Michael Harwood, 41, Coffee Expert
Those passions inspired Michael Harwood, along with his partner Mandy Spirito, to open their burgeoning business, Vignette Coffee Roasters, in Greensboro.
“We’re really proud to be a part of this community. When you work in a café space, you feel the community. You are basically the living room.”
Michael grew up in Winston-Salem, where he spent a fair amount of time in coffee shops hanging out. It wasn’t necessarily about the coffee though.
“My passion for coffee as a family and friend ritual started early,” he says. “It was sort of an abstract art for me. It was more about coffee shops as gathering places, third places for friends and families to commune, play board games, and talk.”
After high school, he went to UNC Chapel Hill to study biology, following a family history of working in healthcare. He found that he enjoyed his humanities classes more, and switched to study dramatic arts instead. For a while he worked at various barista jobs, including at Open Eye Café in Carrboro, home of Carrboro Coffee Roasters, where he found himself “captivated” by the coffee business. He even wrote an anthropology paper about the coffee trade.
After college, he pursued a serious theater career in New York City. While he loved the work, he had to juggle multiple jobs to get by. On a whim, he took a barista gig at a new shop that specialized in high quality coffee. He soon found he was having more interesting conversations with folks at the coffee house than he was at his theater gigs.
“At a certain point I was like, ‘New York is really expensive. What am I doing?’” Michael says.
He moved home to North Carolina, intent on starting a nursing career. He worked in hospice care and soon found that it wasn’t a good match for his empathetic personality. He went back to working as a barista.
At first, he was “kind of embarrassed.” That changed when his boss signed him up for the regional barista championship sponsored by the Specialty Coffee Association, an international advocacy organization. The competition is a way to advance the craft of coffee making. He had to make 12 drinks if 15 minutes, while telling a story to the judges.
“It’s a little ridiculous to be honest. We bring our own wares and cups.”
He fell on his face that first year. He also fell in love with the whole community – the way you could elevate a cup of coffee into an art form.
“It didn’t really click for me until after the first year I did the barista competition and I watched how seriously a lot of those professionals did it. I thought there was a whole level that exists. I didn’t realize this was this whole level of hospitality: when to say something, when not to say something. A ridiculous level of detail that makes people feel comfortable and appreciated,” Michael says. “I sat in awe of these people who were able to speak on it and not be ridiculous. It gave me pride in what I am doing.”
The next year he won for the southeast region, and got to take a trip to Brazil and Honduras to meet some of the farmers who were producing coffee cherries. Many were living in a cycle of poverty – something Michael felt could be changed with a different way of doing business that gave the growers a better price.
In 2013, he moved to DC to work for Maryland-based Ceremony Coffee Roasters, where he worked on the education and quality control side of the business. He worked with the company’s wholesale clients and developed barista training classes on brewing, hospitality and more.
“I was really doing a lot of teaching and growing,” he says. Michael was certified to grade coffee by the Coffee Quality Institute, and he soon became responsible for sourcing fresh green coffee from producers in South America.
This is where that other love comes in.
Mandy had been growing her own coffee career, honing her skills as a roaster in San Francisco and Chicago. She, too, was responsible for buying coffee. They had been in the same coffee world, but never really met until they landed on the same buying trip to Guatemala, going after the same lot of coffee, haggling over the price.
Out to lunch one day, they had a nice conversation in between listening intently to follow the conversation among the producers, as neither was a fluent Spanish speaker.
“Out of nowhere, the producers says ‘When are you guys getting married?’” They blushed. “I wanted to run away basically,” Michael says.
They met up again at an expo in Seattle. By the time the trip was ending, he told her, “I’m kind of falling for you. That is awkward because we live in different cities.” As fate would have it, Mandy was ready to move on from her Chicago gig. Before long, she had relocated to the east coast.
“It was kind of rushed for me, but in a way it made sense, because I felt like I have known this person for a long time. We quickly fell in love.”
They soon moved to Durham to be close to family. They both worked for Little Waves Coffee Roasters, which won the international title Micro Roaster of the Year when Mandy was head roaster.
Ultimately the pair decided they wanted to be advocates and share their craft with the world.
“We both realized the best way to express those values was to own the company,” Michael says.
In July 2022, they launched Vignette Coffee Roasters, based on Greensboro. They source their own coffee and pay producers above Fair Trade prices. “If we pay too little, we are sacrificing the most important person, which is the coffee producers,” Michael says.
They roast their own seasonal blends for wholesale clients. They provide free training for baristas who want to improve their craft.
“Coffee is not easy. It took me years to develop my craft and Mandy the same in roasting. Having the intuition, the sense to know what to do to improve a brew is what we call dialing in. How to roast the right coffee. How to pick the right equipment,” Michael says.
You can buy a cup of Vignette Coffee at Northern Roots Coffee or Lawn Service in downtown Greensboro, or at the Sleepy Headz Coffee truck. Or visit the roastery tasting room Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 am to 1 pm, 5715 W. Market St., for something special.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about the finances. It’s about being with people and them knowing this is from our hearts and how we’re going to take care of them,” Michael says.