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BET.com
updated 11/10/2004 2:24:02 PM ET 2004-11-10T19:24:02

The cappuccinos, lattes and espressos at Reflections Coffee House in Portland, Ore., are spiked with a special ingredient: a pinch of soul.

African artifacts dot the surroundings of this African-American-owned establishment. Adjacent is a bookstore featuring titles by black authors, and a gift shop with Afro-centric greeting cards by local artists.

"If all someone wants is a cup of coffee, then it makes no difference where they go. But if they want something more, they come to us," says Gloria McMurtry, who fled corporate America to open Reflections in 1995. Obviously, the strategy is working, since Reflections sits in the heart of Portland’s African-American community, but has a 50-percent white clientele.

Encourage neighborhood development
Reflections Coffee House is part of a new trend percolating in America: the specialty coffee craze. And, increasingly, African American entrepreneurs are cashing in on the mania and opening shops across the country.

The Specialty Coffee Association, the coffee shop industry group, has no firm numbers on the amount of African-American-owned coffeehouses. But you can’t miss them in cities where African Americans gather. From Pacific Northwest towns such as Seattle and Southern mecca’s like Atlanta, to urban centers such as Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles, you can find a local Black-owned cafe serving up your favorite brew in one or more locations.

More than a warm brew or a break in the day, these coffee shops are cultural oases. Along with java and personalized service, these coffee shops provide jobs, and locations for events, such as poetry readings and community meetings. They often encourage neighborhood development.

Take Porter’s Coffee House in Baltimore.

"We lived in the area, and there was no place for people to frequent for good coffee in a nice atmosphere," says Terri Moore, who teamed with husband, James, to launch Porter’s in June 2003.

Community kinship
They benefited from a city initiative designed to revitalize neighborhoods, combining a grant with their own capital. "We were able to purchase the building," she says. "My husband owns a contracting company and we completely renovated in two years."

Airy and folksy, Porter’s offers a range of coffee, tea and fruit drinks, along with breakfast and lunch.

They employ several area residents and draw an ethnically diverse customer base.

Community kinship also drives Seattle Central Grind, a tiny shop with five tables, jazz music and artwork, situated in that city’s traditional African-American neighborhood between a fried fish eatery and an Ethiopian restaurant.

"We’re really one of the few Black [commercial] strips left," says Samuel E. Blackwell, an artist who worked in the eight-year-old business before buying it in 2000. "It’s deep because a lot of the homes around here are being sold. The community is being gentrified."

Thanks to the students and locals who stop in, Seattle Central Grind manages to stay afloat in a city where coffeehouses inundate the landscape and where Starbucks is ubiquitous.

Few can dispute the mega-chain’s success as a business and cultural phenomenon. Starbucks operates 6,000 shops and kiosks in the United States and thousands more overseas. Already, domestic revenues for 2004 have reached $5.3 billion.

Yet they’ve faced criticism for what some say is an unwillingness to set up shop in urban markets—something the company denies and experts say deserves closer examination.

Diverse customer base
"I think, initially, they thought their customer base was more narrow than it has proved to be, more homogenous and upper class," says Sharon Zackfia, an analyst with Chicago-based investment firm William Blair & Company who follows the company’s stocks. "Over the past 10 years, their customer base has become very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and income levels."

Company officials tout its Urban Coffee Opportunities program as a symbol of their commitment to diversity. The initiative has facilitated the opening of some 70 Starbuck’s outlets in places like Harlem, the South side of Chicago, and South Central L.A.

Starbucks also launched a 50/50 partnership six years ago with basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson and his business concern, Johnson Development Corporation. The partnership has produced 74 stores in traditionally black and Hispanic communities: Harlem, Compton; and the Southside of Chicago.

"Our mission is to find a way, through diversity, to be inclusive of everybody," says Kimberley Thompson, JDC’s executive vice president. "It’s a way of empowering communities."

The stores have been well-received and profitable, she says. "We’ve proved we can be successful. This is something the community wants."

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