After three years, during which it endured multiple acts of racist vandalism, Black Coffee NW, one of the Seattle area’s most prominent Black-owned coffee shops closed on Saturday, June 17, following a long-running dispute with its landlord.
On Saturday, June 24, the cafe emailed its customers to announce that it had become a “victim to the relentless force of gentrification... Seattle has seen a surge in gentrification over the past decade, as rising rents and property values have forced out long-standing businesses, residents, and culture. Communities have been uprooted, traditions disrupted, and the unique essence of our neighborhoods eroded.”
Black Coffee NW had been locked in a battle with its landlord, Bethany Community Church (BCC), which has sued the coffee shop for over $22,000 in unpaid rent and issued a notice for it to vacate in November, according to the Seattle Times. When co-owner Darnesha Weary spoke to the Times for the article published on June 1, she said that they wanted to stay in the space but might be forced to leave; nothing in that article indicated that an eviction was imminent.
From the beginning, Black Coffee NW has tried to be more than just a place to grab drinks with novel names (an Americano was an Africano; a white chocolate mocha was a Karen). Founded in Shoreline by Darnesha and Erwin Weary, the cafe was intended to be a community gathering space on the north side. It hosted frequent youth events, including free mental health counseling and a drama club; it was also the home of the Northside Step Team, a group founded by the Wearys. (The Wearys run a nonprofit called Black Coffee Northwest Grounded that operated out of the cafe.)
But the coffee shop also had more than its share of tribulations. An arsonist threw Molotov cocktails at the building weeks before the October 2020 grand opening; at the time Darnenesha told Eater Seattle that the couple was getting threatening phone calls accusing them of racism. Less than a year later, the shop closed for two days after a wave racist threats and harassment; vandals drew swastikas outside of the shop and people intimidated baristas at the drive-thru window. According to social media posts from that time, the shop was providing its staff with self-defense training as well as gear like mace.
Despite these incidents, there were some signs that Black Coffee NW was thriving. It had recently announced plans to open a location inside Shoreline Community College and was also expanding to an old Starbucks location at Jackson Street and 23rd Avenue in the Central District. The Wearys helped to put together Shoreline’s first-ever Juneteenth celebration and had a busy calendar that included step practice and a field trip for some of the kids in their Grounded Girls program.
After its closure, the cafe posted messages to Instagram detailing its complaints against BCC, which included an alleged 85 percent rent increase over the past three years and claims that BCC didn’t address problems with the building, including a hole in the ceiling and electrical and plumbing issues. “Imagine coming to work and the lights wouldn’t even turn on,” Black Coffee Northwest wrote. “Imagine working behind the coffee bar in several inches of water. Imagine reporting issues to your landlord with the response of ‘we’ll take care of it’ and constantly being ignored.”
In a June 17 Facebook post that did not name Black Coffee NW, BCC said, ”Statements about Bethany are being made on social media that are not the truth.” The post went on to say that BCC did not own the building, the church had forgiven $53,000 in missed rent and utility payments, and BCC “had a legal right to evict in November 2022” but allowed the tenant to stay and “forgave all debt, waiving the right of restitution.” According to that Facebook post, the lease was ending in July and that’s when Black Coffee NW had to vacate.
Eater Seattle has reached out to Darnesha and BCC for more details but hasn’t heard back as of press time. On Thursday, June 22, the cafe was closed but the signage was still up outside and there appeared to still be coffee equipment inside.
In its social media posts, Black Coffee NW has emphasized that though the cafe is closed, the business is not folding. Its coffee subscription program is still apparently active, and it still plans to open its new location in the Central District before the end of 2023.
Update June 27 2:20 p.m.: This article has been updated to include more information about BCC’s account of events.