Blew Kind opened her Kensington coffee shop in 2015 with a mission. She called it Franny Lou’s Porch, and designed it to be welcoming to black and brown residents. She hoped creating a space for people of color in the neighborhood could help stall their displacement.
But within three years, Kind herself was priced out of the area.
“I can’t afford this neighborhood anymore,” Kind, a black woman, told Billy Penn. “That’s part of the story. And it’s part of the conversation.”
With her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter in tow, Kind moved to Germantown. On a good day, it’s a half-hour commute to her small business in the neighborhood she used to call home.
It’s no secret Philadelphia is full of new development. Construction is a constant, and apartment complexes are rising in multiple communities. What follows often looks like this: In move the younger, whiter residents, and forced out are those who’ve lived there all their lives, often African American people.
Trendy coffee shops have a reputation of foreshadowing displacement. The phenomenon has even become a punch line: a Denver cafe posted a sign two years ago that joked it had been “happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.”
There’s truth to the sentiment. Research has shown that new cafes have signaled development and rising costs of living in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, New York; Oak Park, Sacramento and Delano, Wichita.
“Coffee shops as an entity are such a representation of white, upper-class culture,” said Isabel Ballester, events coordinator at the Germantown cafe Uncle Bobbie’s. “It’s such a privileged thing.”
But like anything else in Philly, the phenomenon isn’t that simple. In the face of coffee shops that signal irreversible neighborhood change, others work to do the exact opposite.
Across the city, coffee shops like Uncle Bobbie’s, Franny Lou’s and Kayuh engineer their programming and their vibes to attract customers that are usually excluded. And some, like Quaker City and The Monkey & The Elephant, work from the other side, employing Philly’s most vulnerable populations.
“Everything is very intentional, and I think with intentionality, people feel cared for and loved,” said Kind, of Franny Lou’s. “We can create a lot of positive change. The coffee house model is a gateway into connecting and keeping us human.”
It feels like ‘home’
Drop a bicycle repair shop that doubles as an organic coffee house in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood, and there’s a stereotypical divide that comes to mind: The cafe/bike shop would be patronized by the younger, whiter residents, and new viewed as hostile by the older neighbors.
Not so for Kayuh Bicycles and Cafe, according to community residents.
In Francisville, Larry Kane goes by the nickname “Pops.” Self-nicknamed “the mayor of Francisville,” he’s been in the neighborhood close to 40 years.
Kane, 61, visits Kayuh every day, and said the shop is hardly hostile to older residents.
“Everybody who comes in here is friendly,” Kane told Billy Penn in June. “I ain’t never had anybody come in here and disrespect me. The employees, they treat you like you should, like you’re at home. They welcome you in here.”
By Kane’s estimation, his fellow longtime neighbors feel the same way about the shop. He often meets them there for breakfast outside, and he loves attending the regular community events. Kane isn’t a huge cyclist, but the coffee got him in the door.
Reclaiming the space
Ballester, of Uncle Bobbie’s, said gentrification is already reaching the Germantown neighborhood where she grew up in Northwest Philly.
The changes were especially striking when she attended college in North Carolina a few years ago, she said, because each time she returned home for break, there was more new development.
“I just noticed there were so many more white people in my neighborhood,” she said. “The rent is increasing, there’s more flipped housing that’s happening.”
Ballester’s place of work is an exception. “For us, in the midst of all of that, to have a black-owned space that is doing super well is really helpful,” she added.
On the 5400 block of Germantown Avenue, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books was founded last year by Temple professor and former CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who grew up in Philly.
Hill accomplishes the mission in myriad ways, including:
- Stocking books by mostly black authors
- Employing mostly people of color
- Serving traditionally African American foods, like sweet potato pie
- Running regular events, like film screenings, wellness workshops and a community networking series
Lamont Hill’s approach is similar to Franny Lou’s in Kensington. There, customers have access to a lending library and employment opportunities posted near the entrance, and the cafe offers a bartering system, so people without enough money can provide a service instead — Kind has been known to allow folks to watch her kids for a bit in exchange for coffee.
