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Feature

October 16, 2020
What It’s Like Opening A Black-Owned Coffee Shop & Community Space In 2020
Our conversation with owner DarNesha Weary of soon-to-be-opened Black Coffee in Shoreline.
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As a racial equity consultant, DarNesha Weary is an expert on building diverse and inclusive communities. And when the opportunity came to open a coffee shop in Shoreline, she jumped at the chance to create a safe space where community members can sit down over a cup of coffee and have meaningful conversations about social justice.

After working through challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and a recent arson attempt, she’s about to open Black Coffee on Saturday, October 17th - complete with a drive-through, beans from Boon Boona, a voter registration drive, and traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremonies.

We sat down for a conversation with Weary and discussed Black Coffee’s story, her family’s involvement, and the best ways for allies to support BIPOC-owned businesses.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Aimee Rizzo: When will Black Coffee officially be open?

DarNesha Weary: We will be officially open on October 17th. Now I can say that, like, boldly.

A: How did you get started with it, and where did the idea for Black Coffee come from?

D: Yeah, so my husband and I, we’ve been doing community organizing and community work with a focus of Black youths especially for the past 20 years. And we live in an area that’s predominantly white. In fact, there’s only two Black teachers in the whole school district. There’s no Black admin, there’s no Black people in our city council, so there’s no representation.

And so, we have been filling that void in the community by just hosting events for youths, and teaching youths about just getting involved with their community. We’ve done so many things over the years, but have never had a place to do it at. I always laugh, because home base is usually our home, our garage, our car. It looks like a mini-community center in our garage. We’re constantly just responding to the community and what they need. And so, this opportunity came open to take ownership of this space three months ago...on Aurora Avenue.

Aurora Avenue North is kind of a rough street. There’s a lot of drug use, and there’s a large homeless population, and there’s a lot of prostitution. So it turns a lot of businesses away or off. But when we found that space open, that’s exactly what we wanted. I wanted to be right in the middle of the action, so we can respond and help. And so we just bought it. I laugh because after we did it I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what did we just do?’

My husband and I have never been in the restaurant industry. We didn’t know anything about coffee besides we love to drink it and I love the taste. And there was a particular coffee [shop] that I love called Boon Boona, and they source their coffee directly from Africa from their farmers, and they have a whole story and education behind it. It’s very responsible, and it’s a Black-owned business as well. And so we immediately reached out to them, like, ‘Hey. We just bought a coffee restaurant too, and we would love to connect with you and learn from you’ And immediately, like, in the hour, [the owner] called us. And we went there, and we just started learning about coffee. I feel like we have our Bachelor’s in coffee now because we spent 40, 50 hours just there. And he’s a business owner too, and eventually, we could be a competitor, right?

But it didn’t matter in that moment. It was more about building the community. And so, we have a staff now, a team that’s ready to go, we selected our beans, and it’s like a community effort. But that’s just who we are. And the fact that the community responded in this way is like a dream come true. It’s actually surreal for me. It was amazing how quickly it came together.

A: How would you best describe what Black Coffee is to the general public?

D: Black Coffee is a place where a community will be made and created, whatever that means for you. You can decide what your community is. We also want to be a catalyst for change, a place for the hard conversations. We want this to be the place where everyone can come together. The whole community - Black people, white people, to heal and to address hard things that are happening right now. We’re inviting people to actually come and have these conversations over a cup of coffee.

A: Being a small business preparing to open both during a pandemic and as the victim of an arson attempt, how have those experiences shaped you and your team’s perspective on the business as a whole?

D: What it has taught me, our team, is that we are grounded. Our tagline is ‘Grounded In Excellence.’ When you are grounded in excellence with everything you do, when your foundation is solid, you can’t be shaken. You can’t be shaken because our foundation is community, period. You come in for coffee and you’re going to leave with community.

We knew it was going to be hard. I’ve never even worked in a restaurant before. But I want to serve the community, and that’s what matters, and that’s what drives me. I do it with joy because I want to serve the community this way. So nothing else matters to me. We just want to open those doors and open the drive-through and serve. And that’s it.

