By: Diane Stirling

These days, when he brews, he blogs.

A couple of times a week this semester, Stephen Rhinehart, a graduate student at the School of Information Studies (iSchool), packs a suitcase full of coffee beans, latte cups, brewing equipment, containers of milk and water, then “takes coffee to the people.”

His “Counter Talk Project” combines his skills from a past job as a barista, his ongoing passion for great coffee, and his current interest in creating content and connecting like-minded audiences through social media. The effort fulfills several levels of personal, educational, professional goals. 

“I’m very into coffee,” Steve confesses. “It is the biggest hook I tend to take part in with communities online.” 

Steve began Counter Talk as a way to improve his presentation skills as he aims for the 2013 version of the #140cuse Conference. When he first auditioned for a presenter’s spot at this year’s social media event conference, he found that he “didn’t have a story,” he recounts. His professor encouraged Steve to consider how he might try to leverage his coffee interest and brewing skills to create a compelling element – a uniqueness that would help him stand out from the competition. That is how Steve’s idea, which he named “The Counter Talk Project,” took form.

How does a Counter Talk coffee session get started? First, Steve announces he is ready to brew and invites people to take up his offer for coffee. When guests arrive, and the coffee starts brewing, conversations start to flow. Steve engages visitors in casual talk about what he is doing and what he likes and knows about coffee. That in turn typically results in interesting conversations back from the visitors’ perspectives.

A friendly and unpretentious young man from Manlius, NY, Steve is forthright about why he has decided to go “on location” to meet people and start these chats. There is no ulterior motive. He doesn’t charge for the coffee. His only rule is that those who enjoy his courtesy must also “bring something of value” to the exchange, in the form of talk about their own interests and passions, Steve says.  Within that setting, he aims to meet people, create a comfortable environment, engage them socially in a meaningful way, find out more about them, and then have others share their interests and comments with him. The people he meets, the interesting topics they share, and the social engagements that occur provide Steve with new material to blog about, and then he puts the essence of those interactions online.

“There is only one rule,” Steve says. “I bring the coffee, you bring something of value, something personal, relatable, something that’s important to you. It is a social exchange,” he relates. “I do want to spread awareness about specialty coffee, too,” laughs Steve, admitting, “I can keep talking about coffee all day.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology in graphic design, Steve found he had graduated into an economy where not many jobs were available. He decided to matriculate at the iSchool, thinking that a master’s degree in the information field would help make him more marketable in the future, he said.

While meeting new people through a familiar social norm that people the world over have engaged in for centuries, Steve’s “coffee talks” are also helping him build a professional network. He hopes to generate high enough interest in his communication and social media skills to gain a good internship this summer. Beyond that, he also is working to build credibility in the social media community, another element necessary for further career steps, he said. Ultimately, Steve (who goes by the twitter handle of @cusebarista), hopes the results of his blog and his innovative idea for community engagement will showcase his abilities well enough to help him land a good job after graduate school.

In the meantime, Steve further hopes to distinguish himself and sharpen his skills by entering the 140challenge, an iSchool student competition where the prize is a presenter’s spot in the industry-noted 140conf NYC this June. Vying against four contemporaries for the chance to speak at the distinguished New York City social media event, Steve spoke about his brew-and-blog project at the iCafe on February 17.

If you’d like to be part of the Counter Talk Project, feel like sharing some ideas, are willing to talk about your interest while spending a little time over a free cup of personally-brewed specialty coffee, get in touch.

Or, look around campus for an otherwise unassuming young man with a friendly smile, likely wearing one of his many coffee-themed shirts, and toting a big, bulky  suitcase behind him.

That would be @cusebarista, the guy with the big idea, the brewing machine and the blog.

You can see Steve’s blog at:
Read more about him:
Follow him on Twitter:  @CuseBarista
Get in touch to request a Counter Talk appearance through e-mail: