Grinds, grooves and grassroots: Best POC coffee shops South Atlantic region

15 mins read

Ark Republic finishes its “Best of coffee shops” series by heading to the land of Andre 3000, go-go and Baltimore club music.

It is Tuesday.

Just kidding. It is Wednesday. You awake wrapped in a disorientation of thoughts, sheets, and slightly sweaty confusion while snoozing your blaring alarm. Your life is a disheveled mess for the 60 minutes between the quick stretch, morning bathroom re-acquaintance (we meet again), and your captain save a—nevermind—in a cup before you head out to the old 9 to 5.

Coffee. Oh ye’, the Black-Brown messiah. Making the masses offer all of their cream and some of their sugar. The ladies and gents seethe as your pot boileth over. Yes, that non-problematic swirl, who’s biggest controversy lies in whether the mix is too dark, too light or just right.

Whether through beeping Keurigs (surely, sacrilegious to coffee-aficionados worldwide), clinking spoons or clever-sayings engraved into pristine mugs, echoes of the morning are scored with the smell synonymous with the start of the day.

No shade to our homeboy slingin’ melanin-deficient sistren of the traveling yoga-pant. They rival places like Qatar or Denmark in spending well over five bucks a day projecting façades of suburban grandiose via a green Siren on a cup. Reportedly, contributing to a year-end revenue of $22.4 USD billion and growing, according to Starbucks’ 2017 fiscal report. It is safe to say that the coffee business is metro-boomin’, and I am not talking about the producer.

Unlike Young Metro, most people in the world are not wealthy. On average, Americans spend $2.70 on a cup of café and $2.81 on té, or tea, as stated by U.S. News and World report. If you enjoy multiple non-microwaved cups, spending could be even worse.

With tea and energy drinks rivaling its caffeine-related dominance in the U.S., coffee helps make up the majority of caffeine intake according to a study published by Elsevier. Along with surges of inflammatory, bigoted incidents, Americans are ditching major and mid-sized establishments, for safe, more personable spaces with an indie-feel.

From the top down, here are some jawns worth getting to know in the South Atlantic region of the U.S.

Cafe ULU: Atlanta, GA

Cafe Ulu, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of Facebook page.

Taking highway 166 as the sun rises over the terrain near Perkerson road, you will find this gem nestled within the Sylvan Hills plaza. Much like the firmly clenched fist atop a tree grown from thick, Black roots shown on their logo, this business packs a powerful punch. A cafe for us by us; this is Cafe ULU.

Founded and organized as a co-op of joint ownership in 2013, the Us Lifting Us Economic Development Cooperative (ULU) was created as the first of many planned businesses. With the objective to unapologetically build and promote the “economic and social welfare” of Black people. Their plan is “to return profits to the community and its members.”

Coupled with an estimated 80 owners, the organization allows for affiliates to opt-in and contribute, if desired. The association’s 10 point Black Economic Empowerment plan lists the value and commitment to Black people by Black people in hopes of inciting “radical change.”

One is reminded of the radiant hues found in the African continent in every corner of this coffee shop – beginning with the smoldering orange panel encasing a neat white rectangular frame spotlighting the awaiting Brown and Black faces that warmly greet every guest.

The colors and blends found in the eastern hemisphere, more specifically continental Africa, shine throughout elements of the shop. When you enter, the space is reminiscent of a home or church, a place where folk break bread, family style.

Sunshine yellow chairs and deep wine-colored tabletops are neatly sprawled throughout the layout. With deep emerald seat interiors lining the vibrant green-apple jolly rancher wall, akin a background of Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, to the right of the shop.

On the left, you can find the same row of seating juxtaposing a neutral tan wall. A sea of organization literature creates a wave of various diction and prints under, as if poetically, a row of buffet lights. Thus, a buffet of knowledge being served as food for thought, as opposed to the belly.

Soul foodie

Cafe ULU’s Grilled chicken panini. Courtesy of General manager, Kennard Hilliard.

