Harrisburg coffee shops prop up the community

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Elementary Coffee Co. | Harrisburg PA

Little Amps Coffee Roasters and Elementary Coffee Co. don’t just brew great coffee. They brew great coffee and use their platform to engage with the community to make Harrisburg a better place to live.

While I usually take my coffee black, I’ll make an exception when it comes with a healthy helping of social issue initiatives.

I recently talked with Peter Allan, CEO of Little Amps, and Andrea Grove, founder and roaster at Elementary, about using their businesses as a platform for social good.

The ultimate community space

Pre-pandemic (and hopefully post), customers used coffee shops as a meeting place for all sorts of activities. Interviews, chats with friends, or just a place of solo contemplation each has its place among the hustle and bustle.

“We’ve heard over and over that people miss the sense of community right now,” Allan said. “We take great pride in our product, but for some people, the product might come second behind that experience.”

Grove said that coffee shops, more than other businesses, have always been a place of social commentary and ideas.

“We’re lucky that coffee shops have been respected as places of influence,” said Grove. “There is so much collaboration and social connectivity that can occur over a cup of coffee.”

Coffee for a cause

Their shared sentiment isn’t a new value for either business. Both said that from the start, they knew they had to offer more than coffee — make an impact and be part of the community they serve.

Grove said that personally, she didn’t feel like she had any choice but to be active.

“If you’re going to claim that you are a community business, then you should use that as a social platform for your community,” Grove said. “I don’t believe you can have one without the other.”

Unsurprisingly, Allan had a similar mindset.

“You can’t say that you are a community business if you don’t engage in the community,” Allan said. “I think Little Amps has done an okay job, and we’re feeling challenged and inspired to do more.”

Allan said they have seen that locals want engagement from the businesses they choose to support. Recently, he said they have taken a harder look at making clearer, more actionable steps toward this engagement and acknowledges they can always do more.

“We want to intentionally make positive changes in our community,” said Allan. “That could be really public activism, or it could be quiet behind the scenes. It means looking in our own backyard to make the best impact.”

For Andrea and Elementary, being a part of a diverse community influenced the location of their shop at Broad Street Market. Grove said that becoming more socially active was a natural progression of their business.

“Being a community business, you’re going to want to help protect and care about those people and stand up for them in any way that you can,” Grove said. “Whether that is monetary, helping amplify voices, getting the word out, or providing resources.”

Becoming local allies

While money is a tangible way to show support, both shops have been able to become allies for various local causes.

Elementary used their time during the shutdown to run an Instagram Live Baphomet Brews series to talk with locals.

“These went from brewing coffee with people to having important conversations,” Grove said. “This turned into an extension of talking to people about social justice and introducing people we love to others in the community.”

Little Amps used its social media platform to host an Instagram takeover featuring Young Professionals of Color-Harrisburg.

“This was an idea that came from an employee,” Allan said. “What if we got away from our cute IG and gave someone else a voice?”

Allan said it was incredibly successful for both Little Amps and YPOC.

Elementary also has provided resources for some local protests and rallies.

“We might not be able to give money, but we can donate water or coffee, help set up a tent, and provide restrooms,” Grove said. “We can ride with you and sometimes it’s just about having people be heard.”

Both want to use their coffee shops to continue to foster and encourage intentional engagement with the community.

“We don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” Allan said. “We always want to be working at it and making sure we don’t just say something once and move on.”

“If this was about money, I wouldn’t be in this industry,” Grove said. “It’s so much more than that. It’s not just about cups of coffee and I am what I am going to walk home with at the end of the day.”

Moreover, it’s about demonstrating support for the Harrisburg community. Elementary and Little Amps both donated a portion of their respective proceeds to Dauphin County Bail Fund in May and June.

Little Amps has supported YPOC, GLO-Harrisburg, YWCA, and Bethesda Mission among others.

Elementary recently released a new “For The Culture” coffee blend. One dollar from each sale is donated to La Cultura in Harrisburg.

Both coffee shops also support the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ actions, voting rights, and use their respective community spaces to foster education on local social issues.

Little Amps Coffee | Harrisburg PA

Community response

Speaking up and taking a stance as a business comes with risks many otherwise choose to avoid. Grove and Allan both recognize this but said they’ve seen more support than criticism.

“People are okay with businesses speaking out now in a city setting,” Grove said. “People aren’t going to look at you weird for saying things that are progressive.”

A combination of strong support from their customers and belief in and from their staff keeps them going.

“We know that we might lose some people and this might not be for everyone,” Grove said. “There are plenty of places to get coffee, but we hope we can nudge people a little bit to get out of their complacency and think a bit more.”

For Little Amps, it’s about drawing lines in their beliefs and sticking to them. Allan acknowledged they are at risk of alienating some customers. However, he believes standing up for social issues is for the good of humanity.

“We’re going to say and believe that Black Lives Matter because that is at our core, and you have to understand that and live that way,” Allan said. “We’re going to tell you to vote regardless of your political beliefs. We’re going to tell you we don’t like violence.”

These two don’t do it alone. Before they take any action or promote causes, they talk with their employees.

“The team has really been into this for us,” Allan said. “We have a crew of good people that are socially engaged and want to see the world be a better place.”

They take input from their employees and encourage them to be outspoken within their own comfort zones.

“Before we do anything dramatic, we have a conversation with our team first,” Grove said. “So much of this is about having a conversation whether that’s between our staff or with our customers.”

Social awareness

A key to this for both shops is staying keenly aware of their roles and not taking anything for granted.

“This all comes with being fully aware that we are a white-owned company, and we operate in a gentrified space,” Allan said. “We take responsibility and don’t just take for granted that we have this business and understand why we are where we are.”

Allan said they’re constantly looking to do better with self-reflection and reconciliation.

“We’re a company of white people and have white clientele,” Grove said. “Clearly, there were issues we weren’t able to stand up enough about. We think how can we provide resources to other people like us who might be scared to ask?”

At the end of the day, both Elementary Coffee Co. and Little Amps will continue to keep supporting and fighting for what they believe is right for the community.

Sara Bozich
Author: Sara Bozich

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