Caffeine and Crews: Getting Your Buzz on at the Center Camp Café

This is post is part of a series written by members of the Operations teams that run the public infrastructure of Black Rock City. Check out the rest of the series!

Since 1995, every Burner — old school and new breed alike — has passed through the Café at some point.

To some, it’s their touchstone for the entire event, while others just stagger in for their morning caffeine fix. It is your meeting spot, your acculturation hub and your quick respite from the sun.

To me, it is where I spend most of my time on playa — where I work and live. I am the “new kid” on the Café crew. Although I have been on playa since 2009, and Rangering since 2011, I only signed on as the Assistant to the Manager of the Center Camp Café in 2013.

I have been very fortunate to learn from those who have been at it a while. I had a lot to learn. And, yeah, all that shade doesn’t suck.

(Photo by Jonathan Clark)

(Photo by Jonathan Clark)

And what a shade it is! The Oculus crew, one of the many teams within DPW, is responsible for that shade. The crew of carpenters, riggers and helpers arrive on playa long before the baristas to make sure we all have that oasis ready when we need it the most.

Monkey Magic

MonkeyBoy (Photo by john d mores)
MonkeyBoy (Photo by john d moyers)

And the first member of Oculus to show up is Monkey Boy. Monkey Boy is a long-time volunteer who has more knowledge in his left pinkie about building in the desert than most of us will ever know.

He arrives on playa three weeks before the gate opens, getting right to work surveying the area and either fixing something the harsh conditions have worn out or creating something new and improved.

Most of us take the bike racks for granted, but we would be in a mess without them — you can thank Monkey Boy for those. He built the prototype and four subsequent iterations before settling on the ones you see circling the Café now.

Bikes racks: what would we do without them? (Photo by Nicolas Roard)

Bikes racks: what would we do without them? (Photo by Nicolas Roard)

Can you imagine the Café without bike racks? Oh right, just go to a sound camp at 2:00 and Esplanade on any given night to see the tangle of spokes and kickstands.

Monkey Boy is up at dawn to prep the yard and get the coffee brewing for the rest of the crew. He rarely stops moving and doesn’t talk much while he is hard at work. But if you can strike up a conversation with him when the work day is done, you will hear some fun stories once he gets a well-earned IPA in his hand.

Once the bones of the structure are in place and are secure, the Café Set Up crew moves in. Their job is to get all the furniture, carpeting, decor and art supports nailed down and hung up.

Rolling with Rusty

It takes a crew of about 65 people to get this all rocking and rolling, and one of the guys doing it longer than anyone else is Rusty.

Rusty_001
Rusty at work (Photo by john d moyers)

Rusty landed on playa for the first time in 1995. His default-world job is as a set dresser in L.A. for TV and film production, so it made the Café a natural fit for him.

He does everything from carpentry and painting to humping carpet. He is proud to have introduced “wheels” to the Set Up team. Prior to Rusty’s brainchild of custom-made rolling carts, the Set Up crew had to muscle EVERYTHING by hand.

If you’ve ever had to transport enormous “logs” of playa-covered carpeting from one side of the Café to the other, you understand the importance of his inventiveness.

Rusty, now a 20-year Burner, is a jack-of-all-trades and serves as the unofficial/official welcome wagon to the denizens of Café Village, the Café’s crew camp.

Setting up at the entrance to the Village, he welcomes the crew to playa with plentiful shade and chairs for visitors. His regulars know to bring vodka to the playa if they are so inclined.

He’s also a prankster who’s into stage make-up — if you happen to see a length of rebar poking through his hand, don’t call a Ranger just yet…

Witchy Wrangling

Now the Café is open, and the coffee is ready! Baristas, ring leaders and runners, oh my! Hundreds of volunteers sign up every year to serve you, and someone needs to wrangle that! We are lucky to have The Good Witch a.k.a. Witchy on our team since 2003.

Witchy in her office.
Ready for another year’s action: Witchy in her office (Photo by John Curley)

She showed up to her first Burning Man experience when her aunt cajoled her into attending the raising of the Man at Fort Mason in 1989. She wasn’t quite sure it was for her.

She was 20 years old and a self-described “snotty, basic girl”. She went anyway and managed to enjoy it, but it didn’t quite stick… yet.

