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Coffee For 70,000—Burning Man 2015

Every year at Burning Man I’m enthralled by the music and art but fascinated by the nuts and bolts of what it takes to keep a city of 70,000 functioning. Take coffee consumption…

The organizers of Burning Man sell only two items at the event…ice and coffee. Neither are sold at prices to make a profit, rather they are priced to cover cost. So I set off across the playa to find the man in charge of coffee.

Kai Ocean gave me an hour of his time on an extremely busy dusty day to share his expertise. I asked him his background education that provided him with the expertise to pull off coffee service that would put Starbucks to shame.

A 16-year veteran of Burning Man he started out as a volunteer. The Center Camp Café uses 2,000 volunteers on four-hour shifts running cash registers, making drinks and working as shift supervisors. (How would you like to coordinate that schedule?) Kai worked his way up through levels of responsibility and became interested in logistics and operation. Of French and Native American heritage he is a European University graduate who hoped to be a professional soccer player until injuries sidelined him. Following diverse life paths he’s involved in management of eco-hotels, organic restaurants, event planning, youth empowerment activities, and running Center Camp Café.

This Burner supervisor learned that the skills volunteers acquire there can lead to jobs in the outside world and he is always pleased to see Burners working as barristas or opening coffee shops with skills first learned on the playa. He tries making work in the café fun. He asks for help, not demands it. He sees volunteer massage therapists are available to work out the kinks in your neck after a shift. Every hour a mandatory break occurs of three minutes, where volunteers and people in line dance energetically to relieve tension and have fun. He believes in community and Center Camp workers are a huge community at the Burn. He’s non-judgmental and tries for a stress free environment for volunteers.

Can you tell I was as impressed as hell with this young man and what he was accomplishing? Darned right! I don’t know about other managers in other areas of Burning Man organization but Kai Ocean was on it. Perhaps he’s just a young blood full of energy but if he’s reflective of how these people work together to set up a party for 70,000 people he’s a credit to their organization. He had me ready to volunteer…and I’m an old lady…

There are 10 coffee stations in Center Camp Café and one wrangler at the head of a long line directing people to available workers. Next to registers there are tip jars awash in donations. This provides Kai Ocean with some interesting challenges. After every shift the tip money is divided among the workers. While some volunteers take their share and apply it towards their expenses other volunteers don’t want their tip money. So what do you do with unclaimed tip money to foster a sense of community? He helped develop three funds to distribute that newly found cash. Burners Without Borders gets some, a portion is redistributed to folks who work in the middle of the night when tip money is scarce, and some goes toward “swag,” embroidered patches and stickers to decorate possessions and clothing and possessions.

While an operation like Center Camp Café tries to do good financial accounting Kai Ocean says the new concept of “Play it Forward” is challenging their register sale routines. If a person pays for their drink, leaves the change, and tells you to “Play it Forward” the next guy in line does not have to pay as much…but he already has his money out so he too says “Play it Forward”…This can go on for ten sales transactions at a register and complicate bookkeeping but everything just keeps going on with smiles…

And those coffee statistics? Let’s start with 2,000 volunteers serving 50,000 drinks in a café open 24/7. There’s coffee, tea, hot cocoa, chai and lemonade (if memory serves…) with cream, milk, soy milk, almond milk, and a variety of sweeteners. Three thousand pounds of coffee are brewed and the grounds are taken away to be composted. 7,500 gallons of water is used and the café water supply is available for emergency use in Center Camp in a holding tank if needed. Milk use is over 750 gallons. Ice trucks 42’ long arrive daily.

All this activity takes place in the largest free standing tensile shade structure ON EARTH. The U.S. military sends observers to Burning Man to look at how you establish a city in an inhospitable environment. The tent is 2/3 the size of a football field, about 6/10 of an acre and consists of two concentric wooden circles secured by high tension wires to the playa and it is capable of withstanding 120 m.p.h. winds

There are stages for interactive art, music, dance, poetry, comedy and theatrical productions. The place is also jokingly referred to as  Black Rock City’s homeless shelter. Many Burners arrive for a week with a backpack and a sleeping bag and the idea that “the playa will provide…” Center Camp always has sleeping revelers tucked into protected nooks and crannies catching a few hours sleep.

Coffee is provided free to three groups in Burning Man…the Black Rock Rangers (volunteers who provide Black Rock City’s form of law enforcement), medics, and Bureau of Land Management folks (think real cops). Kai Ocean says many good meaningful conversations have started between Burners and these folks over a cup of coffee. I’d love to know how the BLM guys explain to the folks back home about the Facebook photo of them with three half naked female Burners hugging them.

Center Camp gave me my single best moment of fun this year. The Playa Pops is about 50 professional and not so professional symphony musicians who drag their instruments out on the playa and play real music for us. Their presentations this year included everything from Vivaldi to Lady Gaga but their encore won the hearts of the crowd. Hundreds of kazoos were thrown into the audience. Folks, you have not lived until you have played the chorus to “Ode to Joy” humming with hundreds of Burners. IMHO we sounded pretty darned good, for no rehearsals, and we were laughing with delight at the last hum.

Other noteworthy art projects included a Middle Ages design trebuchet (like a catapult) launching flaming pianos through the air (with firefighting equipment waiting at the crash site) and an instillation I loved called “Firmament” designed with a canopy woven with 21,000 L.E.D. lights. At 52’ in diameter and 15’off the ground it always had 100 people laying flat on their backs under it. Why? It responded to any and all kinds of music and responded with washes of color over the canopy. I’m not a techie and have no idea how it worked but it was captivating to watch.

This year at Burning Man wind and white-outs of playa dust were a challenge but there was always laughter. Someone brought a large radio controlled toy pickup truck, a bowl of guacamole and a bag of chips. You’d be standing talking and this truck would drive up to your feet. People leaned over, got a chip, took some dip, and the little truck would race along to the next people. Burners would wander around saying “Who’s seen the GuacamoleMobile?”

Opportunities abounded to enhance your knowledge of the default world outside the Black Rock Playa. Paul Stamets was offering a “Mushrooms as Allies for Survival” workshop and a geologist was speaking on “Playa Dust-What’s in it?” Off course if I attended those I’d miss a fire spinning competition and an ecstatic shaking workshop. Decisions…Decisions…

I left Burning Man taking a shortcut back to California across the Smoke Creek Desert from Gerlach west to Susanville. After a week of packed humanity I saw one car in 65 miles of gravel road and two hours driving. I had a wild horse herd run along side me and saw a spectacular sunset on the high desert. It was a great end to the Burn.

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