Drink It How You Like It
BY JENNA LACEY
Fuel is an integral part of human life—we need gasoline to move our cars, methane to heat our homes, and coffee to catapult ourselves out of bed. Many businesses take advantage of this human need for fuel, and Chattanooga is no exception. In a town with so much growing business that is constantly attracting new professionals, it would be a mark of unintelligence not to capitalize on the particularly vast need there is for caffeine. Otherwise, we run the risk of turning into a city full of miserable, snarky zombies who are so angry about being out of bed, we may swallow someone whole. There’s all kinds of research about the benefits of caffeine. Research from Stanford University says it can help you live longer by preventing inflammation-related diseases; one researcher claims that caffeine can boost motivation and increase sports performance, and many others claim that coffee can make you smarter and more productive, boost your metabolism, and fight depression.
All around Chattanooga, there is certainly no lack of competition between various fuel stations simply because of their proximity to each other. They’re competing to sell the same product in the same area, so how do they make their businesses stand out? Gas stations do it by price. Coffee shops do it by, well, any number of things: products, quality, price, or atmosphere. There are at least twelve coffee shops around downtown Chattanooga, which creates so much competition, you’d think there would be an all-out coffee war in Chattanooga, complete with pastry bombs and espresso-scented battle cries.
“My coffee is more robust!” one business would claim, spraying the ground with broken, locally-made crockery.
“My beans are more ethically sourced,” another would return, drenching their opponents in delicious seasonal drinks.
You get the picture.
However, the sense of competition between the many local specialty coffee shops in Chattanooga is far less dramatic. I talked to many baristas around town to get the scoop on the level of competition (a Coffee War, even), only to find that there isn’t much to speak of aside from “healthy” or “friendly” competition. Each business has its own unique contribution, whether it’s specialty coffee, espresso, or food. These differences make each coffee business stand out from the other one three doors down.
Take Stone Cup and Revelator Coffee Company, for example. Both on Frazier Avenue, they’re within walking distance from each other, but you’ll see a slightly different crowd enter each. This may be perplexing until you look at their menus. Revelator serves very simple coffee and espresso drinks along with a small selection of pastries. Stone Cup, on the other hand, has a full service kitchen as well as a multitude of coffees with flavor add-ins. Revelator serves people who really love coffee in its purest and simplest form, while Stone Cup caters to a slightly larger range of people just because they have more options. Revelator attracts people who come to study, relax, and just drink their coffee, while Stone Cup draws larger groups of families and people who want to stay longer to enjoy their food. Does that make either place superior to the other? Of course not. They just have different things that they offer to the community. Either way, you’re greeted at the door with a smile, and if you’re a regular, they’ll remember your name and your drink order. Some regulars float around from place to place, and some baristas find their caffeine fix somewhere other than where they work, but there are no hard feelings, and no battle lines drawn in the coffee community. It’s like an extended family for some people. During one of my many midday respites at Milk and Honey on Market Street, a young girl locked herself in the bathroom and refused to let her grandfather in. A manager knocked on the door to help.
“Hey Hallie, it’s Sarah. You okay in there?”
The little girl unlocked the door and began to chatter away. Sarah turned the situation over to the grandfather and got a big hug when the pair of regulars left.
Coffee shops provide an escape for artists, students, and other hard-working people in the community. All you have to do is walk in the door and look around—no matter the location, people are there working on their laptops, chatting with friends, reading a book. When I make plans to catch up with a friend, my first suggestion is to grab coffee, and I know I’m not alone. It’s the community-oriented aspect of these businesses that keeps them going and prevents a Coffee War. This is a sacred space, the Switzerland in the war of conflicts we face every day.
“There’s a certain type of crowd that hangs around coffee shops,” one of the friendly baristas at Stone Cup explained to me. He casually invited me into the kitchen to chat as he took orders, prepared drinks, and chatted with his regular customers. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with what they look like on the outside, it’s something in their brains—they’re free thinkers.” Almost as if to illustrate his point, an artist comes down the stairs with two large, brightly colored canvases.
“What’s cool about the coffee places around here is that they do so much more than just serve coffee,” Loretta at Velo’s North Shore location explains. “We’re rooted throughout the city in so many other ways.” For example, Velo serves coffee at multiple restaurants around Chattanooga like Community Pie and Mean Mug. They also organize and participate in events around town such as the Cold Brew Hustle, a competition where participants create and make cold brew concoctions (“boozeless” and “boozeful”). People can sample, watch, eat food, and win prizes in this effort to bring the community together. “That’s the only ‘coffee war’ I know of,” she adds with a laugh. “There’s really not a lot of competition. It’s pretty simple—we love our product, and we love to support the other people who make good coffee.”
The lack of competition is more true for some coffee shops than others. People can be very loyal to their chosen coffee spot, which makes it hard for new places to build their own following of regulars, like Plus Coffee in St. Elmo. “Most of the people we see from day-to-day are just people passing through St. Elmo,” Abby at Plus explains. “It’s harder for us to break into the coffee scene since we’re a little bit farther from downtown.” It’s a quiet spot, but this offers its own benefits. I nanny for a family that lives close by, and Plus Coffee offers a much needed escape when we’re too cooped up in the house—it’s quiet enough that the littles can run some energy off while I get a caffeine fix, and the baristas are very excellent sports to the chorus of “Help you? Help you?” from toddlers who are fascinated with what goes on behind the counter. They’re working on expanding their menu so that they can offer a wide variety of food choices to their customers—mainly in the form of pie (really, really good pie) and (soon) different kinds of toast. Despite their own struggles to break into the coffee world, they still make an effort to give back to the community. They offer training courses for people who want to learn about their process of making coffee, and they offer pop-up stores for special events. Their tips go directly to local causes and charities, such as Widow’s Harvest, a non-profit ministry that provides for widows through services like home repair and emotional support.
In a city that holds so many educational and career opportunities, it’s no wonder that the coffee industry has so many loyal followers. It is interesting, however, that the vast sea of local specialty coffee shops far outnumbers corporate places, such as Starbucks. There could be any number of explanations for that, but the main one is simple. People are used to the local places, some of which have been around for years before Starbucks came to Chattanooga. The city is committed to local businesses, as evidenced by its Shop Local campaign, which designates the Saturday after Black Friday as Small Business Saturday. The coffee shops in town cater to that community feeling, using milk from local Tennessee dairy farms, such as Cruze Farm, as well as their own coffee roasters or other ethically-sourced ones based in the South. There is a very strong sense of loyalty involved—people are loyal to the places that have always been here, to the places that they like, to the places that make an effort to serve local and ethically-sourced products, to the places that provide for them a needed respite from a busy life. “We believe coffee is more than the sum of its elements. Coffee brings people together, and in its simplicity, enlivens our culture—drink it how you like it,” Plus Coffee has written on their webpage. Take a break. Spend time with the people you love. Support the things you believe in.
Drink it how you like it.
Jenna is a first-generation Southerner. Depending on who she spends time with, her accent ranges from upstate-New York Yankee to born-and-bred Tennessean. Her hobbies include writing, reasoning with toddlers, and sneaking her puppy into coffee shops. Her mom likes to compare her to Amy Schumer, and she still isn’t sure if this is an insult or a compliment. She is a first-year grad student at UTC. Someday, she might even graduate. This is her first publication and venture into the world of journalism.