By Logan Knight
February 14, 2019 (San Diego’s East County) -- “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question virtually every American child is asked from the time he or she begins talking. They are continually asked this question until adulthood, when the question becomes, “What do you do for a living?”
As Americans, we tend to wrap our identities up into how we make a living. Many of us just work to pay the bills and to fund our extra-curricular activities, but when you meet a stranger at a cocktail party, they’ll typically ask you what you do for a living to get a sense of who you are. What do you do for fun rarely comes up, and if it does, it’s only because the line for the bathroom is taking too long.
On December 22nd last year, when the government began the longest shutdown in its history, all the major news networks ran stories on the financial hardships these workers would be facing. Just like everyone else, my immediate reaction was sympathy, to imagine myself in their position: to not know how I’m going to come up with rent or grocery money. I wondered how many people had to return gifts they had bought for loved ones for the Christmas holiday, just to afford another meal.
After a few days of news coverage, a second daunting question occurred to me: if this were me, and these shutdowns became a regular occurrence, could I afford to remain in this profession? And if not, how do you go about reinventing yourself beyond age 30?
I was able to mull it over in my mind for a day or two before the universe answered me through the Next Door app on my phone. A trending post was titled “Furloughed Government Worker.” I opened it up andfound that a resident of Mounr Helix named Charles Hixon, 44, a furloughed federal firefighter, had started up a small coffee roasting business from home. After a week of nothing but bad news about this shutdown, I felt that speaking to Mr. Hixon could be the success story and silver lining I was looking for. So I sent him a private message letting him know I wanted to hearmore about his experience as well as his budding coffee business, and he was quick to respond with a yes.
A few days later, I pulled up in front of his house on the southern side of Mt. Helix. As I approached the house, I see Hixon in the garage diligently working on his large coffee roaster; in the background, he has a pro skateboarder’s podcast playing. The garage itself was set up like a makeshift coffee lab, with shelves holding various tubs containing different types of coffee beans. Tools for roasting the coffee were arranged on a table and proudly displayed at the front of the garage was his large, showpiece coffee roaster, showing some signs of wear and tear from its 25 years of use, but still a sleek candy apple red.
Hixon greets me with a warm smile. He has the sturdy frame of a firefighter and sandy blonde hair. He shakes my hand and we exchange pleasantries, where he speaks in a very professional manner, but in the cadence you would expect from a surfer--everything you would hope for in a SoCal firefighter. During the small talk, I find out that he’s an Ohio native, and came to San Diego with the Navy. While working on submarines, he was a part of the crew responsible for responding to any fires that broke outaboard the ship, which got him his start in firefighting.
Hixon produces two folding chairs and offers me a seat and I gladly accept.
My first question is about San Diego County’s security during the shutdown and if we were in any danger of a major fire disaster with federal fire crews off duty. News reports indicated that controlled burns had been cancelled in Cleveland National Forest, his assigned area—the very same federal forest where the deadly 2003 Cedar Fire started.
He assures me that there is no threat to the county, and that this was the perfect time for the shutdown (in regards to fire safety), during what little wet season San Diego has. Despite being furloughed, each federal firefighter is still available to man his or herstation one day a week, so the response in case of an emergency would still be there.
Relieved, I’m ready get down to the brass tacks and find out how this shutdown affected him, in terms of his career goals moving forward, as well as the men and women he works with. Hixon’s first comments on the matter are that working for the government can be a challenging job in the first place, and while pretty much everyone he works with identifies as a firefighter first and foremost, the shutdown did have a few employment casualties within his department; mostly within the ranks of the newer crop of firefighters who hadn’t yet established themselves within the department. Of the senior people, there was only one firefighter that put in his two weeks notice as a result of being fed up with government uncertainty, but the rest of them, though fed up with government bickering as well, couldn’t leave behind who they are as firefighters.
As we’re talking, a three-legged Maltese mix dognamed Cinnamon wiggles out through the back door into the garage. She’s extremely friendly and comes right over to say hello. I mention that Cinnamon couldbe an outstanding marketing ploy for Hixon’s coffee brand, but he’s pretty set on naming the company Morning Briefing Coffee. He has far more experience with the brand than I do, so I respectfully concede.
