Why you should care
Because in partisan America, politics have taken over the cafe.
When Evan Hafer decided to start a coffee company after logging 20 years in military and government service, he visited java joints along the West Coast, from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland. He began to notice the same liberal motifs played out over and over again. One establishment had hung a photo of the president at the time, George W. Bush, with a black line printed across it. “Everybody in the coffee shop was fine with that,” says Hafer, who considers himself primarily a libertarian. “I wasn’t.”
And so when Hafer launched the Black Rifle Coffee Company in Salt Lake City in 2014, the former Green Beret wanted it to be a place where he and others like him didn’t feel discounted for their political views — a place where he could combine his passion for guns and coffee while supporting veterans. “The company is born from this very ignorant, progressive boutique coffee culture speaking from some sort of caffeinated authority,” he says.
Welcome to the conservative side of coffee.
These coffee shops are proving that something as universal as coffee can be political.
This year 62 percent of American adults will consume coffee, a market that accounts for roughly $73 billion annually, according to the Specialty Coffee Association. While coffee shops started out as centers of community and discussion, as the country has become increasingly partisan, those conversations are being siloed.
In recent years Black Rifle, Operator Coffee, Guns & Grounds and similar outfits have started attracting veterans and the pro-Second Amendment crowd fed up with Starbucks and other mainstream retailers and independent cafes that promote liberal causes like same-sex marriage, refugees and anti-gun legislation. In February, for example, more than 800 cafes in 41 states participated in a weekend-long fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union. Whether or not the initial intent of Black Rifle and others of its kind was to attract conservatives, that’s in fact what happened. These coffee shops are proving Americans want to put their money where their politics are — and that something as universal as coffee can be political.
Whether bringing politics into coffee portends further partisanship remains to be seen. Coffee consultant Andrew Hetzel sees it as part of a larger trend. “There is definitely a movement for American consumers to financially support or patronize companies that share their ideals,” he says, “and I see that as a good thing.”
At Black Rifle’s company HQ and coffee shop in Salt Lake City, signs alert customers that firearms are welcome. Inside, retail manager Matthew Melancon, a double amputee who lost his legs fighting in Afghanistan, greets the clientele — mostly men ages 25 to 40, many of them veterans and first responders. They belly up to the sleek java bar and order blends with names like Silencer Smooth and Sniper’s Hide while admiring murals that depict American soldiers from the Revolutionary War onward. Cup of joe in hand, they sip at a counter along the window, sink into a tufted leather armchair or gather around a large table laser-cut with the image of a snake and the slogan “Coffee or Die.”
Rather than outright conservative, Hafer sees Black Rifle as inclusive — a place where pro-gun, pro-military, right-leaning Americans are comfortable rubbing elbows with liberals and anyone in between. That sentiment was echoed by everyone interviewed for this story. They say their brands are less about conservative politics and more about letting people express their beliefs without being judged.
Russell Volz opened Lake City Coffee, which operates in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington, in June 2016. While he considers himself a conservative Christian, his business goal is selling coffee roasted the old-fashioned way, low and slow — not spreading political messages. However, shortly before the 2016 presidential election, he received an email from a supplier suggesting customers voting for Donald Trump should take their business elsewhere.
After that email, Volz decided to be more open about his politics, and conservative customers followed. When he recently asked a new customer how she learned about Lake City Coffee, she told him, “‘I’m just sick and tired from the baloney I’m hearing out of Starbucks, so I typed in [the search engine] ‘the most conservative coffee roaster in America.’” Lake City Coffee popped up.
“Doc” Brandon Buttrey, a veteran and the owner of the online and mail-order Counter Strike Coffee, says he’s more interested in helping other vets through coffee than politics. Still, he believes that in today’s world, everyone gets placed in a political box. “They’re going to associate you with something,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what party.”
Coffee shops still provide Americans with a place for community and discussion, but now there’s the option of avoiding chatter you don’t like. Nevertheless, everyone’s invited, as long as they like good coffee. “We want people to celebrate freedom,” Hafer says. “As long as you’re celebrating your beliefs and not trying to impede others … we’re going to be friends.”