCupid. “I didn’t even expect I would meet someone,” Johnny says, “and this guy was so far away on the other side of the earth.” When his chef contract at the hotel ended, he decided to “swing by America” on his way back home to Australia and meet Jacob in person.

As their commitment grew more serious, Johnny began the application procedure for an American visa. That was in 2017 — and the visa approval process is still ongoing today. “We were kind of naïve thinking that it only takes a while,” he says. He had initially purchased a round-trip flight and planned to be in the U.S. for one month while his paperwork was approved. “But once I got in, I couldn’t leave until it was done.”

The couple stayed with Jacob’s mother in Beaumont, where Johnny received his first orchid as a gift from Jacob’s grandmother. Soon they headed to Fort Worth to be near Jacob’s twin sister, getting married shortly after their arrival. Johnny has found his new home to be full of opportunities, friendly people and “food adventures.” As soon as his work permit was approved last year, he applied at Craftwork.

Johnny has always been a coffee lover, but his passion for the barista arts was sparked while working at restaurants with coffee bars. “It was always fascinating to see the baristas pouring shots and making good latte art. I would sneak to the front and ask them a lot of questions and try to make myself a cup of coffee,” he says. “At first I thought it was easy … but it’s not.” Today, he’s a pro. And his secret to creating great latte art? “The foam,” he reveals. But drip-drawing coffee swans isn’t his favorite thing about being a barista at Craftwork.

“The thing I enjoy the most is the thing I’m afraid of the most — talking to people.” He explains: “English is not my first language, and I’m not a really outgoing person. At first, I was struggling, but then I forced myself to [talk to people]. I’m still not so good at it, but I actually enjoy it because I get to know people.”

Johnny’s coffee love has recently expanded to coffee roasting, which he studies on his time off. Up next? Far-future plans include opening an Aussie-style coffee shop in Fort Worth with affordable, chef-crafted cuisine and a family-friendly vibe. For now, he’ll be pouring fancy lattes and watering his orchids — but not too often. “When you think it’s time to water your orchid, just wait one more day,” he says. Patience and persistence aren’t just Johnny’s secrets to growing exotic flowers; they are virtues that have served him well on his ongoing quest for the next endeavor. “It’s a fun journey.”

Sara Warren
Vaquero Coffee Co.

by Samantha Calimbahin

Sara Warren thought her plan was set in stone — she was going to be a dancer.

It’s something she’s done since childhood, growing up in Perris, California, about half an hour north of Temecula. She’d continue dancing after her family moved to Fort Worth when she was 11, but it wasn’t until high school when Sara says ballet took over her “whole life.” After high school, she landed a spot in the Trainee Program at BalletMet Dance Academy in Ohio.

Then, at age 19, she made it — she became an apprentice for the Charlotte Ballet in North Carolina, appearing in productions like “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

But two years later, something changed. Sara began to notice she was losing weight more rapidly than normal. Keeping food down was a struggle. Eating became difficult. She would find herself in and out of the hospital — while living alone in Charlotte — in “the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Doctors thought it was stomach flu at first, but after undergoing an endoscopy, Sara was diagnosed with chronic gastritis. Still, the condition would never heal, and it became clear there was something more serious going on that would require more testing and treatment.

Sara was then faced with one of the most difficult decisions she’s ever had to make.

“I had to move back home,” she says, recalling the moment. “I couldn’t take care of myself, just in and out of the hospital.”

So, she terminated her contract with Charlotte, returning to Fort Worth to be closer to family and undergo treatment. Until now, she hasn’t received a concrete diagnosis, but “I can function like a normal human, which is good,” she says.

“It’s a huge life change to go from dancing every day and being with that group of people to [going] cold turkey like that, and just being cut off,” Sara says. “I have to be moving and doing stuff all the time — high energy, outdoors. It was weird at first.”

Sara admits the past year has been one of the hardest. For a while, she hardly spoke about how her physical health was affecting her emotionally. But she credits her twin sister — Clarissa, who dances with a company in Virginia — for encouraging her to open up.

“When I’m having a bad day, I can voice that I’m having a bad day,” Sara says. “But that took quite a few months to learn.”

Another life change happened last summer — Sara was scrolling through Instagram when she came across a Fort Worth Locals post about a new coffee shop, Vaquero Coffee Co., that had just opened downtown. Sara — an avid coffee lover whose father used to roast his own beans and make drinks with his own espresso machine — decided to check it out.
She applied to be a barista three months later.

