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The State of Things in Coffee Shop America
Inflation and viruses; gender and race hysteria; tradition and Main Street revival; America's coffee shops are a microcosm of a country in flux.
In July at Allen & Company’s annual Sun Valley conference — “billionaire summer camp” — Warren Buffett’s wife Astrid was overheard complaining about the price of a $4 cup of coffee. And who could blame her?
We are all Astrid.
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What’s more: the $4 cup she ordered was the cheapest item on the menu at Konditorei in the posh ski town. Buffett remarked, allegedly, that she could buy a pound of coffee for that price.
On a fifty year basis, the worldwide price of coffee is actually flat. In late 2019, it was just under a dollar a pound. Over the course of the pandemic, the price nearly tripled. And that’s before you count baristas spinning the iPad around for a tip.
Inflation isn’t the only story in what I call Coffee Shop America. Far from it. In fact all the trends in our country — whether trial or triumph — can be found in Coffee Shop America.
Coffee Shop America is alternatively thriving and/or in deep shit. Same as America America. The size of the coffee shop market has declined 25%. In 2020, nearly 10% of U.S. coffee shops closed their doors. Cities have struggled with crime and homelessness. Owners have faced other, more unique challenges. To our north, an anti-capitalist “pay what you can” coffee shop went bust in Toronto. Shocker.
The people of Coffee Shop America haven’t had the best run, either. High interest rates have crushed the “creative class” pseudo-work that usually takes place in a coffee shop. Can Coffee Shop America survive without a steady supply of urban laptop jobs? We’ll see.
I care about Coffee Shop America, and I hope you do, too.
Over the last decade, we have learned a startling truth about coffee.
You guessed it: coffee, like everything else, is racist. It’s white supremacy, even.
The racist coffee saga really began when in 2015 Starbucks launched its ill-fated “Race Together” campaign. The idea was for baristas to write “Race Together” on a customer’s cup as a cue to begin a conversation about race in America. It did not go over well with the online crowd, who aren’t interested in conversation.
Other Americans suspected, rightly so, that a race “conversation” was now impossible. A race lecture? Sure. A race haranguing? Definitely. But conversation?
Howard Schultz ended his second stint as CEO just months after Barack Obama left the presidency. If 2015 and the O.G. BLM movement represented the death of race idealism in America — the lost hope of 2008 — then the Trump presidency was when the country started stomping on its grave.
In 2018, Americans’ suspicions about “race conversation” were vindicated when protesters stormed a Philadelphia Starbucks and began a conversation on race in America with a barista… by putting a megaphone in his face.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s iconic photograph says it all.
The protesters were outraged over the arrest of two black men who were sitting in the store earlier that week. They didn’t purchase anything, wanted to use the bathroom, were refused, and eventually asked to leave.
The manager called the police. Then the hysteria and lies began, including from the new Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson, who said the employees had racially profiled and discriminated against the men. He issued a groveling apology, promising to “do better.”
But what Starbucks actually did was begin punishing white employees. A white regional manager in New Jersey was ordered by company brass to fire a white district manager who had nothing to do with the arrests — on false pretenses.
Those pretenses: pay discrepancies between white and black employees. The regional manager, Shannon Phillips, knew these charges against the district manager to be false. She cried foul and accused the company of using the white district manager as a scapegoat. A month later, she was fired herself.
Phillips sued Starbucks, claiming that she was fired for being white. In June, she won over $25 million in punitive damages against Starbucks. A federal jury in New Jersey agreed with her claim that in response to the 2018 incident, Starbucks began discriminating against white employees to appease angry protesters.
No Starbucks executive has apologized to her — and don’t count on it.
On February 28, 2020, Kate Egghart and Sonam Parikh opened a coffee shop in West Philadelphia called “Mina’s World.” Not two weeks later, the city shut down on orders of public health officials.
Mina’s World was short-lived as an institution. The ill-timed opening didn’t help, to be sure. But the cafe persisted through two years of the pandemic with financial help from Egghart’s mother, who had purchased the building.
Mina’s World was destroyed by its employees. Once the lockdown began, the shop existed only as a pickup window. Employees demanded that customers wear masks at all times at the outdoor window. In late May 2022, the shop said, “until our entire team agrees to a different protocol, that is what we stand by.”
A month later, Mina’s World closed. Because at the same time the shop was arguing with Philly residents about its mask policy on Instagram, its four employees were conducting what can only be called a Maoist revolt against their employer. Or, to use their term, a “radical accountability process.”
Egghart identifies as a transgender woman. Parikh identifies as queer. Both identify as people of color. Each of their four employees were trans and/or black. With the help of a Philadelphia NGO, the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, the employees put their employers through hell.