Rushawn Stanley lives just a block away from the shop. He’s there at least twice a week (sometimes more frequently) to grab a coffee, draw, get some work done.
“Coffee shops can be this flagship of gentrification,” Stanley said. “A shop like Franny Lou’s is the exception to that. I think it’s because she has an all-are-welcome, tribe vibe.”
21st-century cafes with ‘grandma’ vibes
The Kensington shop is named for two famous African American activists: Frances E.W. Harper and Fannie Lou Hammer. The menu, too, is a tribute — with names like the Angela Davis, the Sojourner Truth and the Dorothy Day, it looks more like a history text than a list of lattes.
“All of our stuff is from thrift stores, so people feel like they’re home,” Kind said. “They’re like, ‘These plates, I recognize these plates. They remind me of my grandma.'”
The decor at Uncle Bobbie’s is meant to give off a similarly familial vibe.
Lamont Hill modeled the shop after his own uncle’s home. It’s a cozy cafe with dim lamps and twinkle lights, soft couches, and old yellowed cookbook pages repurposed as decoration.
“People come in and they’re like, wow, I feel at home here,” Ballester said. “And that’s so rare for us, to walk into a coffee shop and feel at home.”
With employment, a second chance
While some cafes focus on welcoming their immediate neighbors, others pivot and find other ways to give back. In a city defined by poverty, some see coffee as the equalizer.
Federal Donuts co-owner Bob Logue is among them. Two years ago, he founded Quaker City Coffee — an operation headquartered at 10th and Locust that employs people who are formerly incarcerated.
“Quaker City is meant to be sort of a bridge between the existing micro-coffee industry in Philadelphia and the talented pool of employees and partners who come from literally the other side of the tracks,” Logue said.
The program’s first-ever employee was Jayson McCoy, a 21-year-old Cobbs Creek resident who spent a year in prison before he found the Quaker City program. He works full time as one of three employees, packaging 150 pounds of beans each week.
Through the program, McCoy said he’s gotten a reliable mentor and a sustainable way to stay out of prison.
“I love working here,” he said. “They took a chance with me, and I’d give them 100 percent.”
McCoy imagines a future where he moves up in the coffee industry — perhaps opening his own shop or combining it with his love of marketing.
Another young person inspired by a career in coffee is DJ Cunningham, an Allegheny resident who works at Brewerytown’s The Monkey & The Elephant cafe. He’s part of a year-long program there that employs people who’ve aged out of the foster care system, giving them part-time employment and tons of life skills training.
“The staff, they work with you,” Cunningham said. “If you have problems, you can come to them and tell them.”
Founder Lisa Miccolis said day-to-day operations at M&E present unique challenges, but also unique rewards.
“I took somebody [to get help] who was suicidal, we got somebody out of a domestic violence situation,” Miccolis said. “We’ve had people had immense loss, and we kind of help them work through that while not losing their job.”
Catching up to the bottom line
Nice as they sound, these missions aren’t always lucrative.
Quaker City has scaled back since its 2017 opening by giving up the retail coffee counter. Financially, Logue just couldn’t sustain the operation.
“There was a fair amount of learning curve with setting up a business of this type,” he said. “It was a good experiment, it was a hopeful experiment, but the reality is it wasn’t a sustainable business model.”
So Logue sold the shop. Lucky for him, the next owner, Thane Wright, jumped at the chance to host the roastery in the back of what is now Bower Cafe.
Likewise, Franny Lou’s owner almost had to close last year. At that time, Kind said, she simply wasn’t making enough money.
But then, in March, two African American businessmen were arrested at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks. Suddenly, folks wanted to boycott the coffee chain, and sought black-owned coffee instead.
“That lifted us up,” Kind said. “We jumped. We’re up 60 percent from last year.”
Cafes alone can’t keep people in their own neighborhood. But for long-time residents, they can make a difference. Stanley, the regular customer at Franny Lou’s, couldn’t imagine his neighborhood without it.
“I wish more shops took note of what’s going on over there,” he said. “It’s a shining example of how to do a coffee shop.”