At Vaquero, Sara says she found another family, building friendships with its close-knit staff. In February, Sara was able to make a small comeback to dance, guesting in a performance with Ballet Frontier of Texas — everyone from Vaquero came, she says.

Now 22, Sara is getting back into physical activity, albeit slowly. She trains and occasionally dances with Ballet Frontier of Texas, going at her own pace while continuing treatment.

Her passion for coffee has also grown — almost on the same level as dancing. Her go-to drink is the cappuccino, and she often finds herself critiquing the espresso at other shops. “In a way, I see it as an art, a skill, a craft. It doesn’t necessarily feel like a job.”

She’s also discovered another passion: business management. She got a taste of it in Charlotte when she was part of a showcase in which dancers would choreograph pieces for their colleagues — this was around the time she was battling illness, so when she couldn’t dance, she was given charge over the logistics, from scheduling to lighting to music.

“I always liked being the one in charge … I’ve never had time to grow that side of me,” Sara says. She eventually hopes to go to school for business management and pursue that career once she retires from dancing.

Among the biggest things Sara says she’s learned in the past year — she’s more than just a dancer.

“I learned so much and met so many people,” she says. “Sara right now, compared to last year, is a completely different person.”

A much happier person.

“I had such a set-in-stone plan when I was 18 years old of everything I was going to do — then, life happened,” she says. “I wouldn’t be happy with that plan anymore.”

Emores Petty
Sons of Liberty Coffee

by Brian Kendall

Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize might seem a lofty ambition to some, but for Emores (pronounced ee-more-us) Petty — someone you might see wearing a “More Love” shirt behind the counter at Sons of Liberty Coffee — the idea doesn’t appear all that far-fetched.

When we first started chatting about his passion for freestyle BMX — that form of bike riding that includes half-pipes, grind rails and gravity-defying trickery (search the sport on YouTube and prepare to make some “what the hell was that”-type exclamations) — it opened the door for him to speak of his true passion: helping others. Midway through our conversation, he paused in the middle of a statement to say he hadn’t yet told me what his real skill is: suicide prevention.

Before moving to Fort Worth just a few months ago, Emores worked at Sources of Strength in Denver, where he traveled around the country doing workshops on hope, help, strength and resiliency. And, he continues to do training with the Colorado-based suicide prevention group on Saturdays.

While being fully immersed in BMX and inspiring youth, he doesn’t see these two gigs as mutually exclusive, and he’s expertly using both to spread good. Sure, he learned how to ride the hell out of a bike — something he picked up when he was 15, only to realize he was a natural at the bruising sport — but he’s not about to use this gift for the sole purpose of monetary compensation.

“I push myself and ride and compete at a high level,” Emores says. “But just to say that a company deems me a pro and that I’m getting their paycheck, I couldn’t care less. I see what I’m doing in engaging with youth and people in general, and how I’m impacting the world. I think I can use BMX as an avenue to be able to affect people and as a tool. It’s not my end-all be-all to say I’m a professional BMX rider.”

To put his life up until now (he’s 26) in a nutshell seems like a futile task — he’s an extremely loquacious man who speaks of all his experiences like one would deliver slam poetry. He struggled to fit in and experimented with drugs and alcohol in Alabama; ran away to Fort Worth; went to college to major in weed and girls in San Antonio; dealt with racism from a friend in Denver; a whole lot in between; and has come full circle back to the Fort where his primary concern is taking care of his mom.

His father — who died three weeks before Emores started college — has, as Emores puts it, four sets of children, and his younger brother went to prison right after he turned 18. He’s dealt with sexual abuse, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and is one of the most positive people you’d ever meet.

“Growing up, my mom always told us, ‘You got a heavenly father that’s bigger and better than any earthly father you could ever have,’” Emores says.

“‘Always remember, you’ve always got somebody that’s there with you.’ And that was powerful, and it was something I always kept.”

One could easily go on an hours-long soliloquy about his time in Ashland, Oregon, where he worked at a cannabis-growth facility (before its legalization) and got in a rough and tumble relationship with its owner. Or about his time in Kansas, where he briefly went to school to study the juxtaposing subjects of aviation and psychology — and accumulated 10 hours of flight time to boot. And these are just two of the several wrinkles that make up Emores, and he thanks his moral compass for keeping him on track and, eventually, bringing him back to Fort Worth.

Now working behind the counter at Sons of Liberty Coffee, Emores often wears shirts with the words “More Love” and carries pins and stickers with the same graphic. The purpose is as straightforward as one might suspect — to spread love. He came up with the idea following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students dead.

