Creating Coffee Community: Three Outlooks for the Future

By Shanna Germain

Walk into Case Study Coffee in Portland, OR, on any given Saturday and you might see this sight: a dozen people gathered at individual tables, fingers ticking across their laptop keys. The silence is deafening. And then, simultaneously everyone stops typing, does a joyous fist pump into the air, closes their laptop and begins to talk to everyone else.

The most bizarre flash mob ever? Actually, no. It’s one cafe’s innovative way of creating community. The event, called a “write-in,” encourages local authors to meet at the coffee shop to write for 45 minutes, and then talk for fifteen. A hand-written chalkboard sign on one of the tables reads, “Also a Writer? Join Us!” Perhaps the most interesting thing of all? The entire thing is customer-driven via word-of-mouth, personal invites, and check-ins on Google+.

Creating this kind of community is something we often talk about in the coffee world. We want to make connections, for personal and professional reasons. We understand that it’s as important to touch the lives of our local customers and clients as it is to reach out across the globe to interact with growers, suppliers, and advocates. And we work hard to weave a strong network to all corners of the coffee world.

From a theoretical perspective, community is a clear path toward better business, better coffee and a better future. From a day-to-day, hands-on perspective, however, building community can be a bit of a challenge. What does that even mean? How does one go about doing such a thing? And what—beyond the good feelings we might get from connecting with one another—are the actual long-term benefits for coffee?

The answer is different for every person and every business. Here are only three perspectives from those who have found unique ways and means for building community.

Many Communities, Many Cups

Gimme! Coffee, Ithaca and NY, NY

Gimme! Coffee takes a roundabout approach to creating community, delving into both traditional methods (such as creating a Third Place and doing philanthropy) and novel methods (such as connecting coffee communities and using social media). “By educating ourselves and our consumers, we aim to connect our consumers directly to the communities and individuals who produce their coffee,” says Amina Omari, managing director at Gimme! Coffee.

They do this by offering a large percentage of relationship coffees, purchased directly from a producer by Colleen Anunu, the director of coffee for Gimme! The next step is education. “We publish detailed profiles of all our coffees, educate our baristas so that they can educate our customers, and hold events to bring our customers and coffee producers closer,” says Omari. “We’ve hosted public lectures by innovative coffee importers like Virmax; we’ve opened up our roastery for public tours and cuppings; and we hold weekly tastings where we teach and taste together.

Gimme! is also a proponent of the Third Place idea. “Our cafes perform the time honored role of Third Place; a space that’s neither home nor work, but a dedicated space for community exchange and gathering,” says Omari. “The Third Places our cafes create have revitalized their neighborhoods. We host local art shows, musicians, poetry readings, and we serve as a meeting place for dozens (if not hundreds) of local groups and organizations.”

To reach out to a broader community, Gimme! uses social media options like Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, email newsletters and blog posts. “Our company blog is a group effort, with about fifteen people from all areas of the company freely posting text, photos, and video about their areas of expertise and interest,” says Omari. “Our trainers post detailed brewing how-tos on our blog; our coffee profiles are detailed with information on sourcing, terroir, and flavor profiles; and we publish a wide variety of information about sustainable sourcing and the farms and regions where our coffees are produced. Talking about what we love is the best way to start conversations!”

One of the goals of Gimme! is to create community without becoming the community. Instead, they work to join people and organizations together by creating the right combination of education, place and connections. “I think the most successful community efforts are collaborative by definition,” says Omani. “There are a thousand micro-communities being built in our cafes by our consumers every day; we’ve just provided them the space and the coffee fuel. On any given morning, I might walk into one of our cafes and see a film festival being planned, a band coming together, an article being written, a couple of writers hashing out a script, a class working on an assignment, a councilwoman organizing a campaign, a date in progress—you name it.”

“But because we’re that central community institution, we have some ability to knit those communities together in a common purpose. Our multi-year fundraising for the Southern Tier AIDS Ride is one example of communities coming together; the hundreds of people who show up at our roastery on a cold February day is another; our customers’ continuing support of the producers who create incredible coffees is another.”

Community for Community’s Sake

Market Coffee Project

Sarah Dooley, proprietor of Market Coffee Project, doesn’t own a café. She doesn’t run a roaster. She’s not selling green coffee. Her end product is simply this: social cohesion.