If you are starving, no fret. Cafe ULU serves a multitude of flaky, simple delights ranging from gooey intimate cravings raspberry danishes to surprisingly decadent zucchini muffins. For harder options, sink your teeth into the fan-favorite grilled chicken panini that has everyone pressed.

Further, customers have Noni’s choices- a sharp, refreshing collard green wrap to a crisp, herbaceous salad. All courting the Black-star of the show: their rich, sumptuous, and earthy coffee roasts.

As General Manager Kennard Hilliard explains, the process of keeping all operations of this local java shop begin with buying coffee beans direct from farmers in Cameroon.

The business partners with a co-op of hill-top farmers that share cultivation practices, information, and techniques among themselves. When it is time to go to harvest and sell at the market, the group of cooperatives command better prices of buyers. Due to the group dynamic, this ensures fair prices among all farmers. Consequently, stimulating the economic yield in their locales, thus creating power and a better quality product.

Whether domestically or abroad, Cafe ULU aids in maintaining Black money all in the Ujamaa, or the Swahili word for family. As well as the concept that formed the basis of social and economic development policies in Tanzania by former president, anti-colonial activist, theorist, and native Julius Nyerere.

With beans from Africa and Arabia, it seems the organization is attempting to represent coffee via all walks of the African Diaspora. Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Brazilian are a few of the countries that Cafe ULU sources from; with Indonesian brands from time to time.

The signature item at the shop is, you guessed it, coffee.

But what to choose? Maybe you would enjoy the the full bodied, herbaceous, yet fruity Cameroonian Boyo, the top pick among ATLiens. Perhaps a bright, floral-fragranced runner-up with hints of citrus and berry tones, Kenya AA Top Lot coffee is more your speed.

But wait. The Brazil Cerrado coffee could be more your flavor with soft, nutty, bittersweet cocoa notes. The java is even said to have medicinal benefits such as antioxidants that combat fibromyalgia, according to customers. They also offer decaf options. Any way you like it, you can enjoy one pound bags sold in-store or online.

To the community, with love

Musicians perform at Cafe ULU’s Tuesday night “Pass The Hat” jam session. Courtesy of General manager, Kennard Hilliard.

If coffee is not your thing, you can dive into a Georgia Peach tea by the Just Add Honey tea company or sumptuous smoothies that can be jazzed up with ginger or spinach at affordable rates.

As well as, in partnership with another co-op group, Cafe ULU plans to bring an Ugandan roast stateside in September. Outside of coffee, guests can enjoy a plethora of tasty treats including a

Especially in the way business and finances are recycled within the Black populations domestically and internationally.

They cite the Black church, among other institutions that are criticals for ensuring the success of Cafe ULU. This is all required reading before you even enter their website.

Thus, to religious-based community groups such as Beloved Community, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, All Nations and Impact church charging nothing for their meeting space, wifi or printing.

Once profitable, the business tasks its staff to find local charities and events to give the resources to.

“We do something every week,” says Hilliard.

He goes on to explain that because Cafe ULU is community-centric, they often form partnerships and initiatives on all levels of the social hierarchy in the A. Located in the Sylvan Hills community of Atlanta, Georgia. For example, having partnered with the Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) as well as local neighborhood association to aid community relations.

Actually, as a token of appreciation, the cafe recently offered free coffee and refreshments to teachers of the local T.J. Perkerson Elementary school. In addition, they have hosted their “Senior Serenade,” an event where WellCare-Georgia, a national HMO healthcare group, to professionally evaluate elders as local artists croon.

They have also hosted an urban Black farmer tour nearby with USDA to expand rural development information and efforts.

Lastly, they partner with community activists and educators such as The Compensation Comers, Invest Atlanta, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), among others.

The idea is to expand and assist businesses not traditionally versed in financial knowledge or economic development to understand  to educate folk on financial literacy, economic solidarity, etc. Last few Saturdays ago, they even hosted local activist Kadeem Mohammed educating folk on insurance, generational wealth, and other facets of economics.

If you want to support cup representative of Black communal solidarity, take a sip. Peace. Love. Coop.

Melody Cafe: Baltimore, MD

Melody Cafe. Courtesy of Melody Cafe website.

