Barista Brian for [EDIT] Magazine, Volume 14

Barista Brian for [EDIT] Magazine, Volume 14

Barista Brian On How To Impress Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep

by Coreen Hildebrand 

Photographs: Deadline

Born in 1988 and raised in Devon, a neighbourhood of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Brian Leonard knew he was a legend in the making at an early age. He just didn’t know exactly what he was going to be a legend of … until he discovered a little something called latte art, and himself — in the process.

While creating beautiful images in latte froth, Brian has collaborated with clients like Warner Bros., Nespresso, LinkedIn, Lululemon, Urban Decay, Calii Love, Health Canada, Peace Collective, Second Cup and Kahlúa.

He grew up acting, dancing, singing and playing musical instruments. He played major roles in several musical productions at Leo Hayes High School and at Theatre New Brunswick. He studied voice in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and then audio engineering at what is now the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta.

Brian then struck out for the big smoke and saw his boyhood ambition of singing and performing in Toronto’s Entertainment District come true. Little did this Devon boy know that his day job, serving coffee as a barista, would be the catalyst that turned his world right-side up.

“Barista Brian” became a hashtag, an Instagram account and a company, and for five whirlwind years, he roamed the globe creating and hand-delivering latte art to celebrities and personalities like: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Nicole Kidman.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw Brian return home this spring for some downtime. He met up with [EDIT]’s Coreen Hildebrand at The Tipsy Muse Café in downtown Fredericton to reflect on his experiences and share his vision for the future.

[EDIT]: So, five years at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), four years at Sundance, three Oscars events, as well as the Junos, Canadian Screen Awards, Much Music Video Awards, celebrity galas, and features in People magazine, View the Vibe, In Touch Weekly, Foodism Toronto, Daily Hive Toronto, Real Style, Globe and Mail and Toronto Star. Quite the resumé!

BRIAN LEONARD: Yeah, it was five years ago that I did my first TV appearance as Barista Brian. It was Canada AM, and from there it kept going. I was on CBC the week after, and the next year the talk shows started rolling around: Cityline, Etalk and Marilyn Denis, There’s a million breakfast shows in Toronto, and I pretty much did all of those.

[EDIT]: What are the most memorable experiences?

BRIAN: Definitely Daniel Radcliffe. I loved Harry Potter and never thought I’d meet him. He was just so down-toearth, and then fast-forward to TIFF: he sees me through a crowd, reaches out his hand and says, “Oh my God, it’s you from Sundance!” So that was really cool. And definitely Hillary Clinton was big! I am still processing that one.

[EDIT]: And she called you a genius!

BRIAN: I know! I didn’t even know that happened. You have a schedule, but it’s always unpredictable. I’m like, “How much time do I have?” The publicists are like, “You have three minutes!” So I just finished it in time. Hillary came right up to me, and I was like, “Hello, Secretary Clinton, I made you this latte.” Then I blanked out. I don’t do that much, but it happened with her. What I did remember was someone said, “You have to take a picture with Brian,” and Hillary went, “Who’s Brian?” I realized I hadn’t introduced myself: “Oh, I am.” Then, on the plane, I see a video of her reaction: “Oh My God, you’re a genius!”

[EDIT]: And then there was the photo of Laura Dern with your Baby Yoda latte art.

BRIAN: The Laura Dern thing was a crazy experience because I had just flown in from Australia by way of Hong Kong to Toronto, a twenty-seven-hour flight. I had eight hours between when I arrived and when I had to get on a plane to New York. So I went home, switched suitcases, had a nap, went back to the airport. I had met Laura at an Oscars event a month earlier in L.A., and I had done Jurassic Park. I was thinking, “What am I going to make for her this time?” She had a moment with Baby Yoda at a basketball game the day before, so I made her a Baby Yoda! The photo went viral. I kept looking at my phone, and it was just going, going, going. It was totally bizarre!

[EDIT]: Do you often know which one is going to take off?

BRIAN: I’m always hopeful when I do something clever. I have a background in social-media marketing. Everything I do is premeditated. I try to have goals and targets and be smart and relevant.

[EDIT]: You have also made lattes for lots of stars.

BRIAN: It truly just goes on and on. You think how many actors go to a film festival. How many days do I do it? Four or five. How many films come through a day? Thirty to forty. I’ve met half of Hollywood at this point.

