Coffee Christians

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by Randall S. Frederick

Googling “why do christians keep trying to sell coffee” turns up 44,900,000 results. You read that right. Forty-four million, nine hundred thousand results. If you limit the search to “christian coffee” you will still turn up 16,000,000 hits. Granted, at least a million of each of those searches are comprised of rants about Starbucks refusing to put a rhinestone cross on their cups last year, but there’s no escaping that (typically white) Christians are fond of the coffee in the same way comedian Dave Chapelle notes black people “are fond of the chicken.” There are exceptions, of course. Many Pentecostals, for example, give up coffee to “be more full of the Holy Spirit” or believe it to be an addiction. Still, stereotypes prevail for a reason, whether or not they are factual, and so I set out to find the origins of why Christians invest so much of their missionary efforts towards coffee farms, set up evangelistic coffee houses, hold bible studies at coffee shops, and generally include coffee as a staple of all social functions.

First off, let’s set this down. Coffee in America is particularly lucrative. In 2010, The National Coffee Association figured out that Americans spend over $40 billion per year with only 54% of Americans drinking coffee every day. The average daily consumption is 3.1 cups, and 95% of that consumption was either with breakfast or served as a replacement for a meal. While I’m not particularly inclined to see coffee as a harmful drug, these numbers caused me considerable pause and challenged my preconceptions. 40 billion a year? No wonder Christians have been seeking to cash in! It is literally a multi-billion dollar industry! Unlike alcohol, which is still considered a vice under the tax laws of several states in America, coffee has increasingly become a staple of work and after-work meetings, first dates, and enjoys the benefits of cheap economies of scale. Roast some beans, grind them, pour hot water, and you’re good to go. This also might explain why fringe members of the faith consider coffee a threat to their spiritual experience – with every profitable industry comes the old rural rhetoric of “worldliness” and the looming temptation to participate in consumerism when money should go towards pastor’s pet project. But with cheap labor (re: economic slavery baptized as “missionary efforts”) and a steady demand, Christians could launder their profits in the blood of Jesus! Of course!

Christians have a long history of enjoying coffee. Pope Clement VIII (d. 1605) is claimed to have started the craze. His advisers believed coffee to be “the bitter invention of Satan” and pressed him to condemn the drink, which was popular among Muslims and commonly used as a substitute for wine in the Eucharist. Upon tasting the brew, Pope Clement VIII is remarked to have said, “This devil’s drink is so delicious, we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!” While the veracity of this story is dubious, it showcases a tendency within Christianity to “baptize” cultural activities, especially if another religion has already begun capitalizing on them. Muslim Sufis, for instance, use coffee to stay awake for midnight prayer and after Pope Clement’s endorsement, coffee became a regular part of Catholic fraternal orders, Protestant society, and was brought to the New World with God’s blessing. Recently, some Christians challenged the ability of believers to participate in yoga because of its Hindu origins. Those challenges fell by the wayside, for the most part, and inspired Christian alternatives like Holy Yoga. Chants and meditations were replaced with prayers, and all was well with the soul. But in another light, the ability of Christians to adopt the practices of other religions is not theological plasticity as much as it is the growth of the individual after the Enlightenment.

Laura Turner, writing for The Washington Post, says that coffee in America “mirrors the trajectory of evangelical Christianity” moving from “a shared and slow activity to a personal and quick transaction.” Additionally, coffee functions as a stimulant. Depending on the roast, there is a naturally high concentration of caffeine that helps the individual focus and potentially become a better worker, complementing the Protestant ethics of industry, individualism, and efficiency. Still, while coffee became commercialized in a country when individualism was prioritized above all else, it remains a communal ritual elsewhere in the world. It seems that, contrary to the influence of both Islam and Catholicism, Protestantism in America – Evangelicalism – is the only religion that prizes the lone cup of coffee. It suits the image of a committed Christian, hunched over their morning Bible reading and devotionals and is a far cry from the place of coffee as a replacement in the communal Eucharist that brought people together. Again, Turner sees a parallel of ritual.

You can get pourover coffee now in almost any city in America, but what you’re getting is one cup, maybe some morning chatter, and an invitation to step out of line while you wait. It’s kind of like evangelicalism—there is a gospel (coffee or Jesus, choose your poison), a decision to move forward, and sometimes-shallow conversation. Plus, you mostly go through it on your own.