Forget what crazy Omar, conniving Stringer, or anyone on the The Wire made you feel about Baldamore. A re-emerging, (mainly) politically blue city is more than just the show’s depiction of faltering red bricks and drug trafficked corners. None of which are found in the city’s Mount Vernon section where a sweet song of ice, fire and coffee can be found at Melody Cafe.

In the heart of downtown charm city, a Strange family of six performs on a “work twice as hard” model at a chill frequency, reflective of their communal vibe. Melody Cafe is an all-in-the-family operation headed by 18-year-old Black entrepreneur and Baltimore native, Juwuan Davis, and his parents, Darleen and Daryl Strange.

Last Christmas, Davis’ stepfather gifted the teen with the business. Since, the family helps to create an atmosphere that only a millennial could love.

It takes a village

For the 80s baby that Darleen proclaims to be, she comes from a time when it took a village. Thus, through the help of “close knit family, friends and neighbors” she and her husband try to raise their four children with ambition, teaching them to never settle despite their wins.

Instilling that [ownership] is not your ending,” Darleen and her husband are let their children know that the work always continues. Also, that “no one can do it by themselves… To get to “being [your] best- self” Darleen explains that “everyone needs somebody.”

Hence, the shop partners with the local public Baltimore schools not only display, but marketing and selling the student artwork in the space. As Dalreen states, the children work is “more than just displayed. It is better to teach children that it is better to own, than just to have.”

With marketing and selling the artwork in her shop, she believes she is establishing a solid foundation in building Black entrepreneurship starting from their youth. Hopefully giving motivation and offering an increased incentive for the youngins to save for long term goals like college.

Bump to music with a grind or tea

Melody Cafe’s couch area. Courtesy of Facebook

The result is a cozy spot with burgeoning couch-turf-wars in the back. The jawn feels like a common area in a dorm, but looks like a bar. Of which is–ahem– familiar for the nearby undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland-Baltimore. For the 90s babies, primary colors are littered in Keith Haring-esque shapes etched against the vinyl-white ceiling. Black soft-padding and wooden accents checker the tables, chairs and walls.

Students conveniently go from bus to table, as the campus shuttles from both universities stops right in front of the shop. The prices of Melody’s beverages and snacks fall in line with regional averages. For instance, in the South central area, the price of coffee averages about $2.45. The price of a cup of premium java will run two to three dollars.

Thus, broke college kids can enjoy warm and spicy apple cinnamon muffins (courtesy of Stone Mill Bakery), pillows for bagels (from Bottoms Up Bagels), and locally sourced coffee from Maryland’s Red Coffee roaster. Their specialty is a Nella latte made of unprocessed, natural cane sugar from Colombia, Columbian capuchinos, and a Melody wrap for grab and go purposes. Since it is popular in a granola world, there are a bunch of vegan and vegetarian items that will keep you on rhythm for the day.

Locals can even channel the urban tea experience from Black-owned and ran, Cuples Tea House. For the 21-and-older crowd, Melody Cafe offers an extensive turn up menu, ready with a light and refreshing honey wine and other spirits from Boordy Vineyard and Union Craft brewing company, among other items.

Shopping Small Business Saturday and supporting local

Melody Cafe, Baltimore. Courtesy of Facebook page.

Instead of being all talk, Darleen and her family go out of their way to support local and most importantly, Black.

Most vendors that Melody works with, the Strange’s have met during Small Business Saturday, Sunday, and even Wednesday. A sort of farmer’s market, residents are asked to support lesser-known companies. By helping support these businesses, Darleen states that the rewards reaped are two fold, 1. these businesses are acknowledges and 2. Both her and their business profits.

The music may not mimic the heart thumping crescendos diving into looped Oldie, but Goodie samples found in the ever-popular Baltimore club regional scene. Yet, with Melody being apart of their college school daze, the music and atmosphere caters to the Lil Uzi generation.

Davis acquired the property after he completed a management course under the culinary arts program at Harford Community College. Converted three times over, Melody has survived as a local hang out that an 00s baby like Davis– much younger than his target audience– can relate to.