“Before coffee ever made its debut in my life my goals and intents were always driven towards social cohesion,” she said. “A dependence on the service, product or social interaction over and over is my definition of a successful community. This just so happens to revolve around a cup and coffee as that service, product and social interaction. Make it lovely, be incredibly detailed from the heart, and create a relationship that neither party can function without!”

One of her favorite tools along these lines is the Disloyalty Card, originally championed by Gwilym Davies, the 2009 World Barista Champion. The card isn’t designed to keep customers returning to the same café again and again, but rather to explore any number of shops within a specific city. “This tool’s job is designed to create a group, classify its status, make a promise of quality and service, and invite you to 10 different businesses who will engage in this relationship with you,” says Dooley. “Davies used his celebrity and a rather wonderful heart to create a larger circle of trust around the cup by promising patrons not only would they get a wonderful service and product but after they had visited all the locations they could come to him for a complimentary beverage, sewing trust. The risks were removed the moment he attached his promise to the card and really I couldn’t help but copy that.”

Trust, says Dooley, is a vital, but often overlooked, part of establishing a relationship. In coffee, much of that trust factor comes down to quality in the cup. “It is important for trust in any relationship that we are clear and concise with details in and around the cup,” she says. “It seems to be hard for people to be honest and vulnerable these days and that is where a not-so-true business concept is born and the focus is absolutely short-term. The idea of fast money, some community and poor product contribute greatly to the almost lost-in-translation, cup of coffee. One or two bad experiences will spread virally throughout a community and labels are unfortunately hard to remove. One or two amazing experiences are unforgettable and become the scale of expectation.”

Over the long-term, Dooley believes that a powerful community could not just support the industry, but direct its growth and future in serious and innovative ways. “If consumers knew the power they had to drive quality at any consumable just by boycotting and or purchasing responsibly…oh my God could you imagine how the markets would change?” she says. “We have to be a little driven to know what goes into continued sustainability. This steps outside just the topic of coffee and really asks us to go for what’s best for tomorrow not just what’s the best deal for me.”

A Customer-Driven Community

Case Study Coffee, Portland, OR

As mentioned earlier, Case Study Coffee has an unusual, almost passive method of creating community. “We opened this space wanting to just totally be coffee geeks,” says Christine Herman-Russell who co-owns Case Study with husband Wes Russell. “A lot of stuff has come to us. We found out there are a lot of creative types who needed a space to work and connect.”

How has this happened? Herman-Russell admits that she isn’t entirely sure, but believes it’s an accidental result of having all of the right pieces in the right places. “We definitely didn’t start out intentionally creating community,” she says. “We wanted to create a Third Place that has that really old-school, almost public house, kind of feel, with a homey, yet not stodgy, atmosphere. When you combine that with people behind the bar who care about coffee and people, it just seems to work.” In addition, the bar is designed to be talked over, so that customers can have conversations with the staff while their drinks are being made.

The author write-ins came about as a result of one such customer’s interaction across the counter. “Mary Robinette Kowal came in and told us she was a writer,” says Herman-Russell. “And we put her book out for customers to read. Anything that people bring to us, we’re happy to talk about and showcase, because we’re really excited about what our customers are doing.”

Kowal and other local writers and artists then began to interact, either via staff introductions or by overhearing other customers talking about their creative projects and processes. Now, groups of anywhere from two to two dozen meet to write and chit-chat.

Many of the shop’s other community happenings—meetings, readings, art shows—have also begun as conversations with the owners and baristas. “We have a lot of referrals that come from friends or customers or employees,” says Herman-Russell. “We hire for personality first behind the bar because they can interact with our customers better, talk about common interests, whether they’re into comics, local politics, or the alter-ego society.”

“It’s important for a community to have a place where people can get together and figure out common interests and needs,” Herman-Russell says. “In our case, we’re going to continue to let it evolve on its own and continue to let it be what it needs to be for customers that come. And I do think that the community is going to be super important to our success in the long run. Right now, we have a very small, super loyal group of customers that know each other and that know us, and I think they’re going to be completely vital for our future as a shop and an industry.”