Fair Grinds, Thanks for the Memories

Coffee Community Organizing COVID-19 Pandemic Personal Writings

            New Orleans       October 15, 2011 was our first day running Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans, the only 100% fairtrade coffeehouse in the city.  The name, we inherited with the sale, was a mashup of fairtrade coffee, and the fact that we were only a couple of blocks from the Fair Grounds horse racing track, which also is the venue for the well-known Jazz Fest, often the time we would make enough to limp through the hot, muggy New Orleans summer until coffee drinking was once again mandatory for area residents.

I had come back after a couple weeks from our trailer, which was then on Rock Creek about 50 miles from Missoula, Montana.  We had heard that the owners, former ACORN members, after a decade, were interested in selling.  I had just gotten my share from the ACORN Retirement Plan.  Coffee, especially fairtrade coffee produced by cooperatives and giving a greater share to the actual farmers in Latin America, where we were organizing, seemed like a good idea all around.  The second floor of the building was almost a community center for the neighborhood and the city with all manner of nonprofits, collectives, and 12-step groups meeting there, night and day.  Why not make it a social enterprise and commit 5% of the gross to community organizing?  It turned out that when we registered ACORN Global Enterprises with the state as an L3C, a low-profit limited liability corporation, that we might have been the first to use this new designation in Louisiana.

We were greeted tentatively by the regulars.  What was up?  Were we going to paint over the murals of horses that had been uncovered from the building’s old days as a horse racing betting parlor?  Of course, not!  We didn’t win everyone over until the first hurricane hit while we were there, and we kept the place open for days and days with a generator so life could go on.  We walked into a room full of applause when normal made one of its rare visits to New Orleans.

It was a hard business on low profit margins, especially since we were paying more for fairtrade coffee coming solely into the Port of New Orleans and handled by union labor.  We were popular.  Baristas were well-paid.  We were voted best in the city early on.  But, over time the neighborhood became even more gentrified.  Property taxes went from around $2000 to almost $10,000.  Coffee places sprouted everywhere like weeds.  Our pockets weren’t deep, and it became harder to squeeze the money out to support organizing.  My son, Chaco, was managing and working the counter, and starting to wonder if he could do more than the decade, he had given the business.

Then came the pandemic.  We closed the second location in our St. Claude office quickly.  There was no foot traffic.  We got a PPP loan, so we could pay off the credit cards, but people were locked down and barricaded in their houses.  They ran in and ran out.  Schools were closed, and we were no longer the all-day study hall.  Groups weren’t allowed to meet, so we tried to rent out the second floor.  Jazz Fest and other area events that had been our payday were canceled first one year and then the next.  There seemed no end.

Finally, after eleven years, we had to do the numbers.  Chaco didn’t see the area coming back for another three to five years to get us back to where we had been.  We had to reckon with the fact that for several years we were no longer a social enterprise, even if we were definitely low-profit to no-profit.  We couldn’t afford to make payments to advance community organizing.  We were no longer host to city’s nonprofit community and community center to the neighborhood.  We couldn’t see a way to survive as who we were and how we saw our mission.

We announced that we were closing for the summer, but quickly decided we should see if we could sell.  One buyer didn’t work out, but our neighbor, the restaurant across the street that we had hoped would buy, finally stepped up and did so.

Cleaning out, Chaco found twenty chairs in the attic that were there when we bought Fair Grinds.  They had been hand painted in the early days.  He put them out on the sidewalk in front of the store the day before the closing.  They were gone within hours to sentimental neighbors, old baristas, and some of the regulars.

We made it eleven years.  We have no regrets, just huge thanks to all who supported us and a feeling that we did our best and gave good service with a small dose of our own spice of politics and social change to thousands and thousands of people with every cup of coffee we passed over the bar.  As the slogan on our t-shirts had said, Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, Great Coffee for a Change.