Fast-forward a dozen years. She had finished art school and was dating a guy who invited her to join him. She thought: “Sleep in a tent with a gorgeous man for a week? Yes, please.”

After she announced to her warehouse-loft mates that she was going, bits and pieces of gear started showing up outside her door — a headlamp here, a sleeping bag there. She managed to get most of what she needed and experience gifting before ever stepping foot on the playa. The playa still has her heart, and she hasn’t missed a year since.

She got involved in the Café when one of the Coffee Shop leads needed a day off. Witchy stepped up. She asked, “Hey, can I help?” The manager responded, “I don’t know. Can you help?” “I can check in volunteers,” she offered.  “Great, do that,” he responded.

With a willingness to lend a hand in this great “do-ocracy” of ours, she pulled it off with no training and today is the People Manager for the Center Camp Café Coffee Shop.

Barrista at the Center Camp Cafe (Photo by Jim Collum)

Barrista at the Center Camp Cafe (Photo by Jim Collum)

She has brought it into the 21st century — no more scraps of paper with a few names on it and high hopes of volunteers actually showing up. Volunteers can now schedule shifts long before the gate opens from the comfort of their default home.

She has kept some of the “old school” intact with the walk-up volunteer booth for those Burners that want to keep their volunteering spontaneous.

Look at Us Now

The Café has grown from stacked hay bales for seats (we know better now) with one lone espresso machine to a huge shade structure with six espresso machines and three coffee brewers.

We have grown and morphed over the years along with the population of our favorite city in the world. There is one thing, however, that has never changed about the Café — our culture of radical inclusion is nurtured year after year.

If you want to learn from scratch about what it means to work on playa, Center Camp Café is a great place to start. Trust me, I know.


(Top photo by Brad Templeton)

About the author: Kez Quin

Kez Quin is Assistant Manager for Café and Ice in Black Rock City. Kez arrived in BRC in 2009, became a Ranger in 2011, and started working for The Man in 2013. Now Kez plans to ride the BRC merry go round until they kick him off. He lives by the motto, “There is nothing I can’t do. Just things I haven’t done yet.”

16 Comments on “Caffeine and Crews: Getting Your Buzz on at the Center Camp Café

  • 6 says:

    I volunteered with the cafe my first year (2006) when a friend said, “I have a shift in the cafe, come with!” Blindly I followed. Since I had training on being a cashier (now know as a register jockey) I hopped on and away we went. The fun that ensued, the people I worked with and served did steal my heart. I volunteered every year for about 4 or 5 years straight…then thinking I needed a change I tried my hand at being a Greeter, since I love people. Then two years later, I thought, I miss the cafe, so I did two shifts, one with Greeters and the other in the cafe (which now turned into to three committed shifts – for cashiering). BOY did I miss the cafe. The original joy I had my first burn returned with a vengeance and my heart was full. This year I was asked to join the core crew, which is such and honor and expression for me, however, because of my theme camp responsibilities it can’t work out this year…maybe next, I hope. And although I can’t commit to three shifts this year, I’m sure I’ll sneak over for at least one. I must, as I have volunteered for the past 10 years in a row. Volunteering is such a valuable part of Burning Man that I think it should be REQUIRED for the virgins. In any event, the cafe will always have my heart! XO

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    • roissy says:

      “Volunteering is such a valuable part of Burning Man that I think it should be REQUIRED for the virgins.”

      I disagree, there is way too much to experience and see for the first timers to tied up with a shift…
      (besides I’d miss seeing the deer in the headlights expressions from the virgins…)

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  • P Segal says:

    Thanks for the wonderful testament to Rusty, Witchy, and the others who make the cafe rise and function so beautifully. Just one thing, however: the cafe started in 1995, a year I’ll never forget, because I started it with a $400 budget.

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    • Kez Quin says:

      Hey Miss P! Thanks for that! I asked around and there was some that said ’95 and a few more that said ’94. But, of course, I will take your word for it!

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  • Special Advisor says:

    what was the cafe in ’94 ?

    Monk bus ?

