BusinessHow independent coffee shops are building communities all over...

How independent coffee shops are building communities all over America

When Cincinnati-born brothers Tony and Austin Ferrari decided to open the coffee shop of their dreams in 2019, they landed almost immediately on the city’s Camp Washington neighborhood.

There, tucked into a residential section at the heart of this isolated, working-class area—until then, known best for its classic, 24/7 chili parlor—they would open an all-day café. Perfect cappuccinos and breakfast sandwiches in the mornings, natural wines and imported tinned fish at night with a sprawling, outdoor patio and gardens, complete with outdoor kitchen for summertime bistro nights.

Even their friends thought they nuts.

“As excited as they were for us,” says Tony Ferrari, “they were like, are you guys crazy? It’s so odd, they’d say, it’s so off the beaten path—we really don’t see you guys making it here.”

The brothers, however, were certain they knew what they were doing; after all, they’d spent years working in San Francisco as coowners of a popular café in Potrero Hill—another neighborhood that, for years, was considered the back of beyond.

Plus, they had their new neighbors in Camp Washington on their side—as part of their market research, they spent days knocking on doors in the neighborhood, pitching the project to total strangers, and showing them their plans.

Nearly every single person they spoke to—99 %, says Ferrari—was on board.

When coffee-loving college-pals-turned-business-partners Brad Penna and Nam Ho settled on a half-abandoned block on the fringe of downtown Des Moines to launch their first shop, back in 2017, there were hardly any neighbors to speak to; the neighborhood of sturdy, old industrial buildings and vacant lots was starting to show signs of life but had a long way to go.

This time, there was nobody to tell them that they were crazy—mostly because they didn’t know anybody in Iowa. Raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the two met at Cal Poly Pomona, and had talked a lot about starting a business together; they wanted to get into coffee in the worst way, but looking around Southern California’s advanced—and already very crowded—coffee scene, they realized, very quickly, that they’d be better off trying their hand elsewhere.

“We didn’t have the capital or resources to make it happen in the Los Angeles area,” Penna recalls. He says they chose Des Moines because it met their only two requirements: that it be an affordable place to live and work and also that they’d be happy living there. They recognized in their chosen neighborhood more than a few shared qualities with familiar territory back home—build the right shop, do it very well, and people will find you.

To them, the right shop was essentially everything they’d seen back home—a perfect drink, every time, but perfect service, too; the latter, Penna says, was hit or miss, or non-existent, in the shops they visited before making the decision to move.

Doing everything right, and trusting that people will find you, was a lesson Hugo Cano had learned, too, through his work in the Los Angeles coffee scene as early as a decade ago. When life brought the California native to Indianapolis, he often thought about opening his own shop—never more than the many times he would drive past this one particular abandoned gas station, at a well-traveled corner just out from the shadow of the downtown skyline.

Where others saw an unfortunate blight at the heart of an otherwise desirable area, Cano looked past the grass and weeds growing through cracked asphalt, and saw potential. Given the option to head back to a place where you didn’t have to check the weather every time you leave the house in order to know what to wear, something he says he’s still not used to, Cano decided not only to stay, but to put down roots.

“For me, coffee is an experience, and I wanted to open a shop to share the coffees I was excited about,” Cano says. “My attitude was never I’m the guy from California who is going to teach everyone about coffee.”

Still, Cano was never going to simply blend in—most of his experience in coffee had taken place in the more forward-thinking shops of Los Angeles, a far cry from most of what Indianapolis had at the beginning of 2020, when he opened Amberson Coffee & Grocer.

The shop’s no tipping policy, serving takeaway coffees in glass jars, having multiple pour-over offerings each day, showcasing a rotating selection of roasters from around the country, and a distinct lack of the usual sweet drinks seen in your typical Indianapolis cafe stuck out like sore thumbs.

Even the neighbors who might not have quite understood Cano’s predilection toward the precise—”we like to do everything we can to make coffee shine,” he notes—were thrilled to see something in the space.

Cano’s realized dream appears to have given the local coffee scene, until recently, somewhat light on excitement considering the city’s sheer size, something of a jolt. New shops have cropped up, a handful of roasters, too. At a time when so many cities are losing ground, Indianapolis coffee culture is extremely on the grow.

“Just in the last six months, we have three or four new roasters in town,” says Cano. One of them he likes so much, he’s featuring them in the shop. People still rib him occasionally about the license plate on his car—he has yet to change it from California to Indiana—but he has no doubt that he made the right decision to start a new life here.

“Were just thankful we’ve been able to be part of the conversation, part of Indy’s coffee boom.” he says. “Do what’s exciting for you and serve with kindness—that’s been our whole goal since we opened.”

Back in Des Moines, whatever worries Brad Penna and Nam Ho might have had when they opened Horizon Line Coffee, are now firmly in the rear view mirror. Bootstrapped into existence with a hand-me-down La Marzocco machine and no marketing budget, the place was kind of a smash hit from the start.

“Lots of people were like, ‘oh, this is a hipster place,’ but others were like, ‘we needed this.’ Maybe they didn’t know how to articulate it, but people were excited; there wasn’t any negative pushback,” Penna says.

Their Des Moines neighborhood has changed considerably in a few short years. In the beginning, there were a lot of people driving here; there’s now something of a residential building boom taking place, with one sparkling new block of apartments recently completed almost directly across the street.

Back in Cincinnati, meanwhile, the Ferrari brothers were dealing with lines out the door at Mom ‘n ‘Em Coffee very shortly after their opening—forgotten out-of-the-way Camp Washington was suddenly on the map.

“People who laughed, who doubted—now they wanted to know, how did you guys do this,” says Tony Ferrari. “It has given the neighborhood a lot more clout, allowed it to brag a little bit, it has helped bring investment.”

One of those investors is his brother Austin, who purchased a historic, nearly move-in-ready row house just down the block in the summer of 2021; the family was a little concerned, was he spending too much? (List price, roughly $150,000.)

“That would have been a three million dollar house back in San Francisco,” says Tony, who admitted he’d love to buy in the neighborhood too, if only he could find something.

“There’s literally nothing available now,” he says. “Stuff sits on the market for barely a day.”

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