Vendor Spotlight – Union Coffee

I take it as a success whenever I meet someone new and discover, especially if it is unexpected, that we are closely aligned in our philosophies. Joel Davis has approached his Union Coffee + Tea Bar the same way I would—with an almost microscopic attention to every detail, and an unapologetic eschewing of convention.

I often battle with the adage “don’t let perfect get in the way of done,” and sense that Joel does too. Business is about making money, and the pursuit of profits often leads entities into scale, standardization, and in turn, some level of identity lost. But where does one draw a hard line?

Joel takes adopts a different principle with Commune + Co., the umbrella brand that includes Union, his now well-known coffee tricycle, pop-up bars, and on-tap locations in Seminole Heights, St. Petersburg, and Winter Haven.

“Everything is about community, gathering.” Or as is states on his website: “Because the best things in life are shared.”

After touring the globe for seven years as part of a band (Ascend The Hill) and visiting some of the great coffee and tea bars of the world, Joel knew that their commonality was excellent quality of product, of course. But perhaps even more, they all provided an offline venue for assembly, for serendipitous meetings, and for exchanging ideas.

I experienced this myself recently while sitting at Union, weeks before I met Joel.

A woman complimented me on my bag (an olive green Prada number I bought in Milan during summer i saldi), and we had an immediate, almost chemical moment of bonding.

I heard her story, she heard mine, and we empathized with one another over the state of the world. It was something that rarely happens in 2018, as we are all engrossed in our devices and in our busy schedules.

Once I met Joel a few weeks later, the forces that brought this stranger and I together became clearer.

For one, service is not rapid, and that is purposeful. For something to be precious and thoughtful, even if only an almond-milk cortado, it cannot be prepared in advance, grabbed and consumed “on the go.” There is a rhythm to the coffee bar, and its players (customers and baristas) must be mutually respected.

This slowing of the process creates opportunities for serendipity, for connection.

In contrast, there must be a regular coming-and-going at the bar, and therefore, you won’t find any power outlets with which to camp out all day, another irksome trend I find in so many local establishments.

I’m sometimes guilty of being that person, because I need a third place other than home or work, but as my Ybor City neighbor likes to say, that’s what the public library is for.

Less visible to the outsider at Union (and all the touchpoints of Commune + Co.) is the unrelenting commitment to quality and seasonality of the raw materials. Just as mandarins are naturally occurring in the winter, and in many parts of the world are only appropriate around the holidays, so too are coffee beans.

Prime growing and harvesting seasons differ from Honduras to Ethiopia, and beans are never identical year to year. Weather and soil composition both play a huge role in the taste of the beans, as does roasting, but no batch is ever truly the same.

Joel and I both chuckled thinking about all the products we, much-indulged Western consumers, have come to expect to be longitudinally identical. Clothing is a good example. Brands inevitably evolve over time, due to mergers and the necessity to show positive returns, much to the frustration of shoppers who expect consistency across decades. The global fabric trade has changed, not to mention pressures on price, distribution, and competition from new and novel brands.

In any case, Union works with a rotation of roasters from around the country that are both committed to quality and fairness: Ruby Coffee Roasters in Central Wisconsin and Bandit Coffee here in St Pete are a few good examples. Both focus as much as possible on “direct trade” with growers, above and beyond “fair trade,” which means they have face-to-face relationships with farmers and can focus on helping to develop practices that enhance production and quality.

In other words, they lay their eyes on the supply chain from start to finish, and aim to compensate farmers as fairly as possible, rather than buying from volume importers who negotiate farmers into extinction or extremely slim opportunities for prosperity.

Such radical transparency comes with a price tag, and Joel is frank about his own costs. “Conscientious consumption isn’t cheap, and so this isn’t your everyday, grab-and-go, dollar fifty cup of coffee.”

Starbucks’ model has been done, and he isn’t trying to be an operator sitting in an office every day.

Amen to that! The same can be said for so many other aspects of life, like the slow food movement, already very popular and accepted, to apparel, which came up in our conversation more than once. I had to ask Joel where he got his beautifully worn selvedge jeans (3Sixteen) and knit sneakers (Allbirds, a New Zealand company and B-corporation that uses sustainable merino wool to make “the worlds most comfortable shoe”).

Lest I forget to mention it, coffee isn’t Union’s only offering. Teas come from Spirit Tea in Chicago, an operation with comparable focus on single-origin, direct trade with farmers in Nepal, China, and Japan.

Edibles at the bar come from Jamison B Breadhouse Bakes, WeVegan Eats and Katie’s Fine Cookies, and specialty mixed drinks, like the Horchata Latte and Coffee Cola, are collaboratively designed with The Urban Canning Company in St. Pete.

In Joel’s own words, Union Coffee + Tea bar stall at Armature Works is “a grown up version” of what he has done from the start with Commune + Co.

It creates community connection and honors its sources and local partners with the addition of a serene permanent space. Design touches like steel along the bar and walnut wood on the stools and for the shelving were created using local designers Jonathan Torres of Serrott Design + Build and Omar Saleh of Aleph, a metal fabricator.

All told, Joel is a guy who clearly considers all 360° of his business, and does so methodically and organically. He is among like-minded operators here at Heights Public Market; with each, as I have said already in other profiles, it will be inspiring to see where he goes from here.

He has already inspired me.

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