Recap of the Coffee and Community Public Radio on Tap event at Chronicle Coffee
Last Thursday, the Young Friends of StL Public Radio came together at a coffeeshop on the North Side of St Louis. The event was the latest installment of Public Radio on Tap. Tonight’s topic – Coffee and Community. I arrived early, and was behind the counter when the Young Friends started piling in, ordering coffee and removing their scarfs. We started brewing pots of Guatemala and pulling shots of espresso as the room filled up. Zoe Scharf, an NPR representative, hosted the evening. She did a great job, keeping things light, to the point, and meaningful. Four men sat on the panel to speak about coffee and community – Mike Maquard of Blueprint, Mark Atwood of Comet, Scott Carey of Sump and Jason Wilson of Chronicle and Northwest.
Mike started off the evening in an easygoing manner, talking about his beginnings as a barista at Kaldis, and how he became more and more entrenched in the world of coffee. He spoke about a type of coffee experience that was then prevalent mainly in communities of baristas – attending cuppings, entering latte art competitions, and being invested in a high quality, unique drink. He said that with his new shop, Blueprint Coffee, he wants to make that level of coffee available to the public. He wants anyone to be able to come into his store – whether they know nothing about coffee, or a lot, and feel comfortable. Blueprint is located on the Delmar Loop, just west of Skinker.
Next to speak was Comet Coffee owner Mark Atwood, who began by letting us know that he has a fear of performance and public speaking, and that’s why he gave up his first life’s path, playing the cello. He then studied math and economics, became a fish monger at Schnucks, and ended up working at a Kaldi’s coffeebar, also in Schnucks. Mark explained that one of his reasons for opening Comet Coffee is his belief that coffee should be held to the same level as fine dining – that you should be able to make a career of it, and it should be respected as more than a type of “fast food” as it is now. This idea came up again and again in the evening. These men love coffee and believe in its worth, and seem to some extent disappointed and offended that the drinks dispensed in gas stations fall under the same title as their carefully crafted cupfuls. Comet Coffee, by the way, is off of Oakland, between Hampton and Kingshighway.
Scott Carey of Sump Coffee, in South City on Winnebago and Jefferson, introduced himself next. He stood, bringing his eloquent presence to its full force, and spoke of Hemingway’s story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The story focuses on an elderly gentleman, for whom a café is a place of respite and calmness and the waiter who doesn’t want to close the shop for the evening, because he wants to continue to provide this gentleman with such a place. Scott used the story to explain his motivation for opening Sump – to in some small way lift the weight of everyday life, if only for a moment. Later, he spoke about how stores and restaurants – like all represented – add worth to a city, and make the place, as he termed it, “sticky.” Saint Louis is not considered a primary market by outsiders, and locally owned, high quality establishments raise the quality of life and investment opportunities here. As an audience member thoughtfully pondered, coffeeshops like these make it harder to move away from St. Louis.
After Mike, Mark, and Scott, our very own Jason Wilson took the floor, telling the crowd about how he fell in love both with coffee and the gatherings it creates, while, improbably, in China. He was there for a trip while pursuing his MBA from Wash U, and began drinking coffee to fight jet lag. Then, as he sat with his peers, having meaningful conversations about globalization half a world away from home, Jason thought – we need this environment in the North Side of Saint Louis. He began to see that a coffeeshop can create a community center, and when he got back from China, Jason started the long process of opening Chronicle Coffee in the historic Blumeyer neighborhood. The shop is not big, but the beliefs and hopes it implies are huge. Jason sees Chronicle expanding the invisible but rigidly drawn lines of race and income level in Saint Louis, and he sees it creating a place for locals to have conversations about social engagement and civil discourse. He spoke about his acquisition of Northwest Coffee, and how the two brands have contributed to each other.
Zoe took the floor and opened the room to questions. The crowd shuffled slightly, ordered more coffee, found a new seat. The sound of the espresso grinder and the hiss of steaming milk flowed in and out of the conversation. The men at the front of the room responded to questions with passion, long stories, and an underlying belief in the unsurpassed excellence of their own product. Scott explained some of the hidden economics of coffee, in response to Mike speaking out against an NPR story saying that coffee prices should be dropping, and are currently too expensive. Mike explained that a $20 pound of coffee yields about 40 8oz cups, coming out to only $.50 if you brew it at home – there are stratifications of cost, he said. If you can’t afford a $5 pourover, buy beans and take them home. Mark points out that a Red Bull is $2.50. Then Scott took the mike and methodically explained the costs and losses from grower to cup.
