Seattle’s coffee culture lacking ethnic diversity

Isolynn Dean, the owner of Cortona Cafe in Seattle, hands off a drink she made for one of her many regulars. (Photo by Ester Ouli Kim)

This story originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.

Seattle has a rich history of coffee.

Our city serves as a flagship location for numerous specialty coffee roasters and this past April attracted coffee aficionados from all over the world to the Global Specialty Coffee Expo. Seattle is home to the first Starbucks and, as of 2015, hosted at least a hundred outlets throughout the city.

Specialty coffee has become a significant part of Seattle’s identity, and the city has created its own coffee culture. This café community, though, reflects neither the diversity of the origins of coffee nor the pluralism of the city, according to multiple sources in the industry.

Seattle’s population was 30 percent non-white, according to 2010 census estimates. This number reflects an increase in the proportion of people of color in Seattle, even if the demographic trend in the city still lags behind changes throughout King County and the United States as a whole.

But according to the owners of Cortona CafeTougo Coffee and The Station, their shops represent a few of the handful of people of color owned coffee shops in the city.

“There’s a huge lack of diversity in terms of ethnicity in the coffee industry,” Brian Wells, owner of Tougo Coffee, said.

In general, the cost of entry for small business owners is high, and there is little to encourage people of color to open cafés. More specifically, the price of real estate can both prohibit new businesses and drive out old businesses.

Jose Luis Rodriguez, one of the owners of The Station, has been in the coffee business in Seattle for decades. In his estimation, coffee shops in Seattle have become more corporate.

“I remember back in the ‘90s, early 2000s, there used to be a lot of small little coffee shops everywhere,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said he thinks small businesses cannot afford many of the newly constructed commercial spaces.

Isolynn Dean, the owner of Cortona Cafe, said she was afraid she was going to lose her cafe when her building was being sold. She was not sure what would happen if there were renegotiations.

“I don’t even know if small businesses, let alone black-, people-of-color- or queer- owned businesses can even begin or thrive,” Dean said.

Dean described going to business association meetings and being one of only a couple of black women present. At the few coffee seminars Rodriguez was invited to and attended, he said he mostly saw white people.

Rodriguez said people probably did not go into the coffee business in minority communities because of a presumption of a lack of business. But, he added, he thought the opposite because he was someone who grew up seeing his father roast coffee around him and his brother all the time.

“I really don’t know why, it’s not like we don’t like coffee,” Dean said.

When Rodriguez opened The Station in Beacon Hill, he said there were not many coffee shops in the area. He wanted to open one for the diverse community—for the people there.

“Most people don’t think of African Americans as owning coffee shops,” Brian Wells said.

Dean said customers often assume that she only works as a barista at her cafe and that one of her employees, an older white male, is the owner. Dean said she was not sure if people were shocked because she had been serving them coffee for a long time or if it was because it was her standing in front of them. This has been happening for years.

“I don’t choose to correct people because, one, it’s not my responsibility,” Dean said. “And, two, it’s exhausting.”

Rodriguez said that in a conversation about appropriation, the person he had been talking to thought that coffee businesses were typically owned by white people. That person believed that just as white people have been appropriating Mexican food, Rodriguez, who is Mexican, was appropriating coffee.

“Coffee is harvested by people of color,” Rodriguez said. “The culture where it comes from is people of color.”

The regions where coffee grows span Central America, South America, Africa, and Asia. According to legend, coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia. There are multiple accounts of the story of Kaldi, a goat herder, who one day saw his goats eating the red coffee cherries and connected consuming the fruit to his flock’s sudden energy.

“When I first opened Tougo in the Central District,” Wells said, “there was a huge amount of diversity in the Central District but that has changed. As you know, the demographics changed. So have my guests.”

All three owners said all people are welcome at their cafes, whether they are potential customers or potential employees. All three want to see more diversity in coffee; they want to see the diversity of the origins of the bean translate through to ownership, production, and consumption. But the facts remain.

Dean is unsure whether things will change for people of color in coffee because of the direction she sees the city heading.

“The lack of diversity is with anything in Seattle,” Dean said.

In the case of coffee among other things, Dean suggested as a first step, “acknowledge that it exists in order for it to change.”

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