In 2018, the concept of “service with a smile” is changing. While many have grown accustomed to the hospitality model of going above and beyond to please the customer, some cafes are taking steps not only to serve individuals but to honor whole communities.
The Potter’s House, a historic bookstore-cafe in Washington, DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood, has been around since the 1960s. Founded by Gordon Cosby, the cafe and 501c3 non-profit first opened with loosely faith-based roots.
While the cafe today strays quite far from any sort of religious affiliation, the team at The Potter’s House tries to respect its original identity as a gathering space and a safe place for marginalized and housing-unstable people to come for a cup of coffee or a needed meal. The shop also faces a few challenges: a changing neighborhood, a widening demographic, and expectations placed on them as a historic gathering space. The Potter's House aims to be many things to many people, including its own staff.
With a simple, spacious layout, liberally curated books, and a no-frills Counter Culture coffee menu, it may be hard to believe that The Potter’s House has undergone several different identities prior to a revamp in 2015. Most notably, the cafe was a crucial gathering point for the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We were one of the spaces that stayed open to be a rallying space, a community space to talk through what this upheaval meant for the community and how we look after the community in an intentional way,” says Mike Balderrama, General Manager and Coffee Director of The Potter's House. “We are constantly engaged in so many different things.”
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, The Potter’s House remained a central meeting space to tackle the issues of mental health and homelessness in America. After Reagan shut down several mental health facilities in his term, the Adams Morgan neighborhood became a birthplace for social programming and non-profit operations, many of which were conceived of within these cafe walls.
When The Potter’s House changed hands in 2015, the team had to ask itself how to maintain this historic identity. Balderrama said the focus became “upholding as much of the principles of the past and thinking what we can do while also offering really good food, really good coffee, and books that promote ideas and thought.”
Today, The Potter’s House honors its roots with an abundance of programming and books that speak to its past. Guests can expect to find a huge range of left-leaning reading material that ranges from ethnic cookbooks to self-help guides, liberal-themed graphic novels, memoirs from POCs, and more. In addition to poetry readings and open mic nights that focus on social justice and equality, the cafe also partners with a lot of local organizations and hosts community-centric events like “Mindful Monday Yoga” and monthly prison-letter-writing events—a chance for the incarcerated to connect with others on a human level.
The Potter’s House is connected to the D.C. coffee community too; the gang is always excited and ready to host a Thursday Night Throwdown when the opportunity presents itself. However, Balderrama hesitates to laud The Potter's House as “specialty coffee cafe.”
“We are a shop that sells specialty coffee, but I wouldn't necessarily call us a specialty coffee shop, because more than anything we’re a community shop and I think there’s a lot of weighted language that comes from the concept of a specialty cafe,” Balderrama says. “I want to engage with people in the community more—I want to make sure they have a cup of coffee that they like, have a pastry that’s good, have food that they enjoy and keep coming back for, and when they enjoy and their curiosity is piqued enough, I’m ready to talk coffee with them.”
“Community to me, in general, is super important because community is what keeps people in coffee in my opinion,” says Adam JacksonBey, a Potter’s House barista who also serves as a member of the Barista Guild of America’s executive council. “You’re drawn to it for many reasons, like the need for a job and customer service, but from all the coffee folks that I talk to, community is what keeps them there.”
“The community at The Potter’s House is different because you’re not just dealing with the greater, national coffee community or the D.C. coffee community—both of which I love dearly—but also with a community in D.C. that has been around for almost 60 years, so it feels great to be a part of something that large,” says JacksonBey.
JacksonBey says that the cafe's goal to provide meals to those who need them is much of why he finds meaning in his work at The Potter's House, where he's worked for two years.
“We've been serving the community since the '60s—serving people who didn't have enough food, or couldn't pay for it that week. Social workers know to come find some of their clients here. It's a really beautiful thing to see and work with,” says JacksonBey.
However, keeping the doors open to a wide variety of faces can occasionally leave the doors open to conflict as well. To this end, Balderrama forgoes 911 on speed-dial at The Potter’s House, encouraging baristas instead to take de-escalation, bystander, and first aid training classes—but to also be welcoming resources for Adams Morgan.
“People think they are entitled to a very long laundry list of expectations when they come into our space and a lot of us is saying no, this is actually what our program is, and I think sometimes sitting in that discomfort is better than over-accommodating someone or having to move people around,” Balderrama explains.
“The things we do have control over and consistency over is the coffee that we make, the food that we make, those kinds of things. Everything else is negotiable in a way.”
Everything else, that is—except community.