Before Darnesha and Erwin Weary opened their successful coffee shop, Black Coffee Northwest in Shoreline, Washington, many in the area already knew them as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. The couple has lived in the small city just north of Seattle for over 20 years, and in that time they have been prominent activists and organizers for the Black community in the town, where only 6 percent of the population is Black. The couple has gotten proclamations from the city to officially acknowledge both Juneteenth and Black History Month, organized Juneteenth celebrations, and dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus, so that Black kids in Shoreline could feel represented by those holiday characters. When the couple decided to leave their corporate jobs and follow their passion of owning their own coffee shop, they hoped to design a space that could be a Black community hub that built upon their years of work in the area.
On September 30, 2020, the day before it was scheduled to open, someone tried to burn down Black Coffee Northwest. In the middle of the night, a yet-to-be-identified arsonist threw Molotov cocktails at the Shoreline business in what Darnesha and Erwin Weary described as a racially motivated attack. Two weeks later, the couple celebrated their opening day and were happily welcomed by many in the community — but in January 2021, the shop was temporarily closed after perpetrators drew swastikas on the storefront, sent threatening emails to the business, and verbally harassed baristas at the drive-thru window.
“We have people who don’t understand how we can say Black Lives Matter unapologetically in this area and still be successful,” said Darnesha. The couple said that even other coffee shops in Seattle have struggled to understand their business model and their messaging, questioning why they make Black lives and culture the focal point of the shop. “I have had business owners in the coffee community, when we say things like [Black Lives Matter], they are appalled and ask ‘Why do you have to bring race into everything?’ They tell us our business is never going to thrive this way and say we are just in the honeymoon period,” said Darnesha.
While Seattle has roughly 56 coffee shops per 100,000 people, ranking third in the nation for shops per capita, few are owned by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) owners. Intentionalist, an online directory of small businesses, lists only nine Black-owned coffee shops in the general Seattle area, some outside the city proper (like Black Coffee Northwest). The coffee industry as a whole hasn’t been a welcoming space for baristas of color, either. According to a union-issued study conducted in 2020 on airport-based Starbucks in the U.S., Black baristas were paid $1.85/hour less than their white counterparts.
Many people in the Seattle coffee industry have been working to address racial inequality in the coffee supply chain by supporting fair-trade practices (which aim to deliver higher pay to small farmers in other countries by eliminating intermediaries), while brand names like Caffe Vita and Herkimer tout their single-source roasts. But the industry has seemingly done less to adequately address racism within the shops and cafes themselves, from who owns or works in them to who’s really served by them.
Black Coffee Northwest was built for and with the Black community at its forefront, and it’s tackling the systemic barriers for BIPOC baristas’ entry into the Seattle coffee scene through a robust internship program. It is an intentional response by Darnesha and Erwin to address the lack of diversity in the Seattle coffee community.
The shop is part of a growing contingent of local cafes determined to provide solutions to this problem. As a mixed-race Asian-American barista and manager, Shizuno Wynkoop of the Latinx-owned coffee shop Resistencia Coffee in South Park is also focused on more equitable hiring practices. “When everything is owned and run by white men, they don’t always realize they only hire white men,” said Wynkoop. She said a diverse staff is particularly important in South Park, a working class neighborhood with a large Latinx community, where coffee shops can be a signifier for looming gentrification and the erasure of communities of color. Research by Harvard University economists in 2018 showed that the opening of cafes is a leading indicator of gentrification and linked to a 0.5 percent increase in housing prices. This is why Resistencia owner Maria-José “Coté” Soerens felt it was particularly important to hire and train from within the neighborhood, creating opportunity in the local community and hiring BIPOC folks who might not get hired in other shops.
