TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Caffeine for the people, by the people: Best POC coffeeshops series

in Ark Weekender/Lifestyle & Travel by

Away from the mainstream dosages of cash cropped French press, stale bagels and GMO macchiatos, these shops and cafes serve drip drops of cupped lighting with the understanding that every espresso served, often keeps their doors open and hires local folk.


When a Philadelphia Starbucks manager called the cops on two Black men for refusing to purchase food after she denied them entry into the coffee shop’s bathroom, calls for boycotts ensued.

As soon as the yells of #replaceStarbucks came to a crescendo, they fell into such a deafening silence that crickets could not even hear. The persisting problem was that coffee drinking culture in the US has become so reliant on Starbucks coffee houses, that the remaining java joints seemed to be far, and few between.

What Ark Republic uncovered was quite the contrary. While the likes of franchises such as Starbucks, Peet’s and Dunkin’ Donuts are prevalent in passing out paper cups of joe, there is a vibrant counter-mainstream coffee culture that thrives from coffee houses embedded in the bones of communities across the country.

We created a list of “must-haves” for our ideal coffee shops then looked from Vermont state to Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles to identify coffee shops that we should support, even if we are not boycotting a major franchise. We had many criteria, we looked at the cost of beverages, dietary options, if the shop catered to people with disabilities, how well did the music set the mood and did the owners have a program that helped those in need, or at the very least, gave back to the community that brought them business.

The most important, and mandatory benchmark in our litmus test was that the business had to be owned by a person of color. Too many businesses fail or fall short simply because people do not know that they exist. And oftentimes, these businesses do not have the capital to promote or expand, even when they are great at what they do.

Our list is a collective of six articles released in two days traversing eight regions of the country. Sip and enjoy.

Brew it, and they will Follow: Northern region

In the tri-state area, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, you will never run out of the possibilities of coffee house choices. The tricky part is combing through the plethora of shops to see which one appeases your culinary and social taste buds.

Black Swan Espresso: Newark, NJ

Barely opened for a year, the family boutique coffee house already manages an impressive following that has turned into a familial cult mixed with locals and people who come to the city for business.

Launched by Laura Mashtaler with daily operations ran by her son, Adam, Black Swan Espresso, in many ways, has grown out of their location. At peak times, lines spill out of the door while people pack into the quaint space in downtown Newark to pick one of shop’s frothy concoctions.

The meticulously prepared hot and cold beverages informed by premium beans are served with small luxuries such as cute ceramic cups and foam art. Indeed, adorable and worth mentioning, the coffee is just so damn good that it could come in chipped, knock-off porcelain China.

In addition, their well-curated selections allow you to explore tastes and blends, as well as regions and seasonal bean crops. With a drip coffee maker for the most premium of beans and a high-powered grinder for milling small batches, the process lends to the idea that the place is small, but efficient.

Whomever thought of the idea to serve Oatly oatmilk as a milk alternative needs to be kissed. Full-mouth and perhaps some tongue.

Swapping out coconut milk and almond milk for oatmilk is a triumph for non-dairy consumers who often must choose between watery cream or bitter mud juice. Oatmilk option became so popular that Black Swan ran out several times causing almost mass hysteria. Now, it carries a stockpile.

To go along with the drinks are gourmet donuts brought in from New York City every morning. Dipped in candied hibiscus or made with fancy ideas such as deconstructed cafè con leche, the fried dough goodness is uncommon in a region not known for fanciful and delicious donut-making. As of late, sandwiches and non-coffee items have been added to satisfy the demands of a growing constituency.

But the overarching surplus is the customer service, the son, Adam and his team of chill and cool baristas knows every locals favorite and accommodates the java divas. Everytime Laura enters, she smiles and converses with everyone.

Because Newark stands at the precipice of a serious overhaul with downtown being ground zero, you often confront several worlds clashing. A new-Newark with settlers who can afford a $5 latte, and the other Newark, of working class or underpaid professionals who occasionally stop for an inexpensive small black coffee.

Then there are those who often are invisible, the growing homeless population that walk in the area throughout the day. Rather than shoo the most unfortunate away, the staff a Black Swan Espresso allows displaced folk to give what they can. It has turned into others sponsoring cups of joe, especially on wintry days where a hot coffee might save a life. That is the community we need.

Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee Books: Philadelphia, PA

Who knew? Public intellectual and Temple University professor, Marc Lamont Hill has a coffee shop. And a great one at that. Uncle Bobbie’s located in Germantown, slangs books and ink that marries the concept of coffee and great conversation.

Continuing the tradition of reading a damn book, no phone, no tablet, but a paper or hardback, Uncle Bobbie’s is an ode to Hill’s kinfolk who was a voracious reader without formal training. For Hill, this foundation fed into his career of academia and authorship. Technically, Uncle Bobbie’s is an independent bookstore that encapsulates the motto, “cool people. cope books. Great coffee.”

It is becoming site where public discourse, public access and the showcase of “all Black everything” from films to book readings for children.

Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse: Philadelphia, PA

After you stop staring at the beautiful blond tendrils, or whatever color fancies the resident super-shero, Arielle Johnson, owner of the comics intelligentsia brick-and-mortar, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, you discover that this is atypical for a coffee jawn.

Amalgam is where Afro-futuristic-meets-Geek-meets-Wokeness.

The space is special. Noted as the first Black woman to open up a comics shop on the East Coast, Johnson is also devoted to inclusion and showcasing the diversity of geek culture infrequently shown in dominant media spaces. In fact, she has created something like a parallel universe for nerds of every shade.

Chockful of events that spawned from the galaxy of comics, Amalgam serves as a hybridized salon where brilliant minds come to splice. On any given day, with a cup of Philly Fair Coffee, you could immerse yourself in a debate ranging from zombie apocalypse survivalists to author Octavia Butler’s, Wild Seed character, Anyanwu.

Here, it is more about the culture than the coffee; yet and still, coffee is such a critical beverage for the intense conversations and brainstorming in Amalgam.

Honorable Mention

Breukelen Coffee House gives doses of daily positive messages to build a community in an area heavily gentrified with clashes of those who came before Columbus, and those afterwards, the sister-owned joint keeps the Notorious BK motto, #spreadloveitsthebrooklynway active.

*Headline photo from Currency Exchange Coffeeshop in Chicago. Check them out in our Midwest section.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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