“I was like, I gotta be a voice talking about a solution in this time, so I hopped in front of my camera one day and did a quick response to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Everybody is talking about the problem; what I want to talk about today is love. How do we spread more love? How do we love on people? How do we impact people before we even get to a crisis mode?”

The result has bred a life of its own, and Emores hopes this viral campaign can spread worldwide.

“Some people say, you’re crazy, you think too much or whatever. No. I believe that there are people in the world who are hurting every single day, and they need people to love them. So, I’m wondering how can I create space for so many people to love and be loved to the point where people say, ‘This guy needs a Nobel Peace Prize. He has changed the world.’”

Bobbie Lyn
Avoca Coffee Roasters

by Brian Kendall

It’s a mathematical fact, owing to the naked truth that it’s the least populous area of the country, that fewer people grow up in Wyoming than any other state. And Avoca Coffee Roaster’s Bobbie Lyn is one of those people. Yet, its lack of population density is something that never meshed with Bobbie and her career goals, so she’s oddly thankful that, during her early teens, her wanderlusting mom went on a frenzied moving spree and uprooted the family every two years for a new destination, eventually ending up in Fort Worth.

After all, a place like Wyoming is probably not the best spot to set up shop as a tattoo artist.

“If I stayed in Wyoming, I definitely would not be in this career,” Bobbie says. “So, Fort Worth alone has brought me this lifestyle. Here, there’s just so much room to flourish and so many opportunities. Like Avoca. ‘Cause Avoca has given me the leeway to apprentice and to do the career I’m doing.”

The 25-year-old barista/tattoo artist’s history with tats goes back to the age of 17 when she tried to get her first piece of body art — something that would be illegal in the state of Texas, where you have to be 18 to get inked. The following year, she got a rose on her back, a tattoo she’d wanted since she was 9. As one would hope to see on someone applying permanent ink to your skin, she has plenty of body art to show — she counts a total of 10 tattoos, including her sleeve.

Seemingly always aware of the career she wanted to pursue, Bobbie tried to earn her first apprenticeship as a tattoo artist when she was 18, but her portfolio was so small and her experience so minimal that no one was willing to take her on.

Eventually, she saved $1,000 to get a full sleeve — an intricate, floral piece of art with an elephant as its centerpiece that now wraps under her left armpit. The tattoo artist whom she worked with on the design was impressed enough with her art — and aware of her previous attempt at becoming a tattoo artist — that he offered her an apprenticeship.

“Then, that June, I did my first one, and it was the coolest tattoo. I didn’t know who they were or whatever, but it was a Wu Tang ‘W.’ He was like, ‘I just want this W with a traditional rose in the middle of it.’

“My mentor slowly got me small tattoos. A lot of times, they were his friends who knew I was an apprentice, so that’s always good because that way you don’t have to pretend you know what you’re doing.”

But Bobbie’s journey to having command of a tattoo machine was far from one void of bumps. She describes her childhood as chaotic, which she owes to her mother.

“She was a little bit of a gypsy, a little bit of a hippie, a little crazy. But every day was an adventure.

“She was a bra-burning lady in the early ’70s and ’80s, and she couldn’t smoke weed, so she just coped. Then she sobered up, had her kids, but she was still the wondrous mom who just wanted to go everywhere.”

She, her two sisters and her mom would hop around Colorado and Utah before her mom bought her first house and settled down in Texas.

“[Moving] never bothered me,” she says. “I was growing up still, and I loved it. [My mom] was at times asking if I needed to be settled, and I was like, ‘Nah, let’s keep [moving].’ I was good enough at making friends through school, but I also never got attached, so it was easy for me to be like, ‘Okay, bye, I’m done.’”

The moving got so commonplace that Bobbie’s only now getting used to not living out of her bag. With clothes hung up on racks and toiletries settled in cupboards, Bobbie does plan on keeping the stir-craziness at bay for at least a little bit while she tries to build a network and establish a reputation in Fort Worth. 

“When I first moved here, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like the area, but now that I’ve gotten more in the state, and I’m able to be on my own, I really love the connections and the people that I’ve met. Even if it’s for a day — even if I met them at a bar and restaurant — you can strike up a conversation with almost anyone out here. People are so friendly.”

Moving forward, her goal is to become a full-time tattoo artist and not have two jobs for the first time since she was 19. Fortunately, she has the full support of Avoca, and they’re even assisting her on the endeavor.

“I love that Avoca brings so many different types of artists into one spot,” Bobbie says. “They bring musicians, artists, graphic designers, any type, and there’s one graphic design artist who made my cards for me. And, eventually, when I get more into the realm of Instagram, I want him to be my manager for all social media.”