Even Darnesha and Erwin, whose relationship flourished over a mutual passion for coffee, didn’t enter the industry when they were younger because they didn’t feel like they belonged. “In some coffee shops they look at you like, ‘Why are you here?’ and it happens more often than you think. And that leaves a lasting impression. I absolutely didn’t want anyone to feel like that entering Black Coffee Northwest,” said Erwin. Even when the Wearys did enter the industry, the couple said many fellow (white) coffee shop owners weren’t all that welcoming either. “There was pushback [to the shop]. There were a lot of coffee shops that didn’t take us seriously at all. They thought we were one of those places doing something for a fad and thought, ‘How could they possibly know anything about coffee?’” said Erwin.
Prior to opening Black Coffee Northwest, Darnesha worked as a racial equity business consultant for nonprofits, including the YMCA. “I worked in management for nonprofits for quite some time, and I always had to be the person who raised my hand in those meetings [to] say something or ask the hard questions, because I’m Black and most of the time I was the only Black face in those spaces,” she said. “To be the only Black person in a room full of white people talking about diversity, even the power structure in that is exhausting. I had to carve out my own space and create my own path, and fight for every single move I made and that’s how I fell into the work — I was already doing it.”
She worked with human resources and recruiting teams, revising job descriptions to make sure they accurately reflected the needs of the position and weren’t requiring extraneous qualifications. She made sure jobs were posted to a wider array of job boards, where more Black and brown applicants were likely to find the ads. She also outlined an inclusive onboarding program that would help set up candidates for success. “You need to make sure you are onboarding people correctly, so they can see themselves at your organization,’’ said Darnesha.
Darnesha’s corporate background informed the shop’s barista internship program, which is designed to help youth of color who might not otherwise feel welcome in craft coffee get a start in the industry. The roughly eight-week program is open to BIPOC youth aged 16-25 and includes training on espresso machines and customer service. The program also teaches entrepreneurship, bringing in mentors to talk to the interns about running a small business. Interns learn how to navigate the workplace and also participate in city council meetings, in order to stay up-to-date with current legislation and how it might impact people of color in their community. After graduating, Darnesha and Erwin help place the interns either in their shop or another coffee shop in their network.
While the program is new, it’s already had some success. “We had one 17-year-old, with no experience, who in about five months of training made it to [the coffee] bar,” said Darnesha. “She took a little longer, but she put in the effort and we acknowledge that people learn differently. We want you to be the best you can be, so as long as you are trying hard — if it takes more time, it takes more time.”
Apart from a diverse staff, Darnesha and Erwin believe coffee shops must be more inclusive spaces for customers of color. When in-person interaction becomes more prevalent, the shop aims to be a “third place” for BIPOC customers with its own coffee shop culture, which Erwin likens to a barbershop — a place for people to come together not just for a service, but for a sense of community. “One thing about the barbershop is you can have common ground and talk about everything in there. I never really had a [coffee] place that encompassed that, but I always wanted that,” said Erwin. “The main issues I wanted to talk about are social justice issues, things that plague the Black community.”
That may look informal, with conversation flowing in a space built for gathering. It also may take place in a more structured way, starting with weekly “coffee chats” that the couple started as part of a youth-outreach program. The conversation series touches on topics from youth activism and how to be involved in social justice movements, to allyship and what it means to show up for a community. The chats are led by a guest speaker that opens the talk and then cedes the floor for a Q&A session.
So far, these chats have been held online. During the pandemic, Black Coffee Northwest hosted several virtual discussions, including an event held in partnership with the University of Washington in Bothell on women’s mental health. The event invited Black and brown female students to discuss trauma experienced in school and in the workplace, as well as how the pandemic had affected their mental health. Eventually, the shop plans on holding these talks in person.
The coffee shop also actively promotes and sells Black-owned products, including Zuri’s Donutz in the pastry case, in order to create a support network for Black-owned businesses. There are pop-up events with Black entrepreneurs like Wine Savoygnon, a Black-owned wine business dedicated to selling and promoting wines from nonwhite winemakers in the industry. And the space will be the official meeting ground for the Northside Step Team, Drill Team, and Drum Line, three clubs that have a rich cultural history in the Black community (Darnesha founded the step team and her daughter is a member).
