By Laura Newcomer on May 18, 2021 in Travel
If there’s one thing many of us need access to while traveling, it’s coffee. While it can be tempting to fall back on big-brand coffee chains on your travels, seeking out locally owned coffee shops instead can transform a caffeine quest into a one-of-a-kind adventure.
Whether you step inside to savor the ambiance of an artisanal shop or peruse the menu to select a unique offering for curbside pickup, trying a new place can add to the adventure and spontaneity of traveling. Here’s a closer look at the many perks of visiting independently owned coffee shops, some tips for finding local gems, and a roundup of some of the best independent coffee shops around the U.S.
The Many Perks of Independent Coffee Shops
Why venture farther from main roads and familiar brands to seek out independent coffee shops, you might ask? Here are six good reasons.
Experience local flavor.
Locally operated coffee shops allow you to experience the true local flavor of wherever it is that you visit or travel through. We're not just talking about the flavors on the menu, although you may encounter unusual beverages, snacks, and ingredients beyond the standard chain fares. You can also get a sense of the local community by perusing the flyers posted on bulletin boards, checking to see whether the shop's menu incorporates local ingredients, browsing the art on the shop's walls, taking time to people-watch, and so on. Many independent coffee shops are also housed in unique settings with historical or regional significance.
Ask locals for area tips.
If you're sticking around the area where you're making a pit stop for coffee, then local coffee shops provide a great place to pick locals' brains and ask for regional tips. The baristas at the shop or other friendly patrons may be able to point you toward great restaurants, stores, hiking trails, landmarks, and more points of interest.
Enjoy a slower pace.
Local coffee shops tend to have a slower-paced feel. They're often less likely to be filled with folks passing through on their way to another destination or just grabbing a to-go coffee before work. Adopt this pace: You can slow down, savor your brew, and not have to worry about feeling rushed. In fact, many independent coffee shops encourage you to take your time by proffering board games, local artwork, books, and magazines.
Support a local business.
Supporting local businesses is important all the time as it sustains local economies and diversifies job opportunities. However, it’s especially important now that independent shops are dealing with the pandemic-related recession. Many coffee shops are struggling to stay afloat, and your (socially distanced and masked) patronage can help keep them going.
Make ethical choices.
Shopping (and sipping) local is already an ethical choice that supports local people, independent shops, and regional economies. Up the ante even more by seeking out coffee shops that use organic, fair-trade beans and locally grown ingredients. This shouldn’t be hard, as many locally-owned shops are more likely to use these kinds of ingredients.
Find great gifts.
Locally roasted beans make for a great souvenir or gift, and many local coffee shops also sell trinkets and paraphernalia related to coffee and tea. If you promised loved ones that you’d bring back presents from your travels, a local cafe can serve as a one-stop shop for all your gift shopping.
4 Tips for Finding Local Coffee Shop Gems
Not sure how to locate an independent coffee shop? Here are some tried-and-true tips.
The Delocator site was created for the express purpose of helping people find independently owned and run stores — and that includes coffee shops. Simply select "Coffee" from the drop-down menu and enter the zip code where you'll be traveling.
Scour Yelp and FourSquare.
These sites can be a little overwhelming at times, but they're jam-packed with listings for all manner of local coffee shops. Read reviews carefully and look at user-submitted photos to get a sense of different options, and search by keywords that are important to you, such as "vegan" or "gluten-free." Just keep in mind that reviews don't always tell the whole story about a place or experience.
Anyone who lives in the region should have a good grasp of nearby coffee shop options. Consider chatting up local cashiers, gas station attendants, or other friendly locals (if they seem receptive, of course!). Help them help you by giving them a sense of what you're looking for: a low-key place to hang out, the best espresso in the area, and so on.
Check out local blogs and other publications.
Before your trip, read local blogs to identify any coffee shop suggestions. Many will feature "Best Of" roundups for their area. Once you're in town, pick up local newspapers or magazines for coffee shop listings and reviews.