Our grand opening celebration is a voter registration drive. We partnered with the NAACP. Our youth leaders have planned this event, they’re doing a mock registration drive for kids so they’re ready to vote. That’s who we are. And so of course we’re going to do a voting registration drive at our grand opening. We have a group of youths that we’ve been working with for the past 20 years. They’re the ones that planned the voter registration drive, the drive-through, and they’re also planning a coat drive on the same day, so it’s just amazing to watch these kids, especially these young Black kids who have never had positions of power or felt like they were included in something, feel included in this work. Everyone laughs at me but my favorite words are like, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s figure it out. Let’s figure it out and build it.’

A: And so, in the long term, what do you hope to achieve with Black Coffee, both as part of the Seattle coffee shop universe, and then also as that community hub?

D: I want to make sure that we bring diversity to the coffee space in Seattle. Especially, actually, across the country. Because the hardest thing we had to do was to find Black baristas. My goal is that Black Coffee becomes a movement, and multiple Black Coffees open up all over the place, and it gives the opportunity for Black people to own something. You know, we want to franchise out, and make sure that it’s low-barrier, to make sure that Black people can own coffee shops that are grounded in community.

Also, I couldn’t find Black baristas, I had a hard time. And so, we have decided to do a barista training program. Youths at 16 will come in and do an eight-week training program with us. And after that they’ll be able to either work with us but we’re gonna do job assistance and job placement at our shops around.

A: Oh, I love that. That’s really cool.

D: You know, we were having a hard time finding diversity within the coffee world, I’m like, ‘let’s just create it.’ So let’s start bringing on people who were interested and want to learn about coffee and selling beans because our eyes are open to this world, like it’s huge. Everything that we’ve done and learned, we’re bringing people with us intentionally, so they can learn also and they can be empowered to open their own space, or be a barista, or be a roaster.

We bought a roasting machine because we learned the importance of roasting. My husband fell in love with roasting coffee. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, we have to open first.’ But we have a couple of boys who have been having a hard time just finding their place and their space, and they fell in love with the idea of roasting their own beans. And so we bought a roaster. And, it’s in Olympia, which is far from us, and they’ve worked with a gentleman who’s teaching them how to roast beans so they can do their own line of coffee. We’re just gonna keep doing it. We’re just gonna keep responding and keep finding ways to insert ourselves in this world. If it’s not there, let’s figure out how to get there.

A: You also mentioned doing a traditional coffee ceremony. What will that experience be like?

D: I am so excited for this part. So, as we learned about the history of coffee, about where it started in Ethiopia, and the beans, and the whole story, and we learned also that coffee’s very important in the Ethiopian community. And so, we want to honor that. We also wanted to make sure that our Black American community understood the origin and the history and the significance of coffee in Africa. Because that’s something that I didn’t know. You know, my kids didn’t know, and a lot of other kids didn’t know that they have this legacy.

And we want to introduce the traditional coffee ceremony to our community. And so we’ve connected with an Ethiopian family, they have a committee, a task force, to tell us, teach us why coffee is so important. You sit around, they roast the beans, they do it all. And so, we’re going to host that at Black Coffee. We’re going to do it every hour at our opening ceremony, and then we’re going to do it once a week with the Ethiopian community. They’re going to come in, do their traditional ceremony, and we’re all going to sit around and have coffee. Together.

A: We’ve talked about how Black Coffee is rooted in providing a safe space in the community that might not be there otherwise. What are your thoughts on this past summer of protest and the CHOP, and how did that influence you opening the coffee shop?

D: So, my daughter is an activist. She’s 17 years old. And this summer she just activated. She activated in a way I’ve never seen her activate. She protested every day. She hosted protests in Shoreline where we live. The one in Shoreline brought out 5,000 people. It was the largest protest I had ever seen in this area. And then she hosted one in Edmonds.