It’s in the same spirit of community that Resistencia Coffee thoughtfully sources its pastries from BIPOC vendors based in South Seattle like Umami Kushi, Maria Luisa Empanadas, and Global Chill. By working with such smaller vendors, several without their own fixed locations, Resistencia offers them access to their customers and platform. It also offers to connect them with free business coaching to help them grow.
In response to the challenges of the pandemic, Resistencia also created a community food pantry where flats of fresh produce and other essentials were donated and available for people to grab as needed. This is all a part of the cafe’s ethos, a description of which is painted across one wall: “a local community standing up against adversity with relentless hope and care for everyone in the neighborhood.”
For cafe hubs like these to thrive, it takes funding, something Black Coffee Northwest almost didn’t get. “We had to move banks ... the bank we were using for our personal accounts, which we had been with for 20 years, wouldn’t assist us because we didn’t have business credit. We got denied from every place and space because we were deemed too risky,” said Darnesha. Finally, after seven months of searching, the president of the Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union reached out, offering to open an account for the couple and extend them lines of credit.
The whiteness of craft coffee partially stems from who has access to the capital needed to open a coffee shop. “It takes anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 to open a coffee shop, if not more. You could do it for less, but not if you want to compete with some of the best coffee shops,” said Luis Rodriguez, owner of the Station in Beacon Hill. And it’s not just coffee: With a growing racial wealth gap in the U.S. and discriminatory lending practices, there are fewer opportunities for people of color to break into most hospitality industries. In 2018, a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta showed only 31 percent of Black-owned businesses received all the funding they applied for from banks, compared to 49 percent of white-owned businesses; and 38 percent of Black-owned small businesses didn’t receive any funding from banks, compared to only 20 percent of white-owned small businesses denied when seeking funding.
This often forces BIPOC folks to go outside traditional banks for financing, like Craft 3, the Seattle-based nonprofit community development financial institution (CDFI). CDFIs are private companies that often focus on lending to lower-income and other disadvantaged people, including communities of color that often don’t qualify or aren’t approved for traditional loans. In fact, CDFIs were born from bank redlining, according to the Brookings Institution, and designed to invest in the historically disenfranchised when banks refused to lend to communities of color. Craft 3 has helped many Seattle BIPOC-owned small food businesses come to fruition, including the hugely successful Filipino-owned Hood Famous Bakeshop (now a cafe in the Chinatown International District) and the Black-owned coffee shop and snack purveyor Umami Kushi in Rainier Beach.
Large banks in the U.S. have recently promised to address discrimination in their lending practices, with JP Morgan Chase pledging $350 million nationwide as part of a five-year plan “to grow Black, Latinx, women-owned and other underserved small businesses, help address the racial wealth divide and create a more inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a statement. This comes alongside a similar pledge by Citibank that promises over a billion dollars to help close the racial wealth gap and increase investment in Black-owned businesses. But it remains to be seen if these banks will follow through on these promises. Until then, Seattleites of color will still heavily depend on non-traditional loans and financing to make business dreams a reality.
While once deemed too risky for a small business loan, today Black Coffee Northwest has a steady line of customers in the drive-thru. “It’s kind of fun to be misunderstood or misjudged because you get to prove people wrong and teach them a lesson,” said Erwin. While the couple is happy to have overcome doubters, they hope the success of their shop and the internship program at the core of the business means the next generation of Black and brown baristas won’t face the same prejudice. “We want our community to be successful, so we are removing all the barriers. So when they show up at any coffee space’s door, they can come in with experience,” Erwin added. “They can step in and be successful.”
Alana Al-Hatlani is a baker by morning and writer by night. She started baking as soon as she could reach the kitchen counter on a step-stool and hasn’t stopped baking since. She is a cake stand collector, competitive bowler, and Great British Bake Off zealot.