Initially, scoping the college town, the Strange’s had to “become tourists” in their own backyards. In their future Mount Vernon home, they had to learn the changing economic and cultural landscape. This, according to Darleen, “helped [in success] in what to serve.”

Strange recalls getting looks from “mostly whites and asians”, stating, “we got more competition because of who we are…so we always ha[ve] to be on point, working twice as hard.”

To “bring in our own,”  the Strange family makes sure to engage the community through entertainment nights that included karaoke. Causing many competitors to fall flat with creativity in that department.

Although Baltimore city is majority Black, Mount Vernon section of the city is a gentrifier’s dream. Twenty minutes from everything, the neighborhood is an attraction. Situated just north of downtown B-more, Mount Vernon once boasted nineteenth century capitalist-colonizer homes. Now, it is the hub for all things culture, art, and business such as the Walters Art Museum and the Maryland Historical Society.

Do not sing their praises just to contribute to their erasure. Eat, drink adn buy Black. If you are looking for fresh beverages and dope ambiance, this juke is worth lending your ear.

Brewer’s Cafe: Richmond, VA

Brewer’s Cafe. Courtesy of Facebook

In the middle of the formerly independent city of Manchester in Virginia, native son Anthony “AJ” Brewer decided that flashy yuppie suits and stocks were not his steez. In October 2015, he along with the help of his friend Adam, opened and maintained the quirky Brewer’s Cafe on the edge of Bainbridge and 12th street.

The lime green walls– channeling that of the popular Nickelodeon-slime– scream at you when facing the counter. The vibrant neon brings nostalgia and an odd immediate cheerfulness. You can spend weeks trying to decide on anything from Red Rooster blends out of Floyd, Virginia, to a soft oatmeal creampie from Poor Georgie’s Bake Shoppe & Cupcakery that sticks to your fingerprints, or even a choice of more than 25 whiskeys and local spirits from Virginia breweries as fares for the day.

A Brewer’s Dream

With a last name like Brewer, there is no question that AJ was destined to leave behind the corporate 9-5 for his son, Parker, and his legacy.

“The beauty in Brewer’s Cafe is that it seems on the outside that it’s this coffee shop that sells drinks and pastries and has events, but as you dig deeper into it, it’s just a dream of a kid who did not want to live a certain lifestyle. Stockbroker, nice suits, meetings and all that stuff. I just genuinely wanted to pursue my own dreams.”

Thank goodness for Brewer that his ambitions materialized out of the matrix for a plethora of community events that have made him a popular Black Virginian with household name recognition in the southern state.

Brewer explains to NBC 12, “You know, we’ve had First Friday events where we shut the block down and have musicians and artists play. There’s a coat rack outside now. There may be close to 600 coats that we’ve actually taken from folks and passed them out to people in need.”

Anthony “AJ” Brewer and son, Parker

“I don’t want [my son] to feel like he has to move to Paris or move to Georgetown to have a quality life. I want him to believe that what his father did is something that he can do, too,” Brewer said. Adding, “We’ve had opportunities to talk to some of the most influential people in Richmond, in the world,” said Brewer.

Offering a hipster experience without the added bourgeois, Brew’s crew sought to reflect Richmond’s social qualities like “diversity and a welcoming, down-to-earth vibe”.

The demographics found in Manchester are as follows according to Data USA, “In 2016, there were 1.33 times more White residents (5,342 people) in Manchester, VA than any other race or ethnicity.” The next largest racial groups and ethnicities being Black and Latino. Outside of English, the most commonly spoken languages being Spanish, Korean, and French among residents.

Thus, the staff at Brewer’s represents the community to a tee. If you want a cup of joe from a place truly representative of the people it serves, look no further than this Brewer.

Coffy Cafe: Washington D.C.

Coffy Cafe. Courtesy of Facebook page.

Growing up, how commonplace was it to see your granny or paw (usually an elder) up early morning, in their chair, with the paper and a pair of readers almost casually placed atop a circular watermark? Coffee would accompany the Black, white and gray-all-over legend in its elite, above- the-fold status.

