Black-Owned Coffee Shops Reclaim the Culture in Charlotte
Hold the cream
Coffee was born in and is indigenous only to Africa. In fact, it is named for its region of origin, Kaffa, a province in southwest Ethiopia. The region, now a part of Oromia, is where the sacred plant Coffee Arabica, which we are most familiar with today, is rooted.
This means the Oromia people who discovered coffee were harvesting, “washing,” roasting, brewing and creating ceremonies for almost 1,000 years before the rest of the world became aware of the bean’s existence. An almost $500-billion industry, coffee could be considered our last socially acceptable drug.
And despite having come from Black people, that same population is underrepresented in today’s U.S. coffee industry, which is expected to bring in more than $80 billion this year with no expectation of a stoppage in growth. So what does representation in Charlotte look like? There are a handful of Black-owned coffee shops that are keeping Charlotteans caffeinated.
I hop off of a flight from New York and check my DM’s. Joe Keenan, owner of Evoke Coffee, has invited me to an event he’s hosting called Coffee After Dark. I can’t turn down an invite to a sold-out event, so I’m in there. The event boasts prominent Charlotte artists, such as Dammit Wesley on the turntables and Joél Baang, who is alongside the DJ booth setting up paintings.
At Coffee After Dark, one can sip coffee (spiked or otherwise), dance and build on important community topics, which feels like the win I need today. This intersection of coffee, community and art is clearly where Keenan thrives.
When we sit down the next morning, he serves me the blueberry cinnamon latte that I’ve continuously seen on my social media timeline. It’s not just hype; the coffee is surprisingly delicious. He shares that, like many of his house-made syrups, he came up with the flavor on a whim, and it has stuck from there.
Evoke Coffee is located inside CLT Hub, a spot on West Morehead Street that is becoming exactly what the name suggests. Right now, Keenan’s coffee setup is across from the bar in the space, but CLT Hub owner Jeff Matchen envisions so much more.
Keenan says being Black in coffee, particularly craft coffee, is important for representation. For the father of three, it’s vital to be not only a coffee shop owner, but a continuous resource for the community.
“Coffee has always been a connector, you never know who’s gonna walk into a coffee shop. It promotes diversity; even though ownership isn’t diverse,” Keenan said.
And he is working to change that. He told me about recently helping out a young man who had dreams of coffee ownership. Keenan purchased the student’s first coffee cart.
“His family wondered what I wanted in exchange,” he recalled. But that’s the thing, for this barista/owner, the exchange and joy is simply in giving back to the community.
When I ask Keenan if he thinks about coffee as Black, he said he does, and he learned much of what he knows about that history from CxffeeBlack.
“Link me,” I say.
Within five minutes, I receive a call from founder Maurice Henderson II, better known as Bartholomew Jones, who’s on the way with his wife and business partner, Renata Henderson, to a debut screening of their upcoming docuseries in Houston. The couple owns CxffeeBlack, a company that, as described on its website, “is primarily an entrepreneurial venture with specific social implications, to reclaim the Black history of coffee and reimagine its Black future.”
Among other things, CxffeeBlack offers up a coffee named Guji Mane, named for the Guji zone in the Oromia region of Ethiopia where the couple has, with intention, sat down and cultivated holistic meaningful relationships with farmers and community leaders.
Mane listen! I’m sold. I pace back and forth across the Evoke Coffee shop with caffeinated excitement.
A Memphis native, Jones explains that his goal is to help “create an entire Black supply chain” complete with growers, harvesters, Q Graders and beyond.
Creating dignity in coffee farming and trustworthy relationships in a land that has been abhorrently colonized is supreme.
Jones tells me Black women were the original roasters of the world, a fact that gives me goosebumps (there’s nothing like seeing yourself in your legacy). In fact, his wife Renata, head roaster of Guji Mane, runs a program called SIT that mentors and trains other Black women in Memphis to roast coffee.
Look out for the documentary titled CxffeeBlack to Africa, which chronicles the couple’s journey to Ethiopia. You can follow all CxffeeBlack ventures on their Instagram account @cxffeeblack.
I thank Keenan, as now it’s time for me to leave Evoke and make a Detour.
Coffee trucks and trailers
Mike Hargett, owner of Detour coffee truck, gives me a warm smiling welcome to go with the delicious fragrant smells of roasted beans and multiple brews. Hargett began as a bookstore barista in the late 1990s, and never lost his love for books or coffee. After 10 years in corporate America, he returned to the industry.
“I started my own coffee bar because I wanted to return to the direct impact on customers and community — something that was lost in the corporate environment,” he tells me.
When Hargett launched Detour Coffee in 2019, hybrid coffee-shop trucks were still a fairly new concept. For that reason, securing their space in the market was challenging. With determination and steady work though, people are now lining up in the different spots where Detour shows up on any given day.
