Snobby baristas make Wendelien van Bunnik nervous. That might be because she’s just about as welcoming, enthusiastic, and encouraging as they come.
Despite winning one world and two Dutch national championships in a single year, Wendelien continues to expand her coffee journey with an unwavering appetite to learn more. Not even COVID-19 can stop her from sharing her passion with her like-minded followers on social media.
A little over a decade ago, Wendelien remembers visiting a coffee shop near her university every time she had an early morning class. The barista was always so excited to perfect her coffee order and had plenty of suggestions to understand what kind of coffee she was looking for.
“It struck me that he was so enthusiastic about what he was doing, and at a certain point, I was like, dude, what is it about this job that gets you so excited at this hour?” she says. “I needed to get me some of that.”
Luckily for Wendelien, that coffee shop was hiring. After working part-time at a few coffee shops in the area, she was offered a job as a full-time trainer at a coffee roastery after graduating. Fast forward nine years later, and Wendelien is still at Single Estate Coffee Roasters. She now manages the brand’s first flagship coffee bar in The Hague.
It wasn’t long before she understood the appeal of the barista profession. “The part you play in other people’s lives, especially in those early hours, is amazing,” she says. “I had part-time jobs at supermarkets before and they were always just a way to make some money. That first barista job was when I started seeing the reward you get as a barista, of having that satisfaction in what you do.”
When Wendelien van Bunnik looks back on those early days, she feels a mix of embarrassment and appreciation for how far she’s come. “Life was simple back then as a student,” she says with a sigh. “I was in my early twenties and was in that super confident phase where I thought I knew what life was about.” She describes herself as a pretty loud person and overconfident at times, a combination that makes her cringe at the thought of the kind of barista she used to be.
“I didn’t know anything back then, but I was lucky enough to meet my mentor, the guy that eventually hired me at the company I’m working at now, and he’s been mentoring me ever since,”
says Wendelien. It’s one of the things she’s most grateful for, and she wishes everyone could have someone to constantly support them in that way.
“Finding a mentor doesn’t magically happen. It’s something you can attract. I like to think I did something to deserve having a mentor who makes you feel safe enough to get back on your feet or put a mirror to you, to make you aware of the attitude you’re having,” she says. “There needs to be an organic connection between two people, and for us, that was based on friendship first.”
In addition to the support of her mentor and coaches, Wendelien van Bunnik recognizes her championship titles could not come without the full support of her husband. As the mother of a now four-year-old daughter, she had to make sacrifices in her social and family life to train for the barista championships.
“It was worth it, but it was really intense,” she shares. “I make a photo album for my daughter’s birthday every year, and I had so few pictures of her for the first couple of months in 2019. They were all photos of competition setups, coffee profiles, grinder settings, so many potential signature glasses, but very little of my daughter except for the one where she’s sitting on my suitcase because I was going to Boston for 10 days and she wasn’t able to come along.” It was tough and the only way Wendelien was able to do that was with the support of her husband.
The second half of 2019 was defined by the Aeropress competitions, even though she wasn’t planning on doing anything after the World Barista Championships (WBC) in the spring. She only joined the Dutch Aeropress competition to support the organizers, her former colleagues, and swing by her hometown where the event was taking place.
“I was just going for the beer and to hang out with friends, but by the end of the evening, I was holding the trophy and had won a ticket to London. They told me [the World Aeropress Championship (WAC)] was going to be next month. Woah, OK,”
she says with a laugh. When she called her husband that night, Wendelien was actually feeling a little guilty. “He asked me how I could join a competition and not expect or take into consideration that I might win,” she reveals.
What Wendelien loves most about WAC is how accessible and inclusive the events are.
“It’s so important to remind yourself that you’re supposed to have fun up on the competition stage and that you’re doing this because you like being up there,”
she says. That’s why she and a friend spent the weekend touring London for the best pastries and sang the night away at the hotel’s karaoke room right before the competition, to get in the right mindset.
Although preparing for the Aeropress competitions took less planning than barista competitions, her experience preparing for WBC in Boston proved valuable in London.
“Everything about the barista championships was super focused and organized, and it took a year and a half of blood, sweat, and tears. You can’t really compare the two competitions. Still, it was easy to adapt my experiences to my overall approach to competing,” says Wendelien.
She knew what questions to ask the roasters who supplied the Aeropress competition coffee and how to plan and prepare if she made it to the final round. She was already familiar with making checklists and tasting notes as she dialed in the coffee. This time, her confidence allowed her to fully enjoy the process. “I knew I was prepared and could trust my own skills,” she says. “Being able to enjoy the competition is so much more important than where you end up on the ranking.”
To her surprise, Wendelien van Bunnik took the champion title at WAC 2019, and the first thing she did was call her husband. “He told me two things I will never forget: ‘First things first, thank the people you need to thank. After that, just enjoy the freaking ride.’ Those two things are so important for me,” she says.
After rising to instant fame, Wendelien found herself reeling from all the attention until a simple piece of advice from 2018 WBC champion Agnieszka Rojewska came to her via Instagram direct message. “She sent me congratulations and advised me to wait two or three weeks for it all to blow over. Then I could take my time to respond to all the messages,” she says. “I gained 2,000 new followers, and I felt like I was standing in a stadium with all of them congratulating me at the same time. I was spending whole days on my phone responding to people until I realized this was not OK and had to dial it back a bit.”
Even with the world champion title, Wendelien is still the same person she was before, and that’s a passionate barista with a love for education. “I wasn’t prepared for what came after the championships, but I was given this platform, and I thrive on socializing, spreading enthusiasm, and inspiring other people,” she says. For her, the pandemic has been quite the bummer.
In I’M NOT A BARISTA’s zoom chat with Wendelien last week, she was still suffering from the effects of having COVID-19 six weeks earlier. After three weeks in quarantine, she went back to work only to realize she wasn’t quite ready for all that yet. “I’m still in recovery mode and I do not like noticing the boundaries that my body is signalling to me. I get really frustrated because I want to do stuff, but I’m also fatigued really easily,” she shares.
She also can’t remember the last time she ate at a restaurant or hung out with her friends since the Netherlands went on lockdown last year. Her only outlet lately has been hanging out on Instagram. Now, in her short bursts of energy, Wendelien creates videos to answer many common questions she gets about coffee to share what she knows.
“I knew absolutely nothing about making or editing videos, but after I got COVID, I needed some sort of creative expression while in quarantine,”
she says. “I quickly realized that I enjoyed the process more than I thought I would, and it’s been my creative outlet whenever I have the energy.”
When Wendelien van Bunnik gets into a new interest, she ends up teaching about it.
“I’m a sailor, and I used to be a sailing instructor when I was a teenager. Another hobby is salsa dancing. I met my husband on the dance floor and started teaching salsa as well. Whenever I get really enthusiastic about something, I need to share it,” she says. Coffee is no different, and videos have been an excellent way to share knowledge with people she otherwise can’t reach.
Whenever Wendelien considers going back into a formal teaching career (her degree was in education), her love for the coffee community and the product itself always brings her back to the hospitality industry. There’s a lot of mutual respect within the coffee scene in the Netherlands, and the power behind the worldwide community gets her really excited.
Tasting new coffees feel like Christmas for Wendelien and she loves trying new roasters, farms, or processing methods. A big part of what drew her to WBC was the experience of tasting a coffee, understanding why it tastes that way, and sharing that with the people around her. Despite being a champion many times, she still views coffee as a challenging beverage and a never-ending learning opportunity.
“It’s an honor to be part of the community I’M NOT A BARISTA is building and part of an initiative that empowers baristas,” she says. “We need to stick together and help lift each other up.”