Now, imagine working that nostalgia into a profitable, community-based business. That is exactly what Philecia Harris, a Washington D.C. educator from New England with roots in the district, envisioned when opening Coffy Cafe in March 2012.

A groovy fusion of fuchsia, pastel yellows and blues tie dye this chic, Black chick founded ’60s and 70s themed crepe and coffee joint, dripping in flair. An afro ladened foxy brown face, similar to Pam Grier, stamped outside marks the location of the  establishment. On the northwest-end of the district, the four large panel windows reveal the middle of Washington D.C.

Crepe topped with strawberries, whip creme and chocolate drizzle. Courtesy of Yahya Sardari, owner of Coffy Cafe.

Common for students and young professionals who often walk within a mile radius, the shop was originally themed as “…a spot for community meetings, wi-fi, to unwind with neighbors, sit with a book and a latte, dine on a sweet or savory crepe or get a cupcake for the kids.”

Harris explains to New Columbia Heights, “I grew up in close knit military communities with layovers and visits to “grandma’s house” in DC and New England, with their corner stores, ethnic bakeries, deli’s, barbershops, community centers etc.  It is my hope that I can create a space that will add to the sense of neighborhood and community even in the Tivoli center which is starting to feel a bit overbuilt for the neighborhood feel.”

Already having a previous custom printing and hand-painting t shirt business, life as a Black business owner was an uphill battle of social ills for Harris. She kept her aforementioned promise by the time she handed over the establishment to Iranian businessman and D.C. transplant, Yahya Sardari.

The Coffy Cafe is meant to feel like a familial living room and kitchen. Mirrors and fro’ed silhouettes line the precious fluorescent beige walls and colorful pillars sprinkled with portraits throughout. Much like nana’s living room, the space feels crowded in the best ways with hoards of eclectic couches, tables, and chairs…oh my!

The idea is to enjoy the den of your childhood dreams that Sardari hopes to maintain.

“There is mixed-matched furniture that I kept” in order to maintain a “warm, comfortable and relaxed” atmosphere customers have come to love.

Chai latte and crepe with powdered sugar as well as chocolate drizzle. Courtesy of Yahya Sardari, owner of Coffy Cafe.

A wide variety of coffees, the boss sources from fourth generation company Orinoco Roaster out of neighboring Jessup, Maryland. For teas, the shop boasts over 25 types sourced nationally from Art of Tea in Los Angeles. The same came be said of the thin, wafer-like Parisian crepes, sandwiches and salads, all items are prepared in-house.

Specialty beverages include house brew made of a Ethiopian and Brazilian mix. Next, there is the warm and earthy best of both worlds (tea and coffee) in their chai latte, regular lattes, etc. that can be bought by the pound.

As Sardari puts it “with a Subway next door,” choosing between a quality quick bite at Coffy Cafe is not a difficult decision. For arguably, according to Sardari, their wraps have the finest, chunkiest Albacore tuna that the DMV has to offer.

Community engagement

Also a communal hub, Sardari holds city council forums so that residents can access their local politicians without hassle. He has already held three gatherings with no charge to anyone.

While remaining impartial, Sardari speaks about the importance of fluidity and transparency between a government and its constituency. Located in ward one, district 1A05 of the eight wards that Washington D.C. has, Sardari wants to connect various city officials, such as commissioner Christine Miller on behalf of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANC) as well as the council women and men of the district, to small businesses.

Coffy Cafe was also one of the sponsors for this past Citi Open, or the Washington Open, a huge tennis tournament held in Washington D.C.

There are a couple changes Sardari would like to implement to further expand the shop’s reach. For instance, the experimental jazz nights on Saturday as well as attempting to secure a liquor license for happy hours scheduled from 5-9 on Friday through Sunday to engage local walking community. Moreover, he is hoping to introduce Iranian kebabs once the colder, more homey weather hits.

Need a home away from home and the office? Have your coffy, and drink it too, at this funky franchise.

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Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, and Afro-Latinidad.

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