“We are facing systemic employer opposition, manipulation, abuse of power, exploitation, anti-blackness, ableism, hostility and complete disregard for our livelihoods,” they said. The “List of Grievances” published by the workers — don’t we all have one? — was extremely vague, with such claims as:
“Anti-blackness in a multitude of forms & occasions”
“Tokenization as a way to appear safe by association
“Ableism in the form of inaccessibility, etc etc”
One alleged instance of anti-blackness was that when a group of black teenagers stole the Mina’s World tip jar and customers ran after them to retrieve it, the owners didn’t defend… the thieves. Without a hint of irony, the employees also accused the owners of “wage theft.”
The radical accountability process came to an end in June 2022, when Egghart and Parikh agreed to the employee demands, including to turn Mina’s World into a co-operative that the employees would own as reparation.
There was just one problem: Egghart’s mother, a Korean immigrant and successful accountant, and the owner of the building. She was having none of it and refused to subject herself to the struggle session. She put the building up for sale.
The workers then started a GoFundMe to raise money to buy the building and the mother’s share of the business. After raising $10,000 — their goal was $200,000 — the campaign shut down. They said they would keep the money for themselves.
And that was it for Mina’s World — West Philadelphia’s caffeinated haven for queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) destroyed by a dedicated clique of… QTPOC.
San Francisco refuses to arrest criminals. San Francisco refuses to get the homeless off the street. It makes the coffee business difficult — because if you think a $4 coffee is theft, you haven’t seen what owners go through here.
The list of closed San Francisco businesses is an ever-growing document. In June, a beloved coffee shop called HRD Coffee in SoMa (South of Market) closed. It has been in San Francisco since the 1950s. Guy Fieri visited in 2010.
Again, the pandemic didn’t help. But neither did the city. The owner says he was refused permission to create a parklet for outdoor dining. The office-working lunchtime crowd disappeared in 2020 and never returned.
The owner said it better than I can show it: “I would love to remain in San Francisco as a business. But the question is, would any sane person?"
On a nearby street in SoMa, the Bay Area’s own Blue Bottle Coffee shut down its second oldest location in the city. Whole Foods — another favorite in the Bay Area — closed its massive Market St. location after just a year being open.
Most Starbucks cafes in the City by the Bay have done away with chairs. Starbucks can’t admit the cause of this outright (for political reasons) but everyone knows why: chairs in the cafe are an invitation for drug-addicted homeless people to indefinitely occupy the space. The same is true with bathrooms.
It’s not just San Francisco. In Portland, Oregon — at the heart of the indy coffee movement — Coava Coffee Roasters shut down in May, citing criminal violence against employees.
“The team members at this cafe have been on the front line enduring extreme violence and criminal activity on an almost daily basis for the last few years– crime and violence that is only increasing in frequency and severity,” wrote the owners.
It’s a big question for our country: can the United States make coffee shops safe for coffee? Do we even want to?
Ask business owners in San Francisco or Portland what they want and you’ll get a nearly unanimous answer: police, police, police. Nearly.
In May 2023, a trans-owned SF coffee shop in the Tenderloin left its lease after a disagreement with a small-business incubator — over whether they ought to serve coffee to police.
The Fluid Cooperative is a San Francisco coffee shop created, in the words of its three transgender founders, “to support and amplify transgender and queer voices in coffee.” On its street block in the Tenderloin, the epicenter of San Francisco’s drug epidemic and the nation’s first transgender historical district, dozens of fatal overdoses have occurred every year.
Fluid’s motto, A Gathering Place For All, had just one exception: the police who serve in its troubled neighborhood.
The owners of Fluid have tried to crowdfund $500,000 to buy a new space, saying, “Imagine having trans people own space in the Tenderloin.” It hasn’t gone well, with just $16,000 contributed, which they say will go to "ensuring a living wage for three POC transgender San Franciscans."
Howard Schultz has learned his lesson. And he’s lost his patience.
In March 2023, after the end of his third tour as Starbucks CEO — whether it’s his final tour remains to be seen — Schultz appeared before a Senate committee chaired by America’s favorite democratic socialist: Bernie Sanders.
Sanders called the hearing in response to a nationwide unionization drive at Starbucks. The inference? That Starbucks is an evil, union-busting, exploitative employer. Sen. Sanders snidely cited the federal perjury statute — 18 U.S.C § 1621 — before asking his questions of Schultz.