[EDIT]: I also noticed your Instagram used to begin with two quotes: “A genius!” by Meryl Streep, followed by “A legend in your own mind!” by...

BRIAN: My dad!

[EDIT]: I’m guessing your parents keep you grounded?

BRIAN: Definitely, they had five kids.

[EDIT]: And you’re the middle child!

BRIAN: Yes, clearly I needed attention. My dad has been saying that to me my whole life, so I just try to keep it light. I’ve had incredible experiences, definitely, but I’m really looking forward to the next five years. It’s the story of my life that has brought me here. I turned to my creativity, and I also knew whatever you’re going to do and put out there, you just have to do it. I started to make latte art, and people said, “That’s nice, but what are you going to do with it?” And I just ignored people’s questions because I was too busy doing it.

[EDIT]: What do your friends think of Barista Brian?

BRIAN: I think the bigger your world gets, the smaller it gets. You just learn who your real friends are. My friend, Amy, recently told me that one of her co-workers said she needs to meet me, so she can say she’s met a celebrity. And Amy said to me, “You’re not a celebrity!” You totally need people like that around.

[EDIT]: Tell me about the Blue Jays logo you re-created.

BRIAN: Someone from their marketing team came in, so I made a Blue Jays latte. He posted it on Instagram, and it was their most liked post within eleven hours. It was my first big viral one. Then soon after that I did View the Vibe, and they did an article, “Meet Toronto’s Best Latte Artist, #BaristaBrian.”

[EDIT]: Was this the beginning of Barista Brian?

BRIAN: It was the beginning of the hashtag. I think about that moment a lot. That changed my life forever. And then people told me, “You need to make your own Barista Brian Instagram account.” So I just did it. I really put in a lot of effort early on building community and looking up hashtags, finding other creators — latte artists, other people who like that content — and engaging and building. I did that every single day.

[EDIT]: I totally get that. It’s what I do with my Maritimes Maven travel blog and social-media platforms. It is hard work and many hours.

BRIAN: And there’s nothing you can really do to avoid it if you want to build and get there.

[EDIT]: You also had a pedal-powered espresso-and latte-making trike.

BRIAN: I saw that a café named Tokyo Smoke was liking all my photos, so I introduced myself. They had this trike that had been custom-made overseas. I just looked at it, and “That’s what I want to do!” I rode this 550-pound machine around Toronto for a summer, rain or shine. I would pedal and make latte art and use the crank for eleven hours a day. I’ve never been in such great shape, and my legs never looked better. And sometimes you’d have to hop off of it and push it up the hill. It was an absolute joy, a special memory. I’ve made latte art in such extreme environments that I’m unfazed by where I’m doing it: I’ve done it on an island, in the rain while I’m biking, and with the Secret Service looking over my shoulder. 

[EDIT]: How do you capture the essence of people so quickly?

BRIAN: The window was even shorter when I started working as a barista: people don’t have patience for coffee. I treated every time I got an order for a latte like an opportunity to at least make something, anything. And I think it’s just maybe natural that I can draw: you hear the music or you don’t. I like to engage people. I think that helps me to build an impression. The connection is there; then you take physical cues.

[EDIT]: The Canadian goose in flight is exquisite.

BRIAN: I love that one. It was really well received, and it made me very joyful. I realized that I can do whatever I want. This is my life, my art, and that’s kind of my motto.

[EDIT]: The koala you created, encouraging people to donate to the Australian Red Cross, pulled at my heartstrings.

BRIAN: Thank you. I was there when the sky was smoky, and it smelled like wood was burning all around you.

[EDIT]: I have noticed you often use your platform to draw attention to worthy causes. Does having a captive audience propel you to use your voice for good in this way, or are you simply expressing yourself, speaking your truth?

BRIAN: I definitely feel the weight of the world sometimes, like a lot of people do now. I also think I have a sense of my voice. If you have any attention coming at you, in the way that I do, it’s like, “What can I do to help?” If people donated to the Australian Red Cross, pulled at my heartstrings.

BRIAN: Thank you. I was there when the sky was smoky, and it smelled like wood was burning all around you.