As the shutdown was approaching, Hixon had coached some of the junior guys on how to weather the storm. Working for modern ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft was an option for people used to working long, odd hours. He also encouraged them to use their commercial licenses they had all acquired as firefighters to drive shuttles for the casinos and hotels, or other companies that hired drivers with commercial licenses. While some were able to take advantage, others weren’t willing to wait out the shutdown, and went and found themselves nine-to-five office jobs.
While some decided to move on and find new careers, Hixon explains that he had been doing this job long enough that it’s his identity. The guys that remained all shared the same “work to live” mindset that firefighting allowed them to have. His fellow firefighters all enjoy the job, but it’s the work schedule that allows them to pursue the big hobbies that keeps them around. Four days off-roading in the desert is hard to do when you’re behind a desk Monday through Friday. The shutdown didn’t turn Hixon off to who he currently was, but made him seriously start considering who he wanted to become.
In the beginning of the shutdown, he would be making his kids breakfast in the mornings in his pajamas, then remaining in his pajamas the rest of the day. As the government gridlock continued and it looked like he would be home for quite some time, he decided that he would need to start building himself a plan B. That’s when he remembered the giant coffee roaster in his garage that he had stored away.
It was a mild hobby he had picked up three years before while teaching fire courses up in a training center in San Bernardino. Another firefighter he worked with had two coffee shops he ran with his daughter and was making fresh roasted coffee for everyone in the mornings. Like people who passionately brew their own beer, he was able to create his own styles, which fellow firefighters couldn’t get enough of. Hixon became inspired to roast his own coffee, so he started small. He picked up a barrel roaster--a cylindrical, steel component that allowed him to load it with coffee beans and roast them on his barbeque. Over the summer, he started learning the tricks of the trade from his coffee roasting coworker, roasting a batch or two to take into work each week.When he started getting really good at it, his coworkers insisted on paying him for it.
I jokingly mention that firefighters are typically known for their pasta dinners and barbeques, while police famously have the doughnut and coffee realm. He chuckles, acknowledging the stereotype, but assures me that any job that requires you to be up and going at 3 a.m. is going to rely on coffee.
In the beginning, his hobby started off hot. Watching Youtube videos to hone his skills, he practiceddifferent techniques and talked with other aficionados about the craft. A year later, the coworker whointroduced him to coffee roasting decided to pursue new interests and passed the large, 25 year old coffee roaster on to Hixon. The spark of the new hobby carried on a little longer; then, as with most people and their hobbies, life got in the way and the hobby found its way to a shelf or a garage, and began to collect dust. There would be periods when Hixonwould take out the roaster to roast coffee for everyone down at the station, or for himself, but those times grew fewer and fewer. The responsibilities of his job, family duties and his other hobbies began to win out.
It was three years later, when the government shutdown would put federal workers’ jobs into question, that he had to consider what a new career path could look like. What new identity could he take on that would pay the bills but also make him happy? It was a few weeks into the shutdown when he remembered the old coffee roaster in his garage.
He pulled it out of its storage spot, dusted it off and fired up Youtube to remember how to even get the pilot light lit. Once it was fired up, ready to go, he began to relearn the art of creating his own coffee. He started acquiring different styles of beans, learning what types of climates and soils made for different flavors, and eventually hopes to travel to some coffee producing locales to create relationships with distributors to grow his own brand.
In one week of casually advertising to neighbors on the Next Door app, he sold 35 pounds. This early show of community support and success caused him to start thinking about coffee as a future for himself.We start discussing his business plan, and what he envisions for the future. His entire demeanor lights up;this clearly isn’t the first time he’s thought it through. In his future shop, he’s running a business side by side with his girlfriend. He sticks to the coffee, but he can’t emphasize enough how amazing she is at making pastries. Both of them are so dedicated to their own brands, each of them will have their own sign on the store front, side by side; neither one willing to give up their brand to merge with the other.
In a time arguably lacking the can-do spirit Americans used to be famous for, it’s refreshing to see someone so passionate about future business goals, creating something new and becoming something new.
With the government more tumultuous than its ever been in recent history and the looming deadline of another government shutdown on February 15th very possible, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are going to have to figure out for themselves if this is a cycle they can live with, or is it time to reinvent themselves into something new. Many of them will have no choice but to stick it out and stay in their current jobs, but others will choose to take that blind leap of recreating themselves after age 30. If this next shutdown happens, think for yourself what you might do in a similar position. In a time when life seems to be handing a lot of people a lot of lemons, would you wait and hope someone brings you lemonade, or would you brew coffee?