Now, as she was doing this, more kids in other families start catching on to what she was doing, and start asking questions, right? Like, ‘Why is she doing this? Aren’t you afraid, like your daughter’s out there?’ And so I started doing some education around protesting. Why it’s important. Why we’re out there. And so I start using that opportunity to tell her story. But people start asking questions, like ‘Why is she out there, and as her mom, why do you let her go to CHOP?’, and ‘That’s so irresponsible.’ Things like that. And so, it was a phenomenal experience for us because we were able to say, first of all, she’s 17 and her friends are all in middle and high school. They’re making a big impact, they’re telling the story because they’re passionate about what’s happening in the world.

And my son was also a victim of a hate crime. That was two years ago, and it was all over the news, and it was devastating for our family, and he’s alive, thank god. But, we realized in that moment that he could have been another hashtag. He could have been another t-shirt. Another cause for a protest. And we decided to use this opportunity with the social uprising to continue to tell the story of the Black community and let people know that this stuff happens right here. In your neighborhood. On your street. Every day. It’s not the big things all the time, it’s the small things. What’s happening with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd [is] terrible, but that happens right here in your neighborhood. It just didn’t result in death, thank god. We have a lot of issues in this area. And so, we’ve been able to tell those stories and bring exposure to that.

A: And on that topic, there has been a huge outpouring of support for Black-owned businesses. What are your thoughts on that?

D: You know, I think it’s great. Right? And I want to know, first, why now? Like, I don’t want to be your project, right? I really want you to understand what’s happening in the Black community right now. And then support us. And support us intentionally. We’ve turned some dollars away actually from some organizations that just don’t align with who we are, but also from organizations who have outrightly in the past been very racist and are trying to use this opportunity to save themselves. And I can’t do it. Because you’re still causing harm. Like, that just doesn’t feel good to me. And so, we have turned some of that away but we also have some organizations and businesses who are really, like, ‘We’re here for the cause, the long haul, you have a voter registration drive, like we want to be there for that.’ We want to work with those people.

A: There has also been a reckoning in food media about identity, transparency, and food origins. Is there anything that you would like to see in food media covering coffee shops, especially ones that are BIPOC-owned?

D: Tell the story of the family. If it’s a Black-owned, if it’s [a] BIPOC-owned business, most of the time we’re not showing up with millions of dollars in the bank, and all of these resources. Usually, it’s us deciding we want to do this for our family and we’re just jumping in. And so, telling the story of the family. Most businesses that we’ve been in contact with that are BIPOC-owned [are] like, ‘My wife’s involved,’ and ‘My kids are involved,’ like, ‘Our family’s bought this.’ Those are the stories that I would love to hear. Because they’re really doing the work. And because they’ve had to figure it out, because for the most part we’re not coming with big bank accounts. And so, we’ve had to figure out how to connect with our community in an authentic way. And I think that’s what’s important, because a lot of big organizations are...trying to figure out how to connect to this community and what to do, but the smaller businesses, we already know what to do. Because that’s how we’ve started.

A: And what’s the best way to support businesses and communities you care about right now?

D: I would say, ask them how they want you to show up. And just do that. So if it’s telling the story, if it’s financially, if it’s resource-wise, it’s just, ‘What do you need?’ And then also anticipating and understanding that in the Black community right now, we are exhausted, tired, scared, all the things. And trying to run a business. And trying to be parents. I’m terrified, my son’s in college in a small white town, right? He’s already been victim of a racist incident. As a mom, I get scared of that. But then I also have to open up this coffee shop. But I still carry the weight of the world on my back. Every day. And all of my friends are feeling the same way, that we’re just tired. We need people to show up, we really do. And just show up authentically or ready to serve. You show up the way you show up. Like, find your lane and do your part and that’s it.

A: To wrap up, is there anything else we didn’t cover that you want readers to know?

D: I would love readers, especially women, especially Black or BIPOC individuals, that when you’re passionate about something and when you know you’re supposed to do something, just do it. We knew that we were supposed to do this. It was deeper than just opening a restaurant or a coffee place and I know others feel the same way, they’re deeply passionate about what’s going on in the world and have a cause or a passion. Build around that passion, build around that cause, and everything else will fall in place. It sounds crazy for me to even say it out loud now because everything feels like it’s not falling in place in the moment, but I still feel like this is the right thing that we’re supposed to do.

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