If you buy specialty coffee at $5-$8 a pound, they tack on the “commodity cost” at the end of the day, adding another $1.50 or so to each pound. Then, after you get the green coffee, you roast it, and in the roasting process lose 10-15 percent mass. And let’s say it’s the first time you have bought this green coffee – it might take a couple of roasting batches to get the profile down. Okay, so you finally get a good roast, and you’re ready to serve your shot of espresso. Not all shots are servable, because Scott wants to serve the best coffee possible. After all that – he says a shot of espresso would cost him about $1.25. And you must realize that coffee has a shelf life. After roasting, it decreases in quality in a matter of weeks. After its brewed or a shot is pulled, it loses value instantaneously – in a matter of minutes. Additionally, this is before accounting for labor. And labor in coffeeshops is a sticky point. Mike said he wishes he could pay workers $10/hour. Scott spoke of the phenomenon that working with coffee is a skilled job, and those who are good at it get bored, and move to roasting, wholesale, or leave and open their own shop. He also mentioned that most of these people are men. More on that later. So no, buying specialty coffee every day is not cheap, and no one had an answer for how to cater to all income levels. They can stratify the offerings, but the truth is that, other than Chronicle, these shops are not concerned with that issue. They are concerned with serving the finest coffee, and elevating coffee to the level of wine or fine dining – worlds that unapologetically cater to one demographic.
So what do these shops have to do with community? Chronicle Coffee is rooted in community, intentionally placed in the city, and speaking out for social change. Scott argued for a clean, well lighted space, and for adding “stickiness” to a city. Mike argued, persuasively, that Blueprint rounds out the Delmar Loop. Most stores on Delmar are bars or restaurants, and the street comes alive at night. What is it like during the day? Blueprint is here to serve that community, and to complete the street, which has only one other local café, Meshuggahs. (It also has a Starbucks and a St. Louis Bread Co.) I unfortunately took terrible notes, and do not remember exactly what Mark (Comet Coffee) said about this topic, but I do have an incredible quote from him. He said he’s sick of hearing the word “trend” applied to coffee. It’s not a trend, he says, it’s a revolution. Carefully crafted, intentionally sourced coffee is here to stay, and Comet is an oasis in a world of gas station coffee, flavored coffee, coffee as fuel. Everyone wants to educate the city in coffee, they say, so they can stop chasing the same five hundred customers.
The panel ended with each owner sharing a story about a meaningful interaction with the community. A coffeeshop is possibly the only establishment that you can go to every single day without it being a cause for concern. It’s a place where regulars reign, trust is built, and community is created, whatever type of community it might be. But before this, each owner spoke about the benefits of roasting your own beans. Jason brought our roaster, Kitaro, to the stage, and Zoe commented on the similarities between his beard and Scott’s beard. An audience member joked, “How long does your beard have to be before you get to be a roaster?” To which Zoe replied, as an aside, “I guess that’s why there aren’t many women in coffee.” I wonder, in choosing a panel to speak about community, why NPR chose four men. Jason was the only one bringing diversity to the coffee panel, and was the only one actually working intentionally with the community at large, as opposed to the coffee community. I wonder why the female owner of Rise Coffee, Jessie Mueller, whose shop focuses on sustainability and bringing a much needed daytime destination to the Grove neighborhood, wasn’t asked to speak. While Rise does have a similar focus on quality, specialty coffee, there are also other cafes in town which focus on community outreach, though they might not have the same focus on coffee. Mokabe’s, in South Grand, passes out warm winter clothes and blankets to the homeless on cold winter nights. Mokabe’s is also super LGBT friendly, which enhances the community by providing a safe space for all. Another possibility would have been Foundation Grounds in Maplewood, who have a core focus on sustainability. Possibly, there were reasons I’m not aware of for choosing the panel, or possibly some owners were reached out to and declined.
In all, the evening was interesting, informative, and sparked discussions between attendees. The evening raised questions about the inclusivity or exclusivity of the coffee world. I have been to all the shops represented, except Sump (which I will go to soon, as I’ve heard really great things about their delicious coffee), and have no doubt that Mike, Mark, Scott and Jason will all continue to raise the bar and improve the city’s worth. The evening did, as promised, challenge and invigorate attendees, and helped lead us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the complex and fascinating world of coffee.