“Being a Black-owned coffee business is a proud moment for myself, my family and the local community,” says Hargett. “We absolutely love serving schools in which students, especially Black and brown kids, can see themselves in an industry that they may not have considered.”
Detour specializes in occasional themed menus, such as a ’90s menu that allows customers — or Detourists, as Hargett calls them — to sip on a “Destiny’s Chai” or a “Notorious BLU” lemonade. Aspiring Detourists can follow their schedule and find where they’ll be on Instagram at @detourcoffeebar.
In a similar community-themed sentiment, Blue Bison Coffee owner Mia Kennedy Wallace tells me “coffee is for everyone.”
During the pandemic, Wallace and her fellow stay-at-home mom friends found themselves without their usual escape.
“All of the coffee shops were closed and I said, ‘I think I can do this,’” she recalls.
She bought a trailer, fixed it up and soon the mamas showed up. When things began to open back up, she began receiving requests and support from Black-owned businesses on the west side of Charlotte.
I ask about the name Blue Bison, and Wallace responds that it’s a nod to her alma mater, HBCU Howard University, where she received her degree in business. She also confessed that her drive for entrepreneurship is fueled by her parents’ own shining example. (Full disclosure: I worked for one of their businesses while in college.)
Wallace is currently gearing up for the spring season. To find where Blue Bison will be next, follow her Instagram page @bluebisoncoffee, which lists the business’ menu and schedule.
Coffee is an art
My new neighborhood coffee spot might just be Days Under Sun coffee, which is located in Area 15 off North Davidson Street. Specializing in drip, cold brew and pour-overs, they also plan to add some baked goods soon.
Owner and North Carolina native Tecoby Hines got his start working for the popular Raleigh area company, Black and White Coffee Roasters.
Hines is also a rapper, and a talented one at that. His 2020 release Drip, recognized as Best Debut in Queen City Nerve’s Best in the Nest that year, was inspired by his time behind the counter at Enderly Coffee in west Charlotte. His latest release, Days Under Sun, goes hand-in-hand with his latest coffee venture.
“The aim is keep things simple, serve Black people and other persons of color by way of coffee,” Hines tells me. “We’re inviting people to share our love for coffee, but also our love for creativity in light of the beauty of Blackness, soulfulness in different backgrounds. We want to see more people that look like us in the space, with joy and belonging.”
The newly opened shop is starting out operating from 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays and Saturdays.
If you want to get back to the true roots of coffee, Yodite Tesafye has you covered at Abugida Ethiopian Cafe & Restaurant. I ask owner Tesafye what coffee meant to her growing up in an Ethiopian home.
“For us, coffee has traditionally been a ceremonial affair with a deep, spiritual meaning, conducted at home,” she says, then goes on to describe a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony as she grew up with and still takes part in almost daily.
“The beans are roasted in an open pan so that their rich aroma draws family, neighbors and other guests to gather. We ground the coffee with a mortar and pestle, the coffee is brewed in a thing called ‘jebena’ and poured into small cups,” she explains.
“Cups are filled to the top, representing a wish for ‘fullness of life’ for the guest, and there are three servings, the last of which is called baraka, or blessing. The whole coffee ceremony, we burn Frankincense to give it a more intimate feeling.”
The traditional coffee ceremony usually lasts about one to two hours.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Tesafye says her family-run business has discontinued full coffee ceremonies at Abugida, however you can still get a personal table ceremony complete with Frankincense. You can also experience the full ceremony at Red Sea Ethiopian and Eritrean Cuisine.
In the spirit of ceremony, I asked each Charlotte coffee connoisseur what their personal ritual with coffee looks like.
Joe Keenan: “To start, it’s all about the process and measurement. I drink a latte with honey and oat milk while I enjoy my second meditation of the morning.” During this time, he pulls from a deck of affirmation cards while he sips.
Mike Hargett: “My personal coffee ritual is actually NOT to drink anything before working. It sounds crazy, but coffee is a diuretic and there is no bathroom on the truck,” he explains, laughing.
Mia Kennedy Wallace: “My ritual with coffee is to always start the day with a cup of coffee outside alone.” Wallace says she always makes sure to wake a little earlier no matter what, to make sure this happens.
Tecoby Hines: “My coffee ritual lately has been pour-overs, mainly because that’s what I’m serving.” Hines added that he often enjoys his coffee while reading his Bible, spending time writing and focusing on making the most of his day.
Yodite Tesafye: “For me, personally, it’s sleeping in the morning and smelling my mom roasting coffee in an open fire and that will wake me up from my sleep, and us gathering together having coffee and having conversation with each other.”
For more information on the origin of coffee, signup for my upcoming class at Jasiatic.com or via Instagram @jasiatic. Follow Evoke coffee on Instagram at @evokecoffeeco, Abugida at @abugidacafe, and Days Under Sun at @daysundersuncoffee.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.