[EDIT]: I have noticed you often use your platform to draw attention to worthy causes. Does having a captive audience propel you to use your voice for good in this way, or are you simply expressing yourself, speaking your truth?

BRIAN: I definitely feel the weight of the world sometimes, like a lot of people do now. I also think I have a sense of my voice. If you have any attention coming at you, in the way that I do, it’s like, “What can I do to help?” If people donated to the Australian Red Cross, amazing. If they didn’t, at least it raised awareness about the issue and hopefully led to conversation.

[EDIT]: It was lovely to see you when you did an event in a small café in Fredericton for the Out of the Cold homeless shelter.

BRIAN: I went from there to Sundance. It keeps things in perspective. If I can use my platform, voice and talent to help other people, I don’t know why I wouldn’t. A friend of mine, is dealing with addiction and mental health and is on the streets of Fredericton. You think, “How did this happen to someone I know?” I’m going to speak up to raise awareness. There were times where I didn’t know if I was going to have a place to live. So, anything I have, I want to share and give back, especially around here.

[EDIT]: Does it remain a pursuit of happiness for you, Brian?

BRIAN: I have this quote that was written in my high-school journal: “Shared joy is double joy, and shared sorrow is half sorrow.” I never forget that. I share my joy with someone, and they share their joy with me, and it’s like staying in that joy space. Now, it’s my livelihood. You wouldn’t believe the pressures, cameras, sponsors, execs, PR. If it doesn’t make me happy, then it’s not serving me. But I think no matter what, it’s going to be okay.

[EDIT]: What have you discovered about yourself through this journey so far?

BRIAN: Do I see myself drawing in milk forever? Absolutely not! But what have I learned from it? That I’m an artist. That I can be a business owner. That I’m a marketing frigging genius. But it’s not like this just happened to me. I happened to this — through hard work, good sense, strategy, using all the skills I’ve learned and believing in myself. I have a great sense of others, and how they could market themselves and how they could turn that switch on. What I see mostly is how people can’t get through the chaos quite yet, so it’s trying to pull them out of it.

[EDIT]: You could lead a think tank for small-business creatives and entrepreneurs.

BRIAN: Self-industry. I love stuff like that. It’s a little tricky right now, but I am hoping to let my grip go a little bit. I’ve had people come in and out and say, “I’m going to be your manager,” but I just know that remaining in control of my business, livelihood and art is what has saved me from catastrophe and collapse and disaster. I’ve learned a lot about reading the fine print.

[EDIT]: You once expressed a desire to open your own café.

BRIAN: It’s logical, I guess. I am still in the process of visualizing, manifesting. Everything I thought I knew kinda went out the window with COVID-19. I had to completely rethink how I work and how I can continue to interact with the world through my latte art. Turns out this has all been the pursuit of happiness. If it works out I’d love a café in the future. Stay tuned.

[EDIT]: And coming back here to do this next project is...?

BRIAN: I don’t know what’s next, but the Maritimes brought me up, and a good reason for my success is my Maritime sensibility. I take that with me wherever I go. Being here this year has been good for me so far. I’ve had a lot of time to think and reflect on what it is I really want. I was moving at such a fast pace the last five years, when everything stopped in March I was able to take a breath and reflect and refocus. Happiness and healing are my next big projects. But I have acquired a studio space in Fredericton that I love, and I’m excited to see what creative projects and passions come out of that.

[EDIT]: What advice would Barista Brian give his much younger self?

BRIAN: Just trust yourself. Trust your instincts, and you’ll find your tribe. You’ll find your way, and it’s going to be a hell of a story, so just keep going!

[EDIT]: What would young Brian Leonard think of Barista Brian?

BRIAN: I wouldn’t believe it. I think. If I saw the space that I have, I would be like, “I’m going to do musicals here every day!” or I think I’d be totally shocked and super proud. I would just be so excited to get there. It will be hard, a lot of the time, but it’s going to be awesome.

So, this is Barista Brian — just a boy, in front of a latte, asking what you would like him to create for you. And stay tuned, folks, he’s only just begun. Not bad for a Devon boy.

Barista Brian & Brian Leonard
Instagram: @baristabrian #BaristaBrian

Coreen Hildebrand & Maritimes Maven Instagram/Facebook/Pinterest/Twitter @coreenhildebrand & @maritimesmaven

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