At the epicenter of Evangelicalism, Wheaton, Illinois, Pete Leonard built Second Chance Coffee Roasters, a ministry whose business model is built on employing the unemployable – former convicts. In 2005, Leonard had recently returned from a missionary excursion to Brazil. He brought back a considerable amount of coffee and began investigating what it would take to roast the beans himself. His first effort was a crude retrofitting of a gas grill that he turned into a roaster. Neighbors began coming over, accepting free cups of coffee and offering to pay when Leonard says a family member was released from jail. “He’d always get interviews, but the instant he had to check the box ‘I’m a convicted felon,’ that was the end of the story,” Leonard says. By 2007, he says, he began to realize the extent of the problem. The United States has the largest prison system in the world, with 2.2 million adults in custody. At the same time, America consumes more coffee than any other nation – 45 million pounds each year. By 2013, Leonard had quit his job and started Second Chance, which employs ten individuals. Seven of those employees are “postprison.”

For many Christians, coffee has become their former of charity, of helping less the less fortunate. Again, a Google search of “christian coffee companies” turns up 19,600,000 results and at the risk of relying too heavily on their search data, it’s not a stretch to connect the dots. Hundreds of companies around the world have some version of “His Coffee Company” or “Glory To God in the Brightest” or “Coffee for Missions” with mission statements including the clause “for the glory of God.” But how do Christians create a niche in the coffee industry?

Malcolm Young, director of a prisoner reentry program at Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, “Businesses that are organized toward purposefully hiring people with criminal histories or people coming out of prison [are] very rare.” Companies that hire ex-offenders can apply for federal and state tax credits – and may likely get those credits – but it’s often not enough of an incentive for businesses to choose ex-offenders over a pool of qualified applicants without a criminal background. According to Young, “A business won’t intentionally hire postprison employees unless it’s owned by someone committed to that mission.”

In a multi-billion dollar industry, how do these companies maximize profit? Raise the price, of course, then market the product’s residual benefits to a consumer base you cultivate over time. In this case, the administrative side of churches and ultimately that prime market, churchgoers who are exposed to your product consistently each week. Whole Foods Market in Wheaton, Illinois, says the top-selling coffee, and also one of the most expensive at $16.99 per 12-ounce bag, is I Have a Bean, manufactured by – you guessed it – Second Chance Coffee Roasters. “[Customers] see the bag and automatically connect that with quality and what they do as a company,” Chada says. “It’s got a great base.”

Leonard insists this isn’t true. He claims that Second Chance is not profitable despite its lower production costs, tax benefits, and stated mission. And whatever profits they achieve are not because of their base or how they position their product. He claims other companies like his achieve success because they lean on familiar tropes in Evangelicalism like guilt, privilege, and charity. Second Chance’s lack of profits, he maintains, is evidence of the holiness of their mission and business practices. Instead, he claims, “I wanted everybody here to produce the best possible product that people would want to buy, and not work so much on guilting people into buying our coffee because of our mission. If the coffee is bad, you’re not going to buy it again.”

Again, it really boils down to the economies of scale. Starbucks alone accounted for $14.89 billion in coffee sales, according to their 2013 tax filings. Despite claiming 36.7% of American coffee, the expansion of Starbucks has led to something called “self-cannibalization.” In other words, with 8,078 stores in America, Starbucks has oversaturated the market to their own detriment. If one Starbucks is more conveniently located, say at a mall or in a well-trafficked area, another starbucks will be less profitable – encroaching on their overall profits. Because of this, Starbucks has quietly begun to close some of their outlets leaving an opportunity for other stores with a different mission to potentially fill that void. Dunkin’ Brands, Inc. (Dunkin’ Donuts) is the other major corporation in coffee, accounting for 24.6% of coffee sales, leaving an exceptionally large 34.7% for new entries or even recapturing of the market, like McDonalds’ or local roasters. Industry projections forecast 3.9% growth by 2018, and for a religion so focused on individualism and profitability as evidence of divine providence, there is no escaping that coffee is a major extension of Evangelicalism that seeks to expand into global markets. Evangelicals, it should be noted, who are often already familiar with impoverished countries and desire to have coffee conveniently available for their “missionary” activities and know how to capitalize on impoverished communities all too eager to work for a pittance.

A survey of Starbucks financial statements from 2008 to 2013 reveal return on investment floating around 30%. That means for every dollar spent by the company, they get back $1.30. In their worst year during that period, 2013, they still achieved 12% growth. If those numbers can be outsourced to impoverished countries then evade taxation through various foreign investment breaks and continue to profit from non-profit tax shelters, it is no wonder that Starbucks and Dunkin’, even McDonalds are still unable to fully recapture that remaining 34.7% of the American and unprecedented global markets that Christians seem best situated to capitalize on.

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