For great coffee, try Three Bears. Owner Jeff Scheafnocker sells it out of a bright blue wagon at the Market Square Farmer’s Market, at his Three Bears Coffee Company store in South Knoxville where he roasts it, and at a few local restaurants and grocery stores. People who love his coffee have urged him to expand, offering marketing deals and advice on how he can grow his business, and while Jeff appreciates the support, he doesn’t want to expand. In today’s world, he says, that makes him feel odd.
“The entrepreneurship that’s in vogue now,” he says, “is this sort of exponential growth curve: If you could do this and make X amount of money, could you do twice that and make twice as much? Then, of course, wouldn’t you want to franchise and wouldn’t you want to do this and do that? None of that is my ambition.”
Jeff’s ambition starts with his insistence on purchasing coffee beans strictly from farmer-owned cooperatives; as he explains, “I buy coffee from people who are steering their own ships.” Refusing to take unfair advantage of farmers drives his company. He roasts the beans himself, a process he clearly enjoys as much as personally selling it to his customers: nurturing relationships, building a community around what he calls “the real human touch.” To expand, Jeff would have to give up some part of this enterprise, undermining the reason he’s in business in the first place. “It’s not broken,” he adds, “so I’m not trying to fix it.”
Talking to Jeff, I remembered something I’d heard said by another Jeff, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who was extolling the virtue of frictionless buying. Friction, I thought. That means people. “Frictionless” is the exact opposite of the real human touch.
Choosing to resist growth and the lure of more money for the cumbersome, messy, enriching, and invaluable process of honoring your values and engaging with other human beings is not just a business philosophy. It’s a political act. As is going out of my way to buy Three Bears Coffee. As is shopping at Union Ave Books instead of Amazon. As is writing for this newspaper. It’s the act of imagining what sort of community you want to live in and then doing something about it. The community I want to live in looks uniquely like Knoxville and nowhere else, but for local shops, local food, and a local newspaper to thrive, I have to support them.
This is not to say you should. Economics and time constraints dictate how and where most people shop, and having choices is a privilege, but building intentional communities doesn’t have to mean shopping. For some, it might mean buying less, or planting trees, or sending a thank-you note to a teacher. To me, politics is bigger than who you vote for or what party you’re in. It’s about people. Who are your neighbors? What do they need to live in dignity? How much space are you willing to allow them? How much space are you taking up? If they differ from you, how hard is it to be kind? To listen? To take turns? To avoid making generalizations.
The community I want affords dignity to all people regardless of the myriad ways we devise to divide us. It provides access to a living wage, health care, childcare, a decent education, affordable housing, clean water, clean air, healthy forests, and green spaces. It recognizes and values a common good. It never favors ideology over people. It understands the connectivity we all have to each other and the planet. I’m not singing a song about holding hands and giving peace a chance here, because a whole lot of people would reject my version of community. Pick any of the above: them’s fighting words. The community I want is one I have to fight for.
In June, as I watched protesters at the Knoxville Pride parade on Gay Street yell hateful things at people celebrating love and honoring the slain in Orlando, I thought: Can anyone imagine walking into their church to demand they have gay sex? No. It would be rude, cruel, and pointless. Perhaps the protesters yearn for a community where everyone is exactly like them. Frictionless. I can feel sorry for them, but I cannot tolerate the ugliness that allows one group to trample on the humanity of other people. So I show up at the parade to lend my support. Showing up is a political act. So is speaking up. So, sometimes, is shutting up and listening.
I’ve lived in Tennessee most of my life, but these days it’s easy to feel odd. Easy to feel overwhelmed when the seeds of discrimination are so well tended. Easy to get discouraged when so few people bother to vote in local elections, when the people you vote for don’t win, and when the winners put the Americans for Prosperity agenda over the needs of real people. It’s easy to think, why bother. It’s hard to keep trying.
Jeff Scheafnocker keeps Three Bears Coffee small because that’s the scale that allows him to stay true to his mission: not treating the market as an ocean to catch fish in, but being a part of the ecosystem. He aims to make a living while fostering a community. And while he might change his mind about expanding, it won’t be at the expense of farmers or customers. A colleague once countered Jeff’s bigger-is-not-always-better philosophy by saying, “Yeah, but you’re talking about this big-picture thing.” To which Jeff replied, “Right. Because that’s all there is.”
We can’t all be Jeff Scheafnocker, but each one of us can do something, even one thing, to steer our community toward a healthier and more compassionate future. When I get discouraged, I remember Jeff and people like him, working to make our community better one cup of coffee at a time.
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