When coffee shops begin to appear in a neighborhood, it usually means more than beans. Petworth’s transformation from a largely black, working class part of town to a more layered area has unfolded slowly but steadily in a decade. But it’s a pace that doesn’t exactly put a first-time coffee shop owner at ease.
The emergence of a more affluent neighborhood hasn’t been quite enough to sustain Qualia Coffee on Georgia Avenue. Shop owner Joel Finkelstein says his boutique bean business has grown in three years, but he’d like to see it increase a bit more steadily.
“While I want primarily to serve the needs of the neighborhood, the neighborhood doesn’t serve the needs of the coffee shop,” says the 40-year-old resident of Petworth, who made the switch from journalism to a home roasting obsession a decade ago.
Qualia’s reputation is citywide. “Best coffee ever,” is a common refrain on its Yelp site, and the shop just garnered top billing in Washington City Paper. Finkelstein hopes the press will bring more people from outside the neighborhood, while high-end coffee culture grows slowly in Petworth.
Population in the neighborhood has risen 4 percent in a decade, on pace with the city average. White residents are no small part of that growth along Georgia Avenue. They now constitute 15 percent of the neighborhood, up from five percent in 2000. The neighborhood is also better educated, and sports a higher average income than the Petworth of 10 years ago.
Qualia’s owner says his clientele draws a disproportionate number of these younger, white professionals, and that the neighborhood’s demographic trends bode well for this bodega. But Finkelstein is also aware that coffee connoisseurs are often the much-maligned marker of gentrification.
“The coffee community has been very elitist,” he says. “Part of my passion for coffee is about making it accessible.”
Part of Finkelstein’s strategy has been to try to make the shop more open to first-timers. The coffee is prepared out in the open and, he says, his baristas do a lot of explaining while they brew. Qualia is also supporting community projects. It has taken an active role starting Petworth’s farmers market and, until very recently, lent its backyard space to a local bike workshop.
Despite becoming a sort of community hub, Qualia is still struggling to get enough volume to stay profitable, leading Finkelstein to raise prices a quarter some weeks back. Once again, he found himself balancing the bottom line with his social mission.
A few days later, he went back to the original prices. “If we can’t exist here and maintain access,” he says, “then I don’t really feel like we’re serving the neighborhood as it is.”
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