Photo by Casey Gomez

Small-business coffee shop owners can oversee the coffee process from start to finish: visiting the farms, overseeing the roasteries, grinding and brewing the coffee and placing it in the hands of a customer. In doing so, small businesses ensure sustainable and ethical sourcing and loyal clientele. On the contrary, large corporations don’t prioritize coffee sourcing, which is key for long-term sustainability.

Local coffee shop owners seek out and build relationships with individual, family-owned coffee farms. They become loyal customers and allow farmers to grow their own businesses. Because owners trade with farmers they know personally, they pay them well enough to grow and process coffee sustainably — with ethical practices, natural fertilizers and shaded areas. Consequently, growing coffee in shaded areas ensures conservation of the ecosystem that surrounds coffee farms. Large corporations, like Starbucks, only meet the bare minimum ethical and environmental requirements of the industry.

BRASH Coffee maintains relationships with coffee farmers from El Salvador and Honduras. On its online store, BRASH posts short descriptions of their coffee farmers. Octane sources its beans from Central and South America and Africa and also posts descriptions of their farmers. Revelator rotates its sources seasonally and currently sources from South America and Africa. These coffee shops offer single-origin coffee beans, each batch from just one region or country.

Starbucks sources beans from Central America and Africa, but many of its coffees are multi-origin, or “blends,” which are not as uniquely flavored. Starbucks also owns and operates a coffee farm in Costa Rica for R&D, which prevents the farmers from maintaining their farms to suit their needs best.

In regards to customer service, in local shops, we’re reminded that baristas are people too. Yesterday, a Revelator barista greeted me immediately, and we talked for thirty minutes. How often can we stop to chat with Starbucks baristas? We can’t, because the line is so long that the barista takes your order, asks for your name and then asks how you are paying. Before your transaction is even completed, they move on to the next person.

Local coffee shops are also typically more aesthetically pleasing and foster a more pleasant atmosphere than corporate-chain coffee shops. While Starbucks generates more traffic, it is overcrowded and struggles to keep up with incoming orders. You’ll never wait more than five minutes for your drink at a small coffee shop, and each shop has its own unique environment.

Walk up to BRASH Coffee’s shipping container shop and find succulents lining the wall behind the espresso machine. Or walk into Octane at Grant Park and find movie quotes printed on the large pane windows. You’ll sit next to a fashion photographer editing photos or across from a software developer working on a startup venture. Local coffee shops are a hub for creatives, entrepreneurs, students and young professionals, and they cultivate a place perfect for being productive or meeting someone new.

Local coffee shops are also designed for people to stay at until they have finished their coffee — the baristas serve your coffee in glasses or mugs unless you specifically ask for your
coffee to-go. This significantly reduces the waste produced by the consumer-end of the
coffee industry, compared to Starbucks’ disposable cups.

In terms of the coffee itself, small coffee shops specialize in  highlighting the actual notes, or flavors, of the coffee. In the roasting process, single-origin beans allow the roasters to have more control over the notes based on the region where the beans come from. The benefit of Starbucks blends is that they offer a well-rounded flavor and pair better with cream, syrups and sweeteners. This “benefit,” however, is insignificant because good coffee does not need additional sweeteners.

Additionally, Starbucks only offers a drip coffee for all of their roasts. Other coffee shops provide many other methods for brewing coffee, including pour-over methods, such as Chemex, V60, Kalita Wave, and press methods, such as French press and Aeropress. You can get a fuller, more flavorful cup of coffee by brewing the coffee via these handheld methods than through a machine. And when local coffee shops do use machines, it is to make smooth, creamy espresso that will make for beautiful, hand-crafted espresso art. If nothing else, support local coffee shops in return for the pretty Instagram photo you can post of your latte.

So why pick small-business coffee shops? You get better coffee, better customer service, and a better environment. Your role as a consumer of ethically sourced coffee benefits the environment, farmers, and local businesses. And if none of these reasons are enough to convince you to support local shops, think of all the times that Starbucks baristas have misspelled your name on cups. That will never happen at a small-business coffee shop.