Paula Cole and the Hymn to Coffee Shops

I will steam the lattes, you go sweep the floor

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A coffee shop does more than just serve drinks.

You know that song by Paula Cole, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

For those under the age of, say, 33: Paula Cole was a ’90s goddess whose two hit songs—the other being “I Don’t Want to Wait”—soundtracked the adolescence of most millennials. (Need another hint? “I Don’t Want To Wait” was the theme song for Dawson’s Creek.)

“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” came out in 1996, and is about the place where expectation meets reality—where John Wayne turns into some schlub who leaves you to do all the chores while he hits the bars with friends.

Recently, I imagined a version of the song that swapped cowboys for coffee—and contrasted the specific, ’90s-sitcom fantasy of the coffee shop with what we’ve got now.

Where is my cushy couch?
Where is my giant mug?
Where is my community board?
Where have all the coffee shops gone?

A few weeks ago, I talked to my friend and lifelong coffee fan Ben Wurgaft (he remembers a time when frappuccinos were made at a small Boston chain called Coffee Connection) about what we’ve seen change in coffee over the last few years. One thing he pined for was what he called “the patina of coffee shops.” Think of the worn couches, the bookcases that held a communal library, the astronomically large mugs so often mocked on Friends. The coffee shops of this era could be described as both old and grimy as well as comforting and well-worn—sure, they were a little tired, but they also felt real and immediate.

On the latest episode of the Boss Barista podcast, I talked to Iyasu Dusé, the founder of the True Community Foundation and Dusé Coffee. Iyasu had always intended to incorporate social justice into his work with coffee, and spent time both behind the bar and on coffee farms to learn as much as he could about the trade. His ultimate goal is to end childhood hunger and raise awareness for mental health.

So how does coffee fit into that mission? For Iyasu, coffee is both a product and agent for change.

I see coffee as the platform and the voice to be able to reach people. That’s what I see the coffee company as—it’s the communication and the education that we can provide to an entire community of people who love coffee. Everybody loves coffee, coffee and tea. So with this platform, we can literally reach people who we generally wouldn’t be able to reach, and inform and educate people on this issue. 

Iyasu’s comments reminded me of Ben’s nostalgia for oversized armchairs and 20-ounce cappuccinos. A few years ago, I visited my friends at their coffee shop in Chicago called Back of the Yards, and I was flabbergasted by their community board—I had never worked in a cafe that had one. And it made me think: What is the role of the coffee shop?

There’s no one answer to this. Historically, coffee shops were hubs for social change, places where people gathered and exchanged revolutionary ideas. Colloquially, they were even referred to as “penny universities,” because you could get an education from the shop’s patrons for the price of a cup.

Throughout their history, coffee shops were never meant to be just about the coffee. Today, Iyasu sees them as central networks for collective action and community-building.

I was like, “This is the ground zero point of every community, every society, no matter what, no matter where you are, you literally have a coffee shop. You have a place where the community comes together to meet. So why on earth would I allow something that huge to just be a place where you can grab a beverage?”

It’s always going to be a place to grab incredible coffee and [maybe] that’s the sole purpose of it, but let’s use it for something that could possibly change millions of lives if possible. [Coffee shops can] really be that monumental platform internationally. For me, I was like, coffee is everywhere, but also mental illness is everywhere—so let’s do something about it.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Sarina Prabasi, owner of Buunni Coffee and author of The Coffeehouse Resistance—Brewing Hope In Desperate Times. In her book, she recounts opening Buunni Coffee in a somewhat unwelcoming environment in New York:

To put it more bluntly, the specialty coffee scene (and the “hipster” coffee scene) in New York are strikingly white. We, on the other hand, are black and brown, and like the coffee, have grown and been nurtured on African and Asian soil. Naming our company Buunni is a counterpoint to the prevailing coffee culture that we observe.

Soon after opening, Sarina and her husband, Elias, began organizing community gatherings in the wake of the 2016 election. Sarina’s book explores the power of her small coffee shop to incite change around her neighborhood.

What a difference we can make, understanding our neighborhoods as we do, and having a real relationship with people in our communities? What could we accomplish if we could make the coffeehouse politically relevant again?

The potential for coffee houses to be nexuses of change is more powerful than ever. In recent months, some of their power has moved to digital platforms, like GoFundBean and Coffee Break. Both groups formed after COVID-19 shut down most venues, and saw people come together to fight for the folks who had been laid off, or to find connection after major gathering places were shuttered.

Then there’s Project Nourishment, an initiative founded by Kat Adams and funded by Pacific Foods’ Barista Series, which used coffee shop pantries as community food banks. And as Iyasu mentioned in his episode, he’s partnering with Oatly and 65+ coffee shops across the Atlanta area to designate a signature drink on each shop’s menu to be part of a fundraiser for food-insecure children—you buy the drink, and a portion of proceeds goes to funding meals for students when they’re not in school.

What Iyasu has identified is not new. Instead, it’s a much-needed reminder about the power of coffee shops, whether physical or digital. As a young barista, I don’t think I ever thought about a coffee shop as a community hub until years after I began in the industry—my first experience in coffee, as is true for so many others, was at a chain coffee shop whose sole ambition was to make and hand off drinks as quickly as possible.

As Sarina writes, so much of the power of coffee shops comes from their ability to foster local connection. How do you know what your neighborhood needs if you don’t know your neighbors? How do you bill yourself as a space for all when you call the cops on two Black men waiting for their friends?

I think about the community board at Back of the Yards all the time. There were dozens of postings, advertisements for tutors (the coffee shop is located next to a high school), and news of community events, like a children’s story-time session. I think this is the “patina” Ben was talking about—beyond the ’90s trappings, it’s that lived-in feeling, the knowledge that a space has warmth and character. Buffing away that patina only makes for sterile homogeneity.

Listen to our episode with Iyasu Dusé on SubstackApple Podcasts, or Spotify.

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