Are we in chains? A look at corporate coffee

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Starbucks, founded in 1971, has been dominating the coffee industry since its rise to popularity, but the java giant brews more than just beans. Controversy has surrounded this morning drink Megatron that boasts 16,700 locations in 50 countries. In Manhattan, 68 of the Big Apple’s core 128 stores are within two blocks of another Starbucks. In Charleston, even with the Calhoun Street location closing, we have three stores in a two-block radius, and two of those are on the same street. With this kind of saturation, they practically compete with themselves.

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Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer. (Photo by Katie Carter)

There are two types of people: those who love Starbucks and those who love to hate the plastic cup passing monster. What most do not know, however, is that this big brew boss did not originally sell cups by the thousands. The corporate behemoth has roots in the bean business. Selling only beans and industrial coffee making equipment, it was not until 11 years after they opened their first store that Starbucks started providing their coffee to fine restaurants and espresso bars.

Cities with strong local loyalties like Charleston tend to speak of big corporate mammoths with dismay (although that does not necessarily keep us from frequenting them). We see these companies as heartless, but Starbucks was actually the first privately owned U.S. company to offer stock option programs that include part-time employees. They also offer full health benefits to all eligible employees—something that is more difficult for small, locally owned coffee shops to do.

There is no doubt that Starbucks has a winning business model that generates billions in profit, but they are not as soulless as they are made out to be. For people who are seeking true quality, however,  a locally owned, independent coffee shop is the place to look.

Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer is a Charlestonian favorite. Located just off King at 4 Vanderhorst, this hot spot opened in 2005 as Kudu Coffee House and reopened in 2008 as the beloved Kudu with which we are all familiar. It was that year Kudu added a small wine selection to compliment its craft beer assortment of about 25 bottles and cans.

It was not until 2011 that Kudu added a four-tap craft beer system, which was so well received by customers that six more were added just a few months later. They now have over 20 craft beers on tap. Combining craft beer with craft coffee seems to be a winning model.

The drinks are impressive, but it is the atmosphere that makes Kudu a Cougar favorite. The interior has that authentic, classic coffee shop feel, complete with buzzing espresso machines and spitting froth wands. Big high-top tables line the far side of the shop–perfect for spreading out with a friend and going to town on that eight-page paper you have due in two hours, or gathering with a group for a Sunday morning recovery snack of pastries and sandwiches.

Outside is a patio with plenty of room to read in the corner or band up with some buddies and enjoy that quality coffee. Some weekends you might even be lucky enough to catch such local bands as Whitehall or Sondor Blue.

Sheri Johnson and Mike Berndt recently moved out of the corporate coffee scene and opened the Sassyass Coffee cart, which can be found in Marion Square. They focus on espresso-based drinks, using an old school lever-style espresso machine.

“Nobody uses this kind of machine anymore, but it is much more delicate with the beans,”   Berndt said.  The freedom to use a wider variety of beans, paired with solid training and the correct equipment is what “cultivates coffee culture.”

The duo noted that Starbucks baristas work extremely hard, but what they found was a lack of pride in the product. The beans they used were roasted on the long-end, for long term use, which left the coffee with a carbon-like taste. What it came down to for these two was the ability to make a product of which they could be proud.

Sassyass espresso beans come from Kudu and are ground and pressed to order. “You can’t mass produce a quality product,” Berndt said, “but when you can take the time with the right beans and the right machines, you can simply focus on the coffee.”

That is exactly what Sassyass does. Without the pressure of lines out the door and living up to corporate quotas, this local coffee cart delivers what you are looking for— badass coffee. Johnson and Brandt closed with a collective mantra: “Support local coffee!”

Independent shops have the ability to choose a variety of beans, which produces quality and flavor  that java junkies might be missing in their go-to corporate drink.

What a local coffee cart like Sassyass does not have is corporate backed marketing. Luckily in today’s world, paid marketing is becoming less necessary. You can find things like “Free Flavor Friday” advertised on their Instagram. Coffee is a dollar off for students on Monday, so you can start your week with a discounted jolt.

Nora Obeid got her barista start at The Rise, which is located inside The Restoration Hotel on Wentworth Street. The “grab and go” style of The Rise is indicated by the standing bar and big windows.

“I think visitors appreciate the small, independent atmosphere,” said Obeid. “It’s more distinct to Charleston whereas Starbucks is literally everywhere.”

The Rise serves Toby’s Estate beans, which are roasted in small batches in Brooklyn and sourced from many different places. “We offer a more finely tuned product,” she said, “so think quality over quantity.”

The reason Obeid makes such a great barista is simple—she loves coffee. An espresso junkie herself, she “wishes the average person realized frappucinos are not coffee and pumpkin spice is an invention.”

Coffee lovers across the world know that the value of coffee is two-fold. The primary importance is taste and quality, and the second is founded in the universal truth that coffee brings people together. Humans are social beings constantly on the lookout for genuine connections and opportunities to foster such relationships. Take the two-fold approach and visit local, independent coffee shops to find your quality and your community.

*This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of The Yard.

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