Now, community members have erupted in protest, and the local NAACP chapter is calling for a boycott of the chain.
Ink! Coffee has been in Five Points, a historically black neighborhood in Denver, since 2014. It stated as much in a sign outside the store last week.
“Happily Gentrifying The Neighborhood Since 2014,” read one side of the sandwich board, the other claiming that “Nothing Says Gentrification Like Being Able To Order A Cortado.”
A charitable read might suggest this sign was the chain's attempt to cheekily broadcast some self-awareness to the outside world. The joke, needless to say, did not land as expected.
It didn’t take long for the chain to be met with charges that it was merely parachuting into a neighborhood and somehow making light of those displaced by gentrification. Critics took to Twitter to explain that the chain was "gleefully colonizing" the neighborhood, while the shop's Yelp rating plunged to a measly 1.5 stars. On Wednesday of last week, the sign was reportedly stolen by a skateboarder cruising by the store. The next day, a window had been smashed and the exterior of the shop was vandalized with the words “WHITE COFFEE.” (The graffiti was removed by Friday.)
By Wednesday evening, the chain had begun responding to the concerns on Twitter and Facebook. Its initial, somewhat sarcastic responses implied that it couldn't quite gauge the severity of the response, effectively downplaying the concerns of the community who found the sign tone-deaf.
On Thursday morning, ink! founder Keith Herbert posted a rueful apology to Facebook wherein he professed total ignorance, claiming he'd unknowingly stoked tensions within the neighborhood though that wasn't his intent.
“When our advertising firm presented this campaign to us, I interpreted it as taking pride in being part of a dynamic, evolving community that is inclusive of people of all races, ethnicities, religions and gender identities,” he wrote. “I recognize now that we had a blind spot to other legitimate interpretations.”
It’s unclear how that explanation squares with that of the ad agency in question, Cultivator, who took to Facebook on Thursday afternoon and issued something of an apology of its own. The sign, in Cultivator's words, was meant "to offer a cynical perspective on the rapid development of the neighborhood," but the agency ultimately acknowledged that the resultant campaign was “callous, naive and uninformed to the true character of the neighborhood and to those who have long called it home.” (Neither ink! nor Cultivator responded to immediate requests for comment from MUNCHIES on Monday clarifying their respective stances.)
Still, these apologies have been pretty insufficient for community members—over 200 protestors corralled in front of the coffee shop on Saturday. "It's about more than the sign," Tay Anderson, one of the orchestrators of the protest, told MUNCHIES over phone Monday afternoon. "It's about getting people to understand the negative effects of gentrification."
Anderson claims that neither party has returned repeated calls, indicating that both ink! and Cultivator refuse to truly engage with the community they've so insulted. "If you were really sincere about your apology," Anderson asks, "Then why won't you answer our calls?"
The NAACP’s Denver chapter, too, chastised ink! Coffee for finding "humor in the loss of a community that still has open wounds from the impact of gentrification." The group organized a Monday morning protest against the shop.
NAACP’s Denver chapter did not respond to immediate comment regarding whether its endgame is to temporarily redirect consumer’s capital from ink! to other coffee shops or to put ink! out of business altogether.