Customers and Community Are Not the Same Thing
Why it takes more than just financial transactions to build real community
A few days ago, the folks at Cxffeeblack, a multifaceted coffee company run by Renata Henderson and Bartholomew Jones (who have appeared on the podcast) announced that they’d be changing their opening hours. At first, this seemed like a routine update—but there was way more to it:
Cxffeeblack’s Memphis space, called The Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club, isn’t quite a coffee shop in the way you might imagine—it’s not just a place baristas churn and burn lattes to make a profit for a business owner who perhaps isn’t from the area: “Coffee in and of itself is usually an indicator of gentrification in a neighborhood. When that same good is owned by Black and Brown people, it can be used to empower and to disrupt the forms of oppression that they experience,” Jones told High Ground.
In the thread following that initial tweet, the team at Cxffeeblack explained that they don’t want to cater to commuters, and prefer to focus on people living in and around their neighborhood, and local Black and Brown artists and creators. But after feedback from community members who worked 9-5 jobs and who therefore couldn’t visit, the team decided to reformulate their hours to respond to those needs.
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This Twitter thread has stayed in my mind since I first read it. What struck me was the clarity with which Cxffeeblack distinguished between customers and community members. Because they’re really not the the same thing.
One of the most special things about coffee shops is the way they can foster community. Just last week, a friend who runs a cafe recounted to me that one of his regulars told him how important he was to the neighborhood, and that many other regulars visited because of the space he had built.
But one of the least special things about coffee shops is that they are also built on a bedrock of financial transactions. Most shops depend on a significant influx of customers in order to stay in business. Those transactions, particularly in customer service situations, can be corrosive to real community, thanks to the way they amplify unbalanced power dynamics between workers and consumers. The idea of the entitled customer—in a restaurant, in a cafe, in a bar—is a commonplace trope in our society because we’ve seen these power dynamics play out so often in real life.
Community can be an excessively generalized term, and it’s one that gets thrown around in pretty much any industry that involves people (i.e., all of them). As essential “third places,” coffee shops are natural settings for people to congregate and spend time together. But many of these spaces are still built to exclusively consider the needs of customers, many of whom may be transient. Too often, we forget about the people who actually live in the neighborhood—and the people who are behind the bar serving us. They’re all part of the community.
I was thinking of Cxffeeblack’s announcement when I read the New York Times’ recent profile of Blank Street Coffee. The two couldn’t be more different: Blank Street is a chain of private-equity-backed shops that has seemingly come out of nowhere to take over street corners all across New York City. “In just two years, Blank Street has opened 40 shops in the city, more than any locally owned competitor,” the article notes. Where Cxffeeblack’s Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club is built with people at its heart, Blank Street seems designed to beat an algorithm rather than to welcome those living locally. True to name, it operates as a blank slate.
“A Blank Street store is a cozy pod built around a high-volume automated Eversys espresso system, designed to get customers in and out quickly and to allow baristas to focus more on customer service than on coffee,” the article continues. But nowhere in the piece did I find anything about what that customer service experience looks like. Many of the people interviewed for the article, including Blank Street customers, don’t speak about it with any sort of sparkle or admiration. The overwhelming sentiment is that this coffee shop is “good enough,” which isn’t a surprise. If Blank Street’s shops are designed to spit out customers as efficiently as possible, it’s pretty clear community-building is not their major concern.
This follow-up tweet from Cxffeeblack offers a contrasting vision: “We received feedback from the folks in our community who work 9-5 that they felt excluded, and even though we did have a lot altruistic/idealistic reasons, at the end of the day this is an experiment for the community by the community. So we listened.” This is also a key characteristic of a community: It changes, and is flexible to the needs of the folks who comprise it.
If you’re a fledgling coffee business, it’s hard to balance the need to make money and stay afloat with the desire to build a community—I get it. But I also think there are many fruitful ways to build connection beyond that moment of purchase. If you keep scrolling through Cxffeeblack’s thread, you’ll notice that they highlight other community-focused projects, like a barista exchange program they’re funding through a limited-edition sneaker release. I’ve also been touched by cafes who take vacations and close down to give the staff much-deserved rest, or who throw parties for their departing baristas to celebrate the contributions they’ve made, or who showcase the art of their regulars.
All of this is a reminder that customers may be part of a community, but a community is always made up of much more than just customers. It includes baristas, neighbors, and others who feel drawn to a space—well beyond the fleeting engagement of a financial transaction.