Black-owned coffeeshop looks to end “whitewashing” of coffee industry

“How much caffeine do you need?” Felton Kizer is fond of asking customers who come into Monday Coffee Company. Then, depending on their response, Kizer sets off to concoct something unique: a cold brew, a latte, a chai tea.

Monday Coffee Company launched last October, showing up at pop-up events like the Ace Hotel for Compop or Logan Square’s Sauced Sundays. For a year and a half before that, though, Kizer and his partner Amanda Harth had been discussing going into the coffee business. They felt it would be a way to foster community in the midst of the pandemic.

“We wanted to create something that would keep people connected at a time when they were unable to meet,” Harth, 33, said.

More than that, they wanted to create a Black- and queer-owned business that supported similar businesses during a time when calls for social justice rang out across the country.

“I’m not the marching-and-burning-buildings type of guy,” Kizer said. “I’m a blow-up-the-establishment type of guy.”

For Kizer, a queer Black man, that meant addressing what he called the whitewashing of the coffee industry. He said no matter how many coffeehouses and cafés he went into, he rarely saw someone who looked like him at the helm.

“Where do people get their coffee from? Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Brazil — all very Black and Brown countries,” Kizer, 27, said. “But I walk into a café, and it’s very white, it’s very weird, and it’s very aggressive. Someone is taking your culture, literally selling it back to you, but also telling you that you’re not really good enough to have this thing that is part of your ancestors.”

Now, Kizer and Harth are fighting that whitewashing through Monday Coffee Company’s new residency at Washington Park’s former Currency Exchange Café at 305 E. Garfield Blvd.

The residency was offered through the Rebuild Foundation’s Retreat at Currency Exchange program. Rebuild is a non-profit founded by artist and University of Chicago professor Theaster Gates. The Retreat program supports Black artists and culinary entrepreneurs through things like residencies across the South Side.

“When I met them, I could see their passion for their business,” Gates said. “Their kindness combined with their personal work ethic, aesthetic, intention and willingness to innovate with their products is great for small business.”

As part of the residency, Harth and Kizer created and priced a menu, serving tea and coffee during the day and boozy latte cocktails in the evening. Monday Coffee Company’s grounds are roasted in Grand Rapids, Mich., then brewed on site at their new location. The space also has Wi-Fi and meeting spaces for other entrepreneurs.

Harth and Kizer are running Monday Coffee Company based on their idea of sustainability and inclusivity. They intentionally settled in a predominantly Black area of the city; their tea comes from a Black female-owned business; they have direct contact with their coffee bean farmers; and they have promised to remain transparent about changes in the business with their customers.

Amanda Harth, co-founder of Monday Coffee Company, prepares a drink at Retreat at Currency Exchange Café, located at 305 E. Garfield Blvd.

Amanda Harth, co-founder of Monday Coffee Company, prepares a drink at Retreat at Currency Exchange Café, located at 305 E. Garfield Blvd.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“We don’t want the traditional coffee shop,” Harth said. “We see (Monday Coffee Company) existing in moments and experiences.”

Kizer and Harth agree what makes Monday Coffee Company so unique is their newness to the coffee industry. Before starting the business, Kizer used to be a portrait photographer, and Harth was in fashion.

“We don’t have a background in coffee, so we could do whatever we want,” Kizer said. “We don’t have that pressure of the industry trying to tell us what to do.”

While Kizer used his interpersonal skills, honed from his photography days, to help generate an atmosphere of community and comfortability, Harth applied her finance and marketing skills from fashion.

“If nothing else, the product is going to look cute!” Harth said. “It’s going to be … great branding, great packaging, and it’s going to tell a story.”

The coffeehouse will welcome customers Aug. 26 at an official launch party. The event will include a coffee tasting, an experiential barista’s menu, coffee cocktails and music by DJ Sean Doe.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.