Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, I thought Dunkin’ Donuts was a throwback to the 1980’s—somewhere you stopped under duress in Podunk, West Virginia. Moving to New England a few years ago, the dream I was living became a nightmare: Not only was Dunkin’ Donuts not an Atari-like icon of a bygone era, but it seemed to have become the default coffee for millions of people living in the Northeast. And no one seems to care a lick that it sucks. And I’m not just saying that as a guy who’s from out of town, I say that as a coffee lover and aficionado. It’s really bad! However, walking around Yale’s campus a couple weeks ago, my luck changed for the better.
After the results of the 2004 elections, Andrew Ruben and his father, co-owners of Blue State Coffee in New Haven (and RI), were licking their Democratic wounds while in line for a couple lattés. Andrew casually mentioned how coffee might offer an opportunity to place some extra funds in the coffers of progressive causes. His old man knew a good idea when he heard one, and with the help of friends Blue State Coffee was born some three years later, originally as a website where you could order genuine Organic, Fair Trade coffee beans. As ideas tend to do, the concept of a Green, sustainably produced coffee eventually created a life of its own in the form of a retail shop where the idea really took root.
Blue State Coffee first store opened on Thayer Street in Providence, Rhode Island. They now have the original location as well as a spot in the Brown University Bookstore, and the location that I stumbled upon in New Haven. It figures that a good cup of coffee is needed at stellar, modern campuses like Brown and Yale, but how did the whole “Drink Liberally” entendre sit with the old, stodgy right-wingers that those two campuses are also known for? Ruben says it’s going just fine, thank you. Two and a half years in and all three locations are profitable, steadily increasing sales since their openings. Ruben, for one, is psyched. And he should be---he’s still in college (at Yale) and already has a bright future ahead of him. Like so many of us gone the way of the Humanities, that glowing future is completely unrelated to the American Studies degree that he is working on. Well, almost.
Ruben’s timing for his opening could not have been better. Well, maybe by a week or so. The first store opened a week after Obama’s inauguration and attracted quite the following. Al Franken even stopped by and gave a speech on his long road to becoming a U.S. Senator. Good press is also helping Blue State along with Ruben’s ideals being featured in places like Vanity Fair and the Hartford Courant, as well as local papers. What’s driving the interest seems to be the intention to be what Andrew refers to as a “zero-waste business”—striving to recycle, reuse or compost everything they sell. As Ruben says, “Basically, the goal is to remove the trash cans from all of our facilities.”
- To offer organic, fairly traded coffee, roasted to perfection
- To donate 5% of sales to local and national causes that reflect our progressive values
- To run a zero waste, environmentally sustainable business
- To unite a group of people committed to bettering our communities and our country.
What doesn’t surprise me is that a company with commitments like these is more expensive to run. What does surprise me about Blue State Coffee is that when it comes down to making some money vs. a lot of money, those commitments still run the show. But, unlike your local Dunkin’ Donuts, there is no consortium of global private equity firms (like the one that owns DD) trying this and that to add a penny’s more worth to a weakened portfolio. There’s just a smart, driven college junior, his (clearly cool) dad, and a bone to pick with conservatives. Like one of the numerous Blue State double entendres states--“You’re on political grounds.”
I’m not asking you to give up your Dunkin’ Donuts-quite the contrary; go ahead and pick one up. Then stop by Blue State Coffee in New Haven for a comparison. But no dilly-dallying…it won’t be long before you’ll have to look outside their store for a trash can to put that cup in. Their cups are made from corn and can be composted along with the grounds from the beans. How about your Dunkin’ Donuts cup? Is that…styrofoam? That is so 1985.
See? I knew it.
Blue State Coffee Locations:
244 Thayer Street | Providence, RI 02912
84 Wall Street | New Haven, CT 06511
300 Thayer Street | Providence, RI 02906