Schultz, once considered a possible Democratic candidate for President, wasn’t entertained. Like other executives once beloved by the left, he decided to stop playing nice. Schultz was indignant, complaining to the Vermont Senator about his repeated use of the word “billionaire.”
“I grew up in federally subsidized housing. My parents never owned a home. I came from nothing. I thought my entire life was based on the achievement of the American Dream. Yes, I have billions of dollars. I earned it. No one gave it to me. And I’ve shared it constantly with the people of Starbucks.”
The Democrats on the committee missed the irony of their hearing, but I didn’t.
The Congress, after instituting policies that resulted in the closure of over 100,000 American restaurants and nearly 10% of American coffee shops in 2020, spent an entire day of hearings haranguing the former chief executive of the one coffee company that was doing well — including, it should be noted, for its employees.
Starbucks employees working 20 hours or more per week get a company-sponsored 401k match, 100% tuition coverage for Arizona State University’s online bachelor degree programs, paid leave, discounted company stock and stock options, parental leave — oh, and free Spotify.
In other words it’s basically a labor camp. So, with cold-cream soot on their faces and coffee grounds in their lungs, the unionization movement began. And Bernie Sanders was there to back them up.
Meanwhile, the men and women trying their best to run small businesses amid a massive, government-mandated shutdown never got a hearing. The coffee shops that closed never got a hearing. And nobody on that committee who thought to interrogate Schultz has reflected for a second that maybe it was their policies that has cemented Starbucks’ position in the market more strongly than ever.
Long live the cafécito. That’s the feeling in Miami, where the third-wave coffee shops of California have not fared well.
Blue Bottle closed its two stores after expanding from the West Coast to South Florida some years back. Why?
South Florida — let’s call it North Cuba actually — has a beloved local coffee tradition. Cafe Bustelo and other Cuban-style grounds dominate. Cuban espresso sweetened with brown sugar on the beach is simply too good to give up. Chic San Francisco modernism — time is money — doesn’t fly in a town where time is money in a different way.
San Francisco says maximize your time. Miami says enjoy your time.
In Cajun Country it’s much the same. New Orleans has soul, and at its heart is Café du Monde. Just across from Jackson Square and the city’s iconic St. Louis cathedral, Café du Monde has been serving up coffee and beignets for decades. Like Cuban culture, the Cajun spirit hasn’t yet surrendered itself to private-equity-financed “fair trade” coffee chains.
If you haven’t had real New Orleans-style coffee, brewed from a blend of roasted coffee and chicory, you are missing out.
For me, it is an inspiring fact that it’s difficult to run a successful coffee business based on a fundamental hatred of the world and hatred of other people — even if that hatred is spun as a form of love, tolerance, or virtue (as it almost always is).
But a coffee house based on people — real people, not some absurd and divisive identity category — might just make it. A coffee house that embraces American regional culture is possible.
America complains about paying $4, but the truth is that we want to want to pay $4. We want coffee shops so good that when the barista spins the iPad around we joyously tap the tip button instead of wondering what the hell we’re paying for. We want leather chairs and Persian carpets, not pickup windows and mobile apps and masks and mandates.
And we can have it — America loves an underdog. America loves a comeback story. There’s one in Iowa not far from where I grew up and have a small farm.
Bard Station Coffee House sits in an old brick building in the middle of Columbus Junction, Iowa. It’s a small town along the Iowa River, just before it feeds into the mighty Mississippi. Columbus Junction’s population has barely moved in 25 years — about 1800. The only major employer is Tyson Foods, which operates a pork processing plant up the road. My advice is to plug your nose when you see it.
Allie Todd, the owner of Bard Station, restored the interior of the building, which was a livestock feed shop for nearly a century. The old “Weber & Huston” signage still graces the facade. Inside, the chairs and tables are nearly that old; they are restored antiques from nearby Washington, Iowa. The hardwood floors are original.
I first went to the coffee house to pick up some pork I had bought from Allie’s husband, Kenan. He raises Mangalitsa pigs, a Hungarian heritage breed, with his brother. They don’t have a storefront for Acorn Bluff Farms — yet. You can order online, though.
In a state where pigs outnumber people by a factor of seven and a country where just two chains — Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts — are two thirds of the coffee shops, the Todds are David fighting against Goliath. But business is good. There isn’t the whiff of politics or absurdity; kids from town sit by the window and giggle; high school kids with the summer off staff the espresso machine. The Todds hope to be able to run their pork and coffee businesses full time.
Bard Station is a beautiful story of main street revival — in this case literally: the coffee house windows look out on Main Street. Downtown Columbus Junction has seen better times. But today, thanks to the work of spirited locals like them, better times are in sight.
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