9 of the Most Unique Coffee Shops in the Nation
To give you a sense of the sheer diversity of coffee shops on offer, here’s a list of nine of the most unique and high-quality coffee shops in the U.S. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should pique your interest in locally-owned shops!
1. Color Coffee (Eagle, CO)
What began as a home roasting project for Color Coffee founder Charlie Gundlach has since blossomed into one of the best coffee shops in Colorado and the U.S. After years of backyard tinkering, Gundlach opened up shop high in the Rocky Mountains, where he and his friendly team roast ethically sourced beans and serve up artful brews for community members, I-70 travelers, and tired skiers. There's no snobbery here, but the coffee's as good as the most elitist urban cafes.
2. Crema Coffee (Nashville, TN)
"We relationally source coffee from farmers we know and trust," declares the Crema Coffee website. "Our ethos is to honor our farmers and friends by paying them well, roasting their coffee in a way that honors its history and nuance, and serving the coffee with gratitude, acknowledging our place in this family of coffee." This thoughtfulness is reflected in everything the brand does, from its zero-waste and carbon-neutral policies to its high-quality roasting and affable atmosphere.
3. Four Letter Word (Chicago, IL)
Given that Four Letter Word has a sister shop in Istanbul, it's perhaps not surprising that this hip coffee shop specializes in modern twists on Turkish coffee. Immerse yourself in modern Turkish decor as you enter the shop's Chicago location, and take home an artfully decorated bag of beans from the likes of Colombia, Ethiopia, and Oaxaca.
4. Leslie Coffee Co. (Wichita, KS)
Coming in at number seven on Food & Wine's 2019 list of Best Coffee Shops in America, Wichita's Leslie Coffee Co. inhabits 2,000 square feet of a beautiful, historical brick structure in one of the city's hippest neighborhoods. This woman-owned shop employs mostly women, pays workers a living wage, features clean and modern decor, and delivers a mean espresso (or another expertly crafted drink of your choosing).
5. Madcap Coffee (Grand Rapids and Detroit, MI)
Madcap Coffee repeatedly shows up on "Best Roasters" lists, and for good reason. Each year, the co-founders test thousands of coffees, then serve up the best of the best out of their Grand Rapids roastery. Enjoy an upscale coffee drinking experience at one of the brand's two locations via tasting flights and espresso snifters. Then rest easy knowing that your sensory experience wasn't a wasteful one: Madcap has committed to a zero-waste policy.
6. Mom ’n ‘Em Coffee (Cincinnati, OH)
Despite its name, Cincinnati's Mom 'n 'Em Coffee is run by two brothers: Tony and Austin Ferrari, who opened this well-regarded coffee and wine shop in 2015 as an homage to their hard-working mother. The coffee is stellar here, as is the setting: The thoughtfully renovated brownstone has a distinctly homey feel that features exposed brick, private nooks, and comforting food.
7. Oddly Correct (Kansas City, MO)
The good folks at Oddly Correct eschew the elitist feel of some local coffee shops in favor of what they call a "low brow/high quality" ethos. While they deliver on quality, the brand also emphasizes kindness and inclusivity and is committed to ethical practices when it comes to employee policies and compensation. It also emphasizes environmental sustainability in its sourcing and roasting processes.
8. Sapor Coffee (Denver, CO)
Sapor Coffee is located in the heart of Denver and exclusively features roasts from the award-winning Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters in Lakewood, CO. The shop defines itself as an "espresso, coffee, and concept bar," and its minimalist decor is meant to make room for the major sensory experiences that you’re all but guaranteed to experience while sipping. There are no frills here, just seriously good coffee.
9. Sey Coffee (Brooklyn, NY)
The duo behind Sey, Tobin Polk and Lance Schnorenberg, first distinguished themselves as coffee roasters, and then opened what is now Sey Coffee: a Scandinavian-inspired shop featