The future of coffee in Baltimore could look pretty black, and here’s why that’s exciting.
When I got into coffee, it wasn’t because I wasn’t sure what else to do with my life. Working in coffee was a deliberate and calculated decision made with the future in mind.
Being a black male co-founder, majority partner and CEO of a growing coffee company is special to me. In a way, I feel it completes a historic journey from seed to service in a way that works to heal the tremendous divide started many years ago. No longer is coffee grown and processed by people of color and served to a majority white culture for the profit of a majority white culture but this healing has many challenges ahead.
After my first barista competition win, I was asked by a fellow barista if I would ask some of my other friends of color to start working in the cafe industry. I explained that many of my friends of color started with nothing and have worked hard and were now Marine Corps officers, pastors, doctors, and lawyers and probably wouldn’t give up those career opportunities to take a minimum wage job again without a clear path of growth. Not many dream of growing up, working very hard, getting educated, exploring the world and being a barista for the rest of their life. Well, maybe not them, but my plan is a little bit different.
I started drinking coffee with regularity in college, continued the habit through my time in the Marines and ultimately solidified the pattern when I decided to open a coffee shop of my own one day after finding new ways to love people during my time as a pastor. I saw the entire coffee industry ripe with opportunity as a business venture if only certain stigma could be overcome and innovated. The best way to do that was from the inside. I found several factors, racial disparity included, that create obstacles for the industry, but that wasn’t all. I found that many, perhaps even most, who work in coffee were doing so during a transitional moment in their life. Some were fresh out of high school, some beyond that, but had a dream to do something else but needed the income to survive, treating the cafe as a mere “job” not a place for legitimate focus and investigation.
I got my first coffee job after 8 years in the USMC, 3 years in private security, 6.5 years as clergy, a bachelor’s degree, and 2 master’s degrees. I had plenty of opportunities and did not accidentally take a minimum wage job to “figure out my life”. I wanted to start my own coffee enterprise and wanted to get paid to learn, rather than dishing out more money to go to a fancy coffee school.
I started Vagrant Coffee in 2017, with a focus on taking the specialty coffee outside of the 4 walls of the cafe, we have grown to roast our own beans, begin a wholesale program and, so far, 3 brick and mortar stores (acquiring Milk & Honey and 3 Bean in addition to our innovative micro-café at 1100 Wicomico) with more in the works and we aren’t close to done. Our plan is quite ambitious and will require a drive based on more than just a “job”. We want to create career opportunities while striving to make life better for everyone, not just the racial majority consumer. To pull this off, the specialty coffee industry had to be investigated and picked apart, piece by piece.
The specialty coffee industry has really boomed since the invention of the super sweet, milky, large espresso beverages available on just about every corner. And, while the middle-class workforce has really drunk it all in, it seems the cost was far greater than the average $4 latte. We have created quite the divide and stereotype of the American specialty coffee shop from the stunning environments to the aloof and disgruntled barista all while trying to convince the customer that this specific roast, origin, blend or flavor outshines our nearest competitor. But how did it get this way, and more importantly, why is there such a disparity between the grower and the consumer?
No matter how you slice it, coffee originated in Africa, and while there are many theories regarding how this worldwide phenomenal caffeine tradition got started, somehow it has lasted the test of time. However, regardless of its inception, the growers of the plant predominant reside in countries where the average person would not be able to afford the beverages we have come to expect and desire as complimentary. I frequently hear “why should I pay $3 for coffee here when I can get it at the gas station for $1.” (Because they can sell it at a loss to get you to buy something else, or because their suppliers are working in impoverished conditions, btw)
This is why I feel it is time to address the issue facing Baltimore and the rest of America today.
Economic divides really serve as the primary reason why the “have’s” drink coffee en masse while the “have not’s” are far more willing to go without or are limited to lower levels of quality and therefore struggle with the price. Let me clarify by saying that specialty coffee is a subset of the entire coffee industry and the only segment of the industry that is continuing to grow. With this reality present, is it really a surprise that there is such a racial disparity among who we find frequenting the specialty cafes in our city?
This is why I believe there aren’t more people of color working in the cafe. Economic disadvantage, lack of product familiarity, and no clear path of growth stand right in the way of coffee work being a viable future. So what can we do about this? First, let’s remember that growing a quality product takes time, energy and financial resources. Growers, processors, and baristas, like anyone else, need to be appropriately compensated for their work. This is going to drive up the cost of the vanilla latte and that’s ok. Whenever you see a highly-priced coffee drink, take pride in knowing that someone along the supply chain is likely living a better life because of it. Secondly, abolishing the stigma that working in coffee is only something you do when you don’t know what else to do is key. Coffee is a legitimate multi-billion dollar industry that is ripe for innovation. Coffee isn’t only for the hipsters and those who just got out of a yoga class. The industry is worth considering. Lastly, as long as there is economic disparity within our cities, you will see a lack of diversity among coffee workers and consumers. So if we want to see more “black” coffee, drink Vagrant Coffee and help heal the divide one cup at a time.