Sunday, April 15, 2007


My Spiritual Home

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently got back from spending a few days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the DoubleShot Coffee Company. What can I say? This is one of my favorite places on earth. (I know, I know. If you’d’ve asked me a year ago what the likelihood was that liberal, atheist Amy might find her spiritual home in a city that is known as the Buckle of the Bible Belt, I would’ve answered slim to none. But there you have it. I’m open to being surprised in life.) In any case, I first got acquainted with DoubleShot about a year ago, when I heard that Starbucks was threatening to sue its owner, Brian Franklin, for trademark infringement; Starbucks has a canned beverage called the Starbucks Doubleshot, and at the time they were demanding that Brian change the name of his company. Naturally, I got very curious about this, because it seemed really odd to me that Starbucks might try to get the rest of the coffee industry to stop using the phrase “double shot” to describe any espresso-related products. So I contacted Brian and wound up going out to Tulsa to cover this story for my film. Many things have happened since then, and if you want to know the details about the Starbucks business, my suggestion is that you watch my movie when it’s finally done (sometime between now and January 2010. And hey, check out the film’s new website, if you have not done so already!)

But I’ll tell you what. The first time I emailed Brian, I told him who I was and what I was doing and that I wanted to know more about his legal troubles. And when he replied, he latched on to something I had mentioned about coffee consistency and standardization, and instead of telling me much of anything about his case against Starbucks, he just started a conversation about coffee. Over the past five years of working on this film, I have had occasion to talk to and get to know MANY people in the coffee industry, and they’ve all been pretty wonderful and knowledgeable and generous with their time. But only a couple of them have struck me from the get-go as being coffee people first and business people second. And Brian is one of those people. He cares very passionately about coffee and about making it the way he sees fit, and every other decision he makes flows out of that simple fact. It strikes me as a very pure and authentic way of living. But more on that later.

I guess I should start with the cappuccino: exquisite. I find this nothing short of miraculous, because Brian (who is roaster, owner and barista at DoubleShot) is intolerant to whey protein and hasn’t swallowed any milk since long before he learned how to roast coffee. In fact, he mostly considers milk a blasphemy. (Maybe it’s not as bad as, say, vanilla syrup or nutmeg. But it’s right up there with SUGAR on his list of things that should never befoul his coffee. I beg to differ, and am utterly convinced that milk and coffee were M! F! E! O! but this is not the time nor place.) Flavor-wise, Brian’s espresso blends better with milk than just about any espresso I’ve ever tasted. And I am not alone in this assessment. Mark Prince noted this same thing when he reviewed DoubleShot’s Ambergris espresso on the coffee geek podcast. And when Ken Davids reviewed it, he gave it exceptionally high marks for how well it goes with milk. Scientifically speaking, I’m not sure what qualities DoubleShot’s espresso has that make it such a natural fit with milk, but I do know that there’s a complementary thing that can happen, where the espresso’s neither fighting with the milk nor getting buried by the milk, and DoubleShot’s Ambergris espresso has that complementary thing DOWN. I tend to think about tastes less through flavor comparisons and more through how they move around in my mouth. And DoubleShot’s espresso alone is very round and full, unlike a lot of coffees which move from front to back along a narrow plane or stay mainly at the top of my mouth. Or the bottom. And then when you add milk to this espresso… well, it’s like seeing God. So… I don’t know how to account for it; all I know is that it tastes fucking GOOD.

So there’s that. I dream about this coffee. I inwardly rejoice every time I get to drink this espresso. I find myself perusing the internet and saying things to myself like, “hmm… why NOT attend the National Fiddler Hall of Fame Gala?” just so I could have an excuse to go back to Tulsa.

But I guess coffee is as good an excuse as any to travel. So I’m sure I’ll be back there before too long, and I won’t have to bother shooting a movie while I’m there; I’ll just get to focus on the coffee. Lucky me.

