November 2, 2022

Do specialty coffee shops play a role in gentrification?


Although there are many reasons to celebrate and support the specialty coffee industry, it has received some criticism in recent years – most notably for being elitist and inaccessible.

However, some may argue that in order for specialty coffee to truly remain “specialty”, it will always be somewhat exclusionary. This might specifically be the case for those who are unable to afford more expensive coffee or equipment, and lead eventually to their ostracisation.

A large part of this problem is rooted in gentrification – which is when lower-income neighbourhoods, most often in cities, see a rising number of more affluent residents. This can result in a number of complex issues which affect marginalised communities the most. 

For many, the arrival of more specialty coffee shops is often a key sign of gentrification in certain neighbourhoods (although it is by no means the only indicator).

In order to learn more about the relationship between gentrification and specialty coffee, and what the coffee industry can do to address this, I spoke with founder and CEO of Brewpoint Coffee, Melissa Villanueva, and founder and CEO of Mayorga Coffee, Martin Mayorga. Read on to find out more. 

You may also like our article on being black in specialty coffee.

Customers sit inside and outside a coffee shop

What is gentrification?

In order to fully understand the problems associated with gentrification and coffee shops, we first need to know what causes this process to take place.

Although gentrification is highly complex, it is essentially when a neighbourhood (often in a large town or city) which has historically received little investment and development experiences an influx of higher-income residents. As a result of the increasing migration of more affluent inhabitants, more urban renewal projects start to take place.

As part of these development projects, it’s common for more specialty coffee shops to open, accounting for the consumer behaviour of younger and more affluent demographics.

While gentrification does certainly mean that previously-neglected neighbourhoods receive some much-needed support and investment, it’s an unfortunate reality that the most vulnerable members of the community often aren’t able to reap the benefits for themselves. 

The increase in higher-income residents often leads to rising rent prices and higher costs of living in the area, which ultimately can displace the more marginalised and economically vulnerable inhabitants.

Again, while the reasons are deeply complex, this is largely a result of historical inequities which marginalised communities have been facing for centuries. 

“There is a lot of overlap between gentrification and race and ethnicity,” Melissa says.

As just one example of many, between the 1930s and 1960s, the US federal government classified certain neighbourhoods across the country as “risky” and “unfit for investment” – a set of policies referred to as “redlining”. In turn, many people of colour living in these areas at the time were refused access to loans, meaning they were unable to repair or reinvest in their homes, and led to an overall economic decline in these neighbourhoods.

Martin believes that we can draw comparisons between the effects of modern gentrification on marginalised communities and the colonial history of the global coffee industry.

“Coffee seeds were stolen from African people by colonists, cultivated around the world using slave labour, and traded through inequitable financial models,” he says. “The roots of the coffee industry were planted in the domination and displacement of brown and black people.”

However, Martin adds that some of these colonial inequities are still present in the coffee industry today.

“There are still many practices taking place in the industry which whitewash the history of coffee, as well as its different cultures,” he explains. “For example, some traditional Latin American brewing methods, rituals, or consumption trends are seen as ‘inferior’ [to specialty coffee] or are not given enough respect in conversations.”

Customers sit outside a coffee shop

Specialty coffee: a cause or an effect of gentrification?

Although there are many indicators that gentrification is taking place, the opening of newer, more expensive coffee shops in an underdeveloped area is one of them – which obviously means there is plenty of overlap with specialty coffee businesses.

This is largely because of prices. Broadly speaking, when specialty coffee shops open in these neighbourhoods, beverages are more expensive than they would have previously been. These higher prices are something that newer, more affluent residents might be able to afford – but they may well be too expensive for previous residents.

According to the Harvard Business School paper Nowcasting Gentrification: Using Yelp Data to Quantify Neighborhood Change, the opening of Starbucks stores (and other coffee shops more generally) is the leading indicator of gentrification. The research also concluded that the increasing prevalence of coffee shops alone led to a 0.5% increase in local house prices.

In response to the research, Starbucks announced it would aim to hire more local people to tackle issues such as local youth unemployment, but whether employers followed through remains to be seen.

However, the researchers stated in their findings that they were unable to determine whether coffee shops were a cause or an effect of gentrification.

While it’s certainly difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the two, Martin believes that coffee shops are a result of gentrification.

“The opening of specialty coffee shops in disadvantaged neighbourhoods follows on from ‘redevelopment’ programmes, which disproportionately affect black and Latino populations, as well as those who are on a lower income bracket,” he says.

