‘Blind spots’ and backlash: A Colorado coffee company creates a crisis

People generally don’t expect a lesson in urban renewal and cultural responsiveness when they decide where to get their morning dose of caffeine, but if you live in Colorado or pay any attention to social media, chances are you know a lot more about gentrification now than you did before Thanksgiving.

A three-foot sign in front of an ink! Coffee storefront in Denver’s historically black Five Points community created a mountain of bad press for the chain. The sign read “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014,” which may have elicited a few chuckles from the chain’s target consumers (read: “urban white hipsters”), but neighborhood residents, most of whom can’t afford to drop $7 on a soy latte and have watched for years as neighbors and favorite local businesses have been driven out by rising property values, were understandably insulted. And angry.

Demonstrations, vandalism, and calls for cultural responsiveness training for management and staff at the Colorado company resulted, as well as a few days of lost business as management closed the store rather than pay baristas to work in an empty shop encircled by protesters.

While ink! Founder Keith Herbert is ultimately responsible for the public face of his business, the current firestorm is largely a result of his marketers’ poor decision-making and, to use a term from one of Herbert’s mea culpas, “blind spots.” Giving both organizations the benefit of the doubt about their politics or values, steps still could have been taken to respond to the problem more effectively.

Let’s look at Herbert’s response, which, so far, has been limited to apologies to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and anyone following ink! on Facebook or Twitter.

Even if you’re getting pilloried on social media, that doesn’t mean it’s the most effective platform on which to respond. While a sincere apology is necessary (emphasis on the word sincere), it won’t go over as well if it’s issued hastily and remotely, and it definitely won’t mean as much as concrete action. It’s easy to speculate about better ways ink! could have responded, but it’s a sure thing that tepid apologies on social media won’t placate Five Points residents.

In his Nov. 24 post, Herbert pledges to “find ways to demonstrate the depths of our contrition by taking meaningful steps to support our local community and its residents.” Whether that means online cultural sensitivity training for baristas or community meetings between Herbert and Five Points community leaders (or whether Herbert follows through at all) remains to be seen, but it isn’t difficult to imagine which of those options would go further to address the legitimate issues that concern ink!’s Five Points neighbors.

Time will tell how much work it will take to undo the enmity a three-foot sign created between ink! and Five Points residents. For the sake of the Five Points community, as well as Herbert and his employees, those “meaningful steps” need to come sooner, not later.