Minority Owned Coffee Shops—The Blowback Developers Never Saw Coming

As brokers open up inner city coffee shops to trigger gentrification, local business owners aren’t letting them it all their own way.

By Jeff Vasishta March 30, 2017

The most unlikely offshoot to gentrification has to be the emergence of coffee as its bedfellow. The sign that a java joint is about to open its doors in a once downtrodden neighborhood sends fear through the local residents. Headlines such as “South Bronx Gets High-End Coffee; Is Gentrification Next?” and “Do developer-owned coffee houses accelerate NYC gentrification?” have all contributed to the notion that that a coffee shop is the precursor to a massive neighborhood change. But do coffee shops get a bum rap where gentrification is concerned? Is the power of the coffee bean really so great?

The fact that real estate brokers have been profiled as being the muscle behind some coffee shops in gentrifying Brooklyn and Harlem would imply that coffee does indeed pack a powerful punch. But there may now be a flip side to the story. Aware of the “whites in blacks out” connotation of new java spot, minority owned establishments are now starting to sprout in inner cities. It’s a fledgling occurrence but one which works well for all concerned with gentrifiers assuage any guilt they may feel by helping a local minority owned business thrive. It may not stop the tidal wave of displacement but it’s rose in Spanish Harlem and potentially many other “Harlems” around the country.

RelatedBed-Stuy Says Goodbye To A Three Decade Old Artist Haven As Gentrification Takes Hold

In his book The Edge becomes the Center, DW Gibson, a New York journalist and author, took an in-depth look at gentrification in New York in his book The Edge becomes the Center, including the coffee house brokers. “Whenever you ask anyone in a city, What’s the picture of gentrification? Nine out of ten people will say it’s the coffee shop,” the author told NY Curbed. Gibson referred to the cost of a $4 coffee in many of these neighborhood establishments cleared targeting an newer, affluent demographic than long standing residents.

But he is quick to mention coffee shops that have embraced rather than displaced the local community. The Currency Exchange on Chicago’s South Side is one he is quick to give props to. Opened by renowned artist Theaster Gates, other local local artists were hired as staffers so that the neighbors—mostly young, black residents—would see people like themselves behind the counter. Also in Chicago is the black-owned Sip & Savor, which now has three separate locations.

RelatedSurvey Shows Gentrification Continues To Change Neighborhoods Throughout Brooklyn

Portland, America’s whitest big city, has also seen some local black businesses thrive amid rampant gentrification, one being Deadstock Coffee, a sneaker-themed cafe in Old Town opened by former Nike employer, Ian Williams.

“Going from being a janitor into footwear was kind of the same thing as starting a sneaker cafe,” Williams told Williamette Week. “People told me I wasn’t going to make it without a degree. But I like doing things I’m not supposed to do.”

In Brownsville, Brooklyn, 3 Black Cats seems to have got a jump on gentrification in the neighborhood. Funded by The Dream Big Innovation Center, the business also include a place for entrepreneurs in the neighborhood to receive business training and mentorship.

“We were looking to invest in Brownsville because everywhere else has already gentrified,” Pernell Brice, 42, the executive director of Dream Big told the NY Daily News.

The fact that 3 Black Cats is there at all, long before any broker funded coffee shops decided to catch a ride in the slipstream of impending gentrification, gives hope to locals who have never been around successful, minority owned businesses.

“When there aren’t resources in the community, you have the narrative of high crime and poverty and all of those things,” co-owner Ionna Jimenez told Metro. “We just have to provide [the people] with tools and resources for them to jumpstart and get ready to become entrepreneurs and open businesses and make the change.” She added: “The café is a visual, consistent message of change and realizing that change can happen from within. We don’t need people to come from outside of Brownsville to say ‘these are the changes.”

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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