The Rapidian

Building community through coffee in Grand Rapids

Specialty coffee shops are cropping up left and right in Grand Rapids. These shops can be yet another inaccessible luxury further driving the wedge between different classes and demographics of people. Or, they can be utilized as a community builder and a tool to help bridge a gap.

If you exclude water, coffee and tea hold the trophy for the two most consumed beverages in the world. That’s a lot of people drinking a lot of coffee. The coffee shop is the daytime bar, the neighborhood caffeine watering hole. It’s a gathering space for business meetings, first dates, last dates, open mics, weekly knitting groups, temporary relief from a Michigan winter, alcoholic anonymous support meetings, Bible study groups, music events and more.

The first coffee shops were founded as public spaces. Started in Turkey during the 1400s, this new kind of public space created a platform that allowed people to talk politics, and in some cases, plan revolutions. Fast forward to the early days of America, when the colonies were still a little upset with the British and strongly boycotting tea, coffee became the go-to beverage of choice among colonists.

Coffee shops have centuries of nurturing conversation, activism and social change under their belt. Therein lies some incredible potential for placemaking within communities.

Anyone who has spent more than a few months living in Grand Rapids can hardly ignore the fact that there seems to be new coffee shops cropping up left and right. While it’s exciting to see a growing niche where new small local business can find success, it’s also hard to ignore the fact that these shops tend to only come to life in the neighborhoods of the city where there is plenty of money already existing.

As a barista who spends a lot of time behind the counter of a place that I’m sure some would have no inhibitions in labeling “pretentious hipster coffee shop,” I’ve come to realize that there is a conversation that needs to happen. Right now, there is a lot of potential energy existing within the world of coffee. These shops can come to be yet another inaccessible luxury further driving the wedge between different classes and demographics of people. Or, they can be utilized as a community builder and a tool to help bridge the gaps between us.

What has been known to the world as “third wave” or “specialty” coffee shops are among those that are becoming more and more prominent within Grand Rapids. If the first wave of coffee is the one that brought Folgers into the cupboards of everyone in America, and the second wave is the one that put a Starbucks on every corner, the third wave is what brought the eight-tiered tulip in your perfectly crafted, ethically sourced latte.

Mindful sourcing is one of the important characteristics of a specialty coffee shop. Because of this, these small individually owned shops typically also maintain more sustainable business practices that support their own localized economy at home — wholesaling pastries from the neighborhood bakeries, sourcing milk from Michigan farms with ethical farming practices, hiring local artists from the area to fill their walls. This puts more power from each dollar being spent right back into the community it’s being spent in.

Specialty shops have also held the stereotype for being alienating to people who don't fit into a certain mold. While it’s fantastic that they are sourcing locally, providing living wages to both farmers abroad and employees at home, and helping promote a global economy, all of that goes to waste the minute that the environment where a person who is supposed to enjoy that long journey of hard work in the form of their morning cup of coffee is a condescending one.

Here enters the potentially incredible power of the barista. On a real grassroots level, the ability for a barista to focus on service to make a person’s experience the most welcoming and comfortable as possible is crucial. Mindful service is the key factor that can entirely change the accessibility of a space.

Steve Wiltjer, the owner of Lantern Coffee Bar & Lounge which resides in the downtown Heartside neighborhood, opened his shop four years ago. Focusing his space on building belonging, community, and diversity, he has definitely brought goal of creating a safe gathering space to life.

“At any given time, you can look around at the crowd that hangs out in the shop and it will be 95% white." Steve commented. "As a shop, I don’t know if there’s anything specifically that we can do about that because there are a lot of much more complex and deeply rooted issues going on there. But we do make sure to make this a place that can be comfortable for everyone.”

Lantern has partnered with local organizations like Well House, YWCA, and The Spoke Folks on many occasions as a way to give back to the neighborhood they are able to call home.

At MadCap Coffee, cafe manager Ryan Wojton has no hesitation in stating that they’ve made a lot of progress in the last two years in trying to harbor a safe space for anyone who walks through the door of the downtown shop. Number one on their list of priorities is service, followed by understanding and education.

“Education can either be a tool or a weapon.” Ryan says. “If someone is using that education to make someone else feel stupid, then they are not doing their job right.”

Incorporating education into baristas' training is becoming more commonplace. Many shop owners are making sure that their staff is equipped to meet any customer where they're at and making them feel welcome and comfortable — whether that be the CEO of the tech firm across the street who stops in for coffee daily, or the man staying at the Mission around the corner who scraped together his change for something warm to drink.

As a barista, I encourage people to ask questions. Why this cup of coffee costs $4 and why that one costs $2, what the heck Yirgacheffe means, or what’s the bubbly water for? I do my best to be ready to answer them all with kindness and respect, and I make sure I’m using that education as a tool. It helps us all understand each other a little better.

Will mindful service change the world and solve world hunger? Well, maybe not. But it can do small amounts of good for a large number of individuals. And those acts add up when it comes to strengthening a diverse community.

This is something that I keep coming back to no matter which side of the counter I’m on; be kind, be respectful, and create good space for people. The eight-tiered tulip is great, but it won't exist if there isn't someone there to order it.

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