Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club: A Community’s Living Room

(above photo: Renata Johnson and Bartholomew Jones of CxffeeBlack)

I get off the number 1 at Broad and Tillman, an empty lot next to me and a business catty corner to it. I start walking and by the time I hit Summer and National I feel nothing but the good graces of Memphis all around me. And, when I reach the warmth of the Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club, that feeling only grows stronger.

A warmth that only a cup of coffee can provide.

At the counter, two baristas (one grinding and the other pouring) move like clockwork.

I order my coffee (I request Guji Mane, but the barista suggests I try the Uncut version) and watch the magic happen. The aroma of earthy rich sweetness fills the air and fogs my glasses. A man behind me finishes his conversation and steps up to grab his latte, the art near perfection. He asks: “Hey man, can I get a picture of this? My girl will flip. She loves this stuff.” The grinder-maestro turns the cup so the light shines just right for the picture.

In fact, the light shines just right near pretty much everywhere in here.

As I begin to pay, I see a king cake in the case and blurt out: “Oh damn man, I shoulda got some of that.” The baristas both say to grab a sample and enjoy. “Are you sure,” I ask. They say, “Positive.”

All in all, a hot cup and a small bite for $2.20. But, I certainly would’ve paid more. I sit with another customer and finally have a chance to sip the brew. The velvety undertones compliment a dark chocolate finish at the back of my tongue. My veins wake up. And my eyes begin to shine.

I look around the place and notice all the art and portraiture: visits to Ghana and Ethiopia; local art by Black artists; and a quote by the door from the Hon. Frederick Douglass. And, indeed, that revolutionary spirit is alivein this coffee house. My table-mate, a photojournalist for Fox13, and one of the baristas, his name is Bryan, all three of us talk shop about Memphis. The good and bad, the downright disturbing, and yet, we all agree that we love our city. That no one can take away our love for this city and what we see as a bright future for all.

I feel at home in this coffee house. In fact, one customer puts it perfectly: “It’s like a community’s living room.”If I’m honest, that is exactly what Memphis needs: a safe place for good coffee and vibrant discussion. I feel a community thriving in this house, safe and warm, away from the cold frost outside, life brimming inside.

Renata Johnson, a young coffee roaster, and her husband Bartholomew Jones, started CxffeeBlack about a year ago. Their goal? To bring coffee roasting back to the Black community from where the beans themselves originated. And they chose Memphis because they saw opportunity arise in their neighborhood, Jones talking about how the city “was planning on putting in 7 million on National and Summer.” So, why not be a part of that plan? And they could bring some education and livelihood back to it.

I reached out to Mr. Jones for an interview and here’s what he had to say:

Smythe: What makes your coffee different from your competitors? Are there any roasting methods (you’re willing to reveal) that you think exemplify your roasts compared to any other local shop?

Jones: I wouldn’t call ourselves a coffee company as much as an educational company with a consumable curriculum. That being said, we do use fluid bed roasting [where the air is heated and then blown through the bed, eliminating the need for a heated drum] which is a bit different from other roasters around town.

But I wouldn’t say that our coffee is better or worse than anyone else. We just focus on our relationships with growers in Africa.

(He laughs)

Of course, we do have some trade secrets that I cannot reveal right now.

Do you think Memphis is becoming more or less supportive of minority-led businesses? As a queer community member, I certainly hope to see more queer-owned businesses, just like how you two have brought in a Black-owned, Black-operated, and Black-led business.

It’s a weird feeling. Memphis is a majority Black city, yet they only make .05% of their revenue from Black businesses. 65% of the residents are Black, so clearly there is an issue there. So, we created our own community. We’re not waiting on the city to support us, or the government to support us.

I’m a big proponent of grass-roots movements, so we found that when we support ourselves, we’re not dependent on if others get on board or not. As a side- effect, we’ve seen other people come and support us from adjacent communities seeking out the quality and joy that we are producing. That can be infectious for folks.

Seeing how you both keep operations direct in Africa itself, from local sources in the countries within, is there anything you’d hope the public should know about Africa?

Coffee was discovered in Africa around 850 BC. Arabica, specifically, but there are 119 different species of coffee beans indigenous to Africa. Coffee makes about 460 billion per year, but unfortunately, only 1% of that, less than that actually, goes back to African countries. I’d like for people to ponder why that is. And how we can fix that.

Honestly, I think having an all-Black supply chain will help that revenue go back to the people who are from it and not just colonizers who benefit from the labor. That’s why we intentionally partner with people from the origins of our coffee’s source for exporting and importing.

I hope to make those African faces visible in our community and beyond.

CxffeeBlack has also worked with a few local Memphis shops, one of them being Loaf, owned by Kale Carson. The combination of their coffee’s flavors with Loaf’s duck confit in the bread pudding is to die for. The chocolate finish of the Guji Mane, as I experienced during my visit to the Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club, CxffeeBlack’s storefront, truly compliments the rich texture and flavor of Kale’s savory treat.

I would say that overall, my experience with CxffeeClub was an enlightening one. If you would like to pay the Anti Gentrification Cxffee Club a visit, I would. Truly, this is one of the few coffeehouses that I would support day in, day out. You can find them at 761 National St., open Monday through Saturday.

Just be ready to be greeted with freshly made roasts and even fresher company.