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Bartholomew Jones

Memphis, Tennessee

Bartholomew Jones on what it means to “make coffee Black again”

In our three conversations with Bartholomew Jones of Cxffeeblack and the Anti Gentrification Coffee Club, one thing became abundantly clear: You can never just have a conversation with Bartholomew Jones. You don’t exchange niceties on the weather and business, talk shop, hang up, then go about your day. Instead, you engage in a dialogue that spans topics such as race, gentrification, hip-hop, economics, and the inherent inequity in coffee shops. Then, when the conversation has ended, you spend the next month unpacking everything he just said. Luckily, we had a recorder.

Photos by Erin Kim

Hey Barista

Give us the quick rundown on the Anti Gentrification Coffee Club, which is the physical space that your company, Cxffeeblack, runs in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

 

Bartholomew

The Anti Gentrification Coffee Club started as kind of a joke. Like, “Yo. What if a coffee shop was the antithesis of everything they normally are, especially when they gentrify a neighborhood.” We tried it, and then people started slowly coming. We ended up getting on the local news, and people got really excited. Then Twizz, the only Black person to win a latte art championship, said, “I want to come do a free training so that you all have access to some real coffee knowledge.” I was like, “Okay, I guess we’re doing this now.”

 

 

Hey Barista

One of the most fascinating points you make is that coffee is a $200 billion industry in the United States, and it’s inherently Black in regard to where it originated and where it’s cultivated. Yet Black people are oftentimes left out of the industry in an economically meaningful way.

Bartholomew

That’s the piece, man. And at the end of the day, hiring more Black baristas at white coffee shops that exist in white and/or gentrified neighborhoods doesn’t address the issue at the heart of why there is inequity, which is that the wealth distribution is unequally spread. There has to be a systemic change.

There’s a lot of resources being galvanized to support equity in coffee, which is cool, but most of those resources still end up being diverted toward majority-owned institutions or spaces. There’s not a lot of resources being developed to help people find ownership, not just employment for the sake of diversity.

Businesses can generate other businesses. They can educate people. They can mentor people. They can do apprenticeships. They can do franchises. An individual employee is really only going to get a promotion and a pay raise.

 

 

Photos by Erin Kim

Hey Barista

So what are the obstacles to realizing a more meaningful piece of the pie?

Bartholomew

A big part of it is going to be educating demographics about the value that can be found in a coffee shop. There are a lot of things that happen at your average coffee shop that anyone would enjoy. The issue is that people oftentimes don’t feel welcome in or are unaware of those spaces. Some of it is honestly just putting the space in a place where someone can reach it—where someone who’s been historically unable to access it is able to access it. You know what I mean?

Hey Barista

I can see how the education part is tackled. When you talk about Black ownership and wealth generation, have you thought about which people you need to bring to the table to actually fund the development of these small businesses?

Bartholomew

That’s part of the conversation I want to have with the industry this year. I think the press and work we’ve done with outlets like Barista Magazine has helped people to say, “Hey, there’s another way to look at a coffee shop.” But coffee magazines are insular. Press outside of coffee has been the most helpful piece. Like being in Essence or Vice.

Photos by Erin Kim

Hey Barista

So if press is the first stage, how do you take it to the next place of getting some of these ideas funded?

 

 

Bartholomew

I don’t know what it would be like to actually have a group of people who are on a board, have capital, and allocate that capital to people who are interested in applying for it. But I think something like that is what needs to happen if we’re going to actually address the inequity in Black communities.

Hey Barista

One thing you have a strong opinion on is the notion that coffee shops have often been used as a flare to white communities to say, “It’s safe here. This neighborhood is gentrifying.”

Bartholomew

For sure. For me, the issue surrounding coffee shops is complex. Gentrification is complex. In and of itself, [gentrification] is a neutral term. “Introducing the gentry.” You’re introducing the resources of the gentry. You’re introducing investment. But because of historical practices such as redlining [discriminatory lending policies], oftentimes the neighborhoods where the resources are being introduced are full of people who have never been allowed to own the homes they live in. Because there’s a lack of ownership, people are not able to benefit from the introduction of resources into their community.

Now, in my opinion, where coffee shops come into play is that they’re marketing tools. It makes the house and the neighborhood more attractive to someone who otherwise may not have been interested because “I can get a nicer house, or a bigger house, or a newer house in the suburbs, but I’ll take this ‘not as nice’ house because there’s something hip and interesting about it.”

Photos by Erin Kim

Hey Barista

And your response to that has been Cxffeeblack and the Anti Gentrification Coffee Club.

Bartholomew

What our goal is with the coffee shop is to center those people who are historically residents in the neighborhood at the heart of the coffee shop. For instance, we’ve got weekly cyphers every week on Fridays. We’ve got a ton of local artists. At one point, we had 20 artists out here making beats and rapping all at the same time.

Our hope is to make it impossible for [real estate] developers to use our space, the Anti Gentrification Coffee Club, as a marketing point.

 

 

Hey Barista

What has been the reception to Cxffeeblack and the Anti Gentrification project among the community within Memphis?

Bartholomew

One of the most powerful examples is the story behind our second location. Our second location is going to be in Orange Mound, which is the first neighborhood built by and for Black people in the history of the United States.

There’s a large redevelopment project there, and it’s run by two Black arts organizations. Their experience with coffee has been your hipster-y shops or your third-wave shops or Starbucks. When they were thinking about who they wanted to bring [to Orange Mound], they reached out to us because they’d seen the growth we had and the relationship we had with various Black institutions. But they also realized, “Hey, we know these guys. We’ve sat down with them. We’ve had meals with them. We’ve seen the way they interact with the community.”

 

 

Photos by Erin Kim

Hey Barista

In one of the interviews you gave, you talked about growing up broke in Memphis, where the notion of spending $20 on a bag of coffee would have been absurd. Do you ever fear that the coffee you’re roasting is not accessible enough to the community?

Bartholomew

That was one of the scary things when we started. We started out with 50 pounds of coffee—natural Guji—that was really great. But I was like, “This is going to price people out, and it’s just going to end up being a lot of hipsters who buy the coffee.” We had this release party at Comeback Coffee here in Memphis in June 2019. The coffee sold out in 10 days. When we looked at the sales, over 90 percent of it was to Black individuals, to Black working-class people who were just fans of hip-hop, artists, and a part of the creative class.

Also, the Anti Gentrification Coffee Club has been really, really dope because we can actually give brewed coffee away and teach people how to make coffee. So even if it seems expensive, once you look at the math, you’re actually spending about a dollar or 90 cents a cup if you were to get an AeroPress and go home and learn how to make coffee that we can grind for you.

Hey Barista

I guess what started as an experiment has come a long way.

Bartholomew

It’s crazy. But I think that’s the power of coffee and that’s the power of Black people being able to engage with it on their own terms, not just in a way that makes white people feel comfortable.