“A new specialty coffee shop opening in a historically Latino or black neighbourhood does not automatically constitute an investment,” he adds. “[If not carried out thoughtfully and in partnership with the local community], it can be opportunistic instead.”

Melissa agrees, explaining that historical colonial inequalities are still linked to gentrification today.

“The US’ history includes slavery, which still has ongoing effects on black and indigenous communities,” she says. “Oftentimes, this was hidden under the guise of economic development, [but for less vulnerable and marginalised people].

“Gentrification usually results in the displacement of people of colour,” she adds.

Chairs outside a coffee shop

Can gentrification be beneficial to specialty coffee shops?

While the negative effects of gentrification on marginalised communities are undeniable, it can also be argued that specialty coffee shops do benefit from gentrification. Ultimately, expanding their company in new areas and attracting more customers helps to keep their business profitable.

However, Martin says that only coffee professionals who are already in more fortunate positions can really benefit from these advantages – which compound the existing inequities in the coffee sector.

“Gentrification is only beneficial to those who are already more economically stable,” he tells me. “Historically, producers are the most vulnerable people in the supply chain, and while there has been positive change, indigenous and impoverished farming communities are still worse off.”

Melissa agrees, saying: “It’s difficult to make the coffee industry equally profitable across the entire supply chain, and usually it is producers who receive the least amount of money.”

Martin says that one of the ways we can improve equity in the coffee industry is by supporting members of marginalised communities to take up positions of leadership.

“The number of black and brown people occupying positions that cover ownership, management, and decision-making in the coffee industry is embarrassingly low,” he tells me. “Inclusivity and representation have definitely improved over the last five years, but we still have a long way to go.  

“We also don’t see minority-owned brands receive the same level of respect as other specialty coffee companies,” he adds.

Melissa Villanueva behind the counter at a Brewpoint Coffee location

How can specialty coffee businesses support local communities in a more sustainable way?

Considering the significant negative impact of opening coffee shops in underdeveloped areas, how can business owners ensure they are supporting communities, rather than contributing to their displacement?

Ultimately, Martin says coffee shops and roasters need to commit to creating real positive change.

“Some companies say they support initiatives and communities, but there is little to no evidence that they are having a positive impact,” he says.

“If you want to have a positive effect on communities, buy or rent an older building in an area that can benefit from investment,” Martin suggests. “Repair and renovate the building and strive to make sure that around 80% of your workforce lives within walking distance of your shop.”

In doing so, staff at the coffee shop will visibly be much more representative of the local area – making members of the community feel more welcome to visit.

“We build relationships with communities,” Melissa explains. “We make sure that we ask important questions like ‘is the space inclusive?’ and ‘do the people behind the bar look like the community that we are now a part of?’”

Menu prices are an important factor to consider, too. When opening a new location in an underdeveloped neighbourhood, coffee shop owners need to be mindful that some members of the community may be dissuaded from visiting their café if prices are too high.

However, Melissa explains that this can be a delicate balancing act between reasonable prices for consumers and making sure that you pay a fair, responsible price for the coffee you buy.

“I have been advocating for specialty coffee to be more expensive,” she says. “Compared to the wine or the craft beer industries, there is a dramatic price difference.

“You can buy a bottle of high-quality wine for up to hundreds of dollars, but a cup of specialty coffee usually costs no more than US $10,” she says. “The scope to justify the amount of work that farmers put into growing specialty coffee often just isn’t there.”

Another large part of working to resolve issues of gentrification is improving representation and inclusivity. 

“More than ever, marginalised communities are becoming empowered to start their own coffee companies or to support those which are working to rebalance inequities,” Martin says. “We’re not waiting to be hired or to be given an opportunity.  

“An example is Cxffeeblack, created by Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson, who are unapologetically proud and vocal with their brand,” he adds. 

In fact, Cxffeeblack is currently working on a script for a TV pilot with HBO Max, which is inspired by Bartholomew and Renata’s experience of opening a coffee shop in a neighbourhood undergoing gentrification. 

“I think that the days of minority groups being observers in the US coffee industry are behind us,” Martin says.

A street view of a Brewpoint Coffee location

The link between coffee shops and gentrification is well-established, but that doesn’t mean coffee business owners can’t have a positive impact on these communities. 

While the issues are complex and deeply rooted in historical inequities, coffee shops and roasters need to be mindful and thoughtful of the areas they work in.

“Listen to the existing community and make sure you serve them, too,” Martin concludes.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how green coffee auctions can be used to promote wider social initiatives.

Photo credits: Stephanie Hulthen Photography, Glass & Grain Photography

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