But here’s the thing about DoubleShot: it’s not just the coffee that makes me love it. I love it because it’s home to an actual, real, honest-to-god community. It’s hard for me to put it into words, because it basically boils down to this unique, ineffable feeling of COMFORT when I’m there. Spending time there is this slow but steady stream of familiar faces and inside jokes. The same people come in every day; they all know each other, and they’re all very serious fans of the coffee. They also have a real sense of ownership of the place. Like, there’s this one regular named Robert who periodically brings his leaf-blower over and cleans up the parking lot. Can you imagine feeling motivated to do that at any business in your neighborhood?? I can’t.

The first time I went to DoubleShot – I spent a week there about a year ago - I pretty quickly started mentally comparing the place to the TV show Cheers. And then I felt kind of pathetic, because how sad is it that my only reference point for that kind of interaction is a fictional television show? But it’s true. I just feel very COMFORTABLE at DoubleShot, comfortable and at home in a way that I’ve never felt in a coffee shop anywhere. So… maybe you can imagine what a shock to my system this was when I figured it out. I mean, I’ve been spending time in coffee shops since about 1989. And I’ve been shooting in them since 2002. So why ON EARTH did it take so long for me to find this… THING? The community thing. The comfort thing. The magical DoubleShot thing. I don’t know, exactly, and it’s something I’m still trying to work out, both for myself and for my film.

After I got back from my first trip to Tulsa last year, I (finally) read “The Great Good Place,” by Ray Oldenburg. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a work of sociology that identifies the “third place” in America – the informal social gathering places that are homes away from home and help Americans form communities. The book is actually half lament, half call-to-arms, because in Oldenburg’s opinion, third places (and therefore community) are dying out in America, due to suburbanization (and, I would add, our desire to easily obtain large quantities of cheap goods, regardless of the trade-offs that inevitably accompany that). In any case, Oldenburg has a very specific definition of what makes a third place, and DoubleShot fits the description to a t.

So… the combination of spending some time hanging around DoubleShot, and reading that book, and making the Cheers comparison… well, they’ve all added up to me thinking that it’s downright TRAGIC that there aren’t more places like this in our society. I get kind of anxious about it sometimes. Like, I spent 32 years of my life without any idea of what I was MISSING. And now that I found this awesome, precious thing, I want everyone to be able to find something like this. This neighborhood-y community thing should be a really common, accepted part of human life – like having a sibling, or getting married – not everybody does it, but everybody knows what it is and why it’s important. I know that DoubleShot Coffee itself is not for everyone, but I still feel like everyone should have access to this feeling. And the question of why our culture does not produce more DoubleShot Coffee Companies has been occupying my mind a lot lately (I mean A LOT – it has basically been my full-time job.)

I have a suspicion that DoubleShot’s uniqueness has something to do with Brian’s personality. Brian, as I mentioned above, is a very REAL person. He is obsessively involved with every detail of running his business. And as of six months ago, he IS the business. He has no employees, other than a part-time secretary; he does everything himself. And pretty much the only thing he cares about is the quality of the coffee. He doesn’t care about the niceties of “customer service.” He doesn’t bother much with community events and the like. He just works on making exceptional coffee, and he succeeds at it very well. I’m not sure how other regulars at DoubleShot feel about it, but I think there’s something very liberating about being around a person who’s so CLEAR. Brian has his ideas about what’s right, and he doesn’t apologize for them. He’s not kissing your ass to make a sale. And I suspect that this way of being really frees people up to just hang out and be themselves, both with Brian and with each other. The regulars at DoubleShot all speak very admiringly of each other, and I’ve heard from a number of them that they’ve formed very unlikely friendships at DoubleShot (going back to the Cheers analogy, it's kind of like Cliff being buddies with Frasier). And whenever I’ve been there – whether I’ve had the camera in my hands or not – I’ve always wound up having really interesting conversations with strangers (who have very quickly ceased to be strangers - I guess I have formed some unlikely friendships there too). It’s a feeling I almost never encounter in the rest of my life.

So this is why I call this place my spiritual home. It’s rare and special, and it’s a really solid reminder of what real community is, what our public spaces CAN feel like (and almost never do). And on top of all that, when I’m at DoubleShot, I become the Amy I really like, the Amy I most want to be in life – open, curious, engaged with the people around me, all while holding a cup of outrageously good coffee in my hand. Thank you, Brian, for making such a kick-ass corner of the world. And thanks for sharing it with me.

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