"You Should Open a Coffee Shop."
On intention, seaside towns, and asking, "Who is this space for?"
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“Does this need to be here?”
I’ve had at least a dozen people tell me they want to open their own coffee shop.
One experience stands out. Years ago, a man came into my place of work, ordered a cortado, and told me about his desire to start his own coffee shop on the coast of Portugal. It was a deliciously dreamy ambition, one that wouldn’t be out of place in the kind of feel-good movie where a dad moves to a small beach town that takes him in—and is suddenly able to be the parent his kid needs.
The man had a little bit of money saved, he told me. He wanted to know: What did he need to do next to make that plan a reality?
“Go work at a coffee shop,” I said.
No, he said. He’d hire other baristas who were more experienced than him.
“But what if one of them calls in sick?”
He said somebody else would cover.
“But what if nobody can? Or what if the machine breaks? Or what if the coffee just doesn’t quite taste the way you want it to? How would you solve those problems?”
He looked at me for a beat, scoffed, and left.
This week, I interviewed Shanelle County, co-founder of Standard Pour in Valley Stream, Long Island. During our conversation, she shared how Standard Pour came to be over the course of just a few weeks last summer. Its origin story is defined by serendipity, the perfect mix of happenstance and hard work.
In direct contrast to Surfer Dude Movie Dad’s ideas, Shanelle assumed that opening Standard Pour would be full of trials and tribulations. As a result, the moments that were easy felt almost uncomfortable.
“I’m a big believer of manifesting great things and that they will come and recognizing that we deserve these things. So it’s not like it shouldn’t come our way, right? And I think that oftentimes, you expect life to be extremely hard at all times, or to think about opening a business, or the idea of opening a business—it just seems like an insurmountable task.
And now that I’m here, I’m like, ‘It’s not impossible.’ It definitely is challenging. It has a lot of stresses that come with it, but nothing that I would trade in at the moment for having this business.”
Shanelle and her business partner (and cousin) Darlene thought about every detail that went into building Standard Pour. They pored over decisions, and ensured that every choice they made was reflective of their principles. They valued partnering with local suppliers, so they hired area bakers. They valued quality products, so they exhaustively tasted and vetted coffee and tea samples. They valued working with Black-owned businesses, so they sought them out. They wanted to have a good answer for every question. “Why are we doing this? Because it’s reflective of our value system.” “Why is this person here? Because they’re part of our community.”
That emphasis on rigor and integrity still feels rare among business owners. Today, I read a piece by Molly Fischer for The Cut, asking “What Was the Wing?” The piece details the recent sale of the feminist utopian co-working space that promised so much when it began popping up on everyone’s Instagram accounts in 2016—and then broke down so completely, like a car with a flat tire hitting a speed bump and suddenly falling to pieces. Black and Brown employees were routinely mistreated, and the space roundly failed to deliver on its promised “better future” for all women.
I’m not here to critique The Wing (plenty of others have already done that very incisively). But what struck me most about Fischer’s piece is that it asks a big, open-ended question—really, what was The Wing?—and engages with the fact that she can’t easily answer it.
I remember a glimmer of this feeling the first time I drove past the Colectivo Coffee in Wicker Park. Colectivo is a multi-location coffee shop based in Milwaukee, and its workers are currently unionizing and at odds with the union-busting management. This particular location was situated on a trendy, popular block in Chicago, lined with restaurants and bars. And as I spotted it, I remember thinking, “Why is this here? Who is this for?”
The same goes for the five La Colombe locations in Chicago. They’re all perfectly placed in hip, highly walkable neighborhoods, but nothing about their locations or their spaces speaks to Chicago itself. Even if I hadn’t looked up where their locations were, I could have guessed—probably because their choices feel more emblematic of market research about the density and average household income of a particular neighborhood than responsive to any actual, community need.
For instance: One of La Colombe’s locations is in Fulton Market, a former meatpacking neighborhood that can only be described as—cringe—“an adult playground.” It’s littered with buzz-generating restaurants, luxury hotels, and of course, the Chicago headquarters of Google (and, you guessed it, The Wing!). Another is in the heart of Wicker Park, just off the popular Blue Line Damen L stop. It serves a neighborhood that was once home to artists and a sizable fraction of Chicago’s Puerto Rican population, but is now one of the most expensive areas in the city.
Nothing about these outlets suggests that these coffee-shop imports want to serve actual people inhabiting an actual city. Instead, these brands land in demographic-driven locations, where they either tout themselves as moral actors or simply expand for the sake of expansion, without vision or care for their surroundings. None of them seem to know how to answer the question: Why is this here?
In contrast, I remember my conversation with Shanelle. Standard Pour was conceived after another prominent coffee shop in the area closed, and Shanelle and Darlene used the opportunity to create a responsive business, one which felt both true to themselves and which honored the needs of the neighborhood it was part of.
Considering the context of your business isn’t outlandish. I’m constantly shocked by how often people (mostly men, and mostly older men) shoot the breeze with me about foolishly throwing money at their vanity-driven coffee-shop fantasies. It looks cool and easy, so why not? But if you really want to know why not, I can tell you: because people are going to walk into your space and have no fucking clue why it’s there. The problem of our industry—the problem of any industry—isn’t competition. It’s intent.
Before you go…
Speaking of intent: Originally, I thought these Thursday pieces would be short, 400-600 word meditations on the podcast episodes I share on Tuesdays (plus a few links to the stuff I’ve been reading). The word count on this piece is almost double that range, but that deviation aside, I do want to share a few things I’ve been enjoying:
I just finished Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, a book by Anand Giridharadas that points out the flaw of elite, super-rich actors controlling public policy with private means. What does it mean for a place like McDonald’s to underwrite a forum on social good but then deny its workers a $15 minimum wage? Giridharadas argues that much of the supposedly positive work done by big actors is just virtue signaling, and that their so-called “dedication” to social good is meant to reinforce the status quo.
It took me forever to finish this book—it’s important and completely transformative but also kind of a bummer that leaves you with a lot to chew on—so I’m palate cleansing with Billy Joel’s biography. If you spend 10 minutes with me, you’ll know about my deep, unshakeable love for Billy Joel. One of the reasons I love his music is because it isn’t pretending to be anything but exactly what it’s about. And wouldn’t you know it, but the Piano Man offered this insight, which I thought applied to this article. On songwriting, he says:
My ethic … was always to be talking about people, whether it’s a love song, a song about a relationship, or a friend, or a barfly—it’s always got to be about a particular person. If you try to write for an audience or to a concept, I don’t think you’re really writing for anybody. But if you’re writing for a specific person and a specific situation, a lot of people might be able to identify with that.
I’ve been trying to focus more on pitching articles, and Ruth Terry’s newsletter, Pitching For Polka Dots, has been an insightful peek into the tumultuous world of sharing your story ideas.
I’m a person who both runs her entire platform on social media and is woefully frightened by it. Rachel Karten’s newsletter, Link In Bio, helps me feel less afraid to tackle my own Instagram.
Speaking of Instagram, I just started following The Harvard Business Review and they share graphics of important pull quotes and statistics from their pieces.
Do people care about food? Do you care what I made? Because I made a replica of Taco Bell potatoes that were amazing.
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