Ink! Coffee managed to exist north of downtown Denver for just short of three years without instigating a racial conflagration.
As the Denver Public Library will tell you, the Five Points area used to be home to virtually all black residents of the city — not always by their own choice. The neighborhood became a black cultural center, struggled economically for decades, and then in the 21st century saw a sudden influx of wealth and prestige (e.g., trendy coffee shops) and the corresponding departure of black families that had built the place.
That sad irony of history is commonly called gentrification, and it plays out in some form in almost every major city in the United States. Which is to say it caused no great furor when Ink opened in long-since gentrified Five Points in December 2014.
It was one coffee shop among many, and the latest expansion for a large Colorado chain. It was bright red and shiny metal, with a sign that proclaimed: “Coffee. Above all else.”
No uproar then, or in 2015, or 2016. Or for most of this year — until Wednesday afternoon, when this was spotted outside:
In case the point was not clear enough, here’s the other side of Ink’s marketing pitch.
“BAD. W.T.F.,” wrote Five Points local Ru Johnson when she shared the photo on Twitter.
Countless people asked basically the same question, and it took all of an afternoon for the Larimer Street coffee shop with cortados and Brazilian Conquista beans to become seen as a symbol of racial privilege and arrogance.
“Their sign was almost like a poke in the eye for the people who have worked to make the community what it is, and a lot of those people have been pushed out,” Johnson told the Denver Post.
The NAACP demanded the sign be removed, though a skateboarder stole it first, according to the Denver Post.
And within hours of the sign’s discovery, Ink began to issue explanations that in some ways only made things worse.
The company’s first attempt was a joke. Ink! Coffee had apparently drunk too much coffee and therefore accidentally celebrated gentrification.
Seconds later, the company offered a “sincere” apology. “Our (bad) joke was never meant to offend our vibrant and diverse community,” it tweeted. “We should know better. We hope you will forgive us.”
Many would not.
“It’s not that simple,” as one commenter put it. “Y’all need to be shut down.”
By the next day, someone had smashed out a window and spray painted “White Coffee” across Ink’s storefront, the Denver Post reported. “There was a smaller, more profane message written on the store’s main sign,” the newspaper added.
So Ink tried yet another apology. This time the chain’s founder, Keith Herbert, published a thick mea culpa on Facebook, writing that he had thought a proudly gentrifying coffee shop would be seen as a good thing, but now understood his error.
“I am embarrassed to say that I did not fully appreciate the very real and troubling issue of gentrification,” Herbert wrote. “When our advertising firm presented this campaign to us, I interpreted it as taking pride in being part of a dynamic, evolving community that is inclusive of people of all races, ethnicities, religions and gender identities. I recognize now that we had a blind spot to other legitimate interpretations. I sincerely apologize — absolutely and unequivocally.”
This conflicted somewhat with the ad agency’s apology — posted the same day — which contended that the sign had been meant “to offer cynical perspective on the rapid development” of Five Points, but had missed “the true meaning of gentrification.”
Some were appeased by the contrition and wished the coffee shop good luck surviving the PR storm.
One woman even wrote that she had liked the sign and hoped gentrification would soon come to her neighborhood.
But a local boycott movement was by then growing by the dozen and hundreds, and by Friday the Denver Post still had not been able to reach anyone at Ink by phone or in person.
That afternoon, a city cleanup crew covered up the “White Coffee” scrawled on ink’s red bricks.
About 20 people stood across the street, the Post reported, watching. And more than 600 others had signed up to protest in front of the store on Saturday afternoon.