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  • Bull Bunny says:

    A proper, hand-crafted bucket of rocket fuel… The greatest luxury on playa since a cool shower. Center Camp is marvelous and the people working there will alway be in my heart because of all their hard work over the decades. Out in the suburbs of BRC you’ll find other outposts of caffeinated bliss including Bunny Breakfast Beverages. Since 2009, at several camps in the 7:30 sector the Bunnies have provided gourmet, high-octane wake-ups to all drowsy comers. Inspired by Center Camp, we will again appear this year in the Orphan Asylum Camp at 7:15 & Cosimo. See you bright and early.

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  • Kez Quin says:

    Original post edited – Cafe open in 1995

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  • Buena Chica says:

    ** The Center Camp Cafe IS THE HEART of the Burn……. many a Burner now involved in other teams, myself included, have started here at CCC… it all begins with CARPET DAY!!! It’s a great way to get connected with the history of the Burn… lots of old timers still build and serve the cafe. *SHOW UP ANY DAY at the Volunteer kiosk to pick up a shift or two!!! P.S. I don’t really drink coffee, I go for the art, the music, the great speakers presentations, the hippies and above all the camaraderie!

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  • Witchy says:

    Wow! I’m in some great company. ♡ I love MonkeyBoy and Rusty so much. And you, too, Kez. You might be a “new kid”, when measuring against decades, but you’re Cafe through & through, now! Bwah ha ha ha!

    A quick note is that I spent my first two years (2001 & 2002) volunteering behind the counter, as a register jockey and a runner, before I stepped into Volunteer Wrangling in 2003.

    If anybody reading would like to join us in our dusty & fun coffee shop, you can find out more information about participating here: http://burningman.org/event/volunteering/teams/center-camp-cafe/

    Or you can email the Coffee Shop Team at coffeeshop@burningman.org.

    We’re open 24/7 starting at 3pm on Sunday, August 28th and close at 3pm on Monday, September 5th. The shifts start at 7, 11, &3, both am & pm, are 4 hours long and you can volunteer for one shift or a few.

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  • Katy Tahja says:

    I wrote a story for the Anderson Valley Advertiser newspaper in CA after the burn last year called “Coffee for 70,000…” after talking to Kai Ocean. I am eternally impressed and in love with the people that make Center Camp happen. Thank You. Book Fairy

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  • GrumpyRealist says:

    I, too, can sing the praises, but for cryin’ out loud, get rid of the tip jars, or have the volunteers demand that all tips will go to Burners Without Borders or similar. I’ve known two volunteers whose motivation to work there is to make money, one coming back from a shift with $15. What other volunteers at BM have a tip jar? Do the 100’s who set up the Center Camp get a cash tip? What Burner would ever even consider giving cash to a Greeter? It would be like an insult.

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  • Caution Girl says:

    GrumpyRealist – anyone working with the dirty green stuff, filthy lucre, on Playa totally deserves to get tipped — in cash, in prezzies, in hugs. Years ago I was able to attend the Burn solely because I had long cafe shifts in exchange for a free ticket, and the copious tips paid my share of gas money. If you don’t wanna tip? Don’t tip. If you want to work barista/register without receiving cash? Give your cash to Burners Without Borders. Your choice. No need to impose it on everyone else.

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  • Alicia says:

    Maybe I am blind, but where is the link to sign up to do a few shifts in the cafe?

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  • Jae Wonka, aka the Madd Barista! says:

    This will be my 4th burn and 4th time volunteering at CCC as the Madd Barista, and I can honestly say that my experience each year would not be complete without dedicating a few shifts to the Order of the Holy Bean. Every Year, Post Burn I realize that the highlight of my trip was working side by side with the wildest bunch of caffeine-hopped-up-java-junkies slanging coffee left and right to the most amazing customers this side of the Milky WaY- AND I WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY. Much love and respect to all the hard working volunteers that show up dead tired morning noon and night to make sure you all are wide-eyed and bushy tailed<(sometimes literally, i've seen some magnificent tails…and wings and horns and lions and tigers and bears -oh my, oh hell this could go-on forever, i digress…) ready to help get your day jump started no-matter when you show up for your daily dose. Thank you Witchy, Java Goddess and the entire crew for making my burn experience a caffeinated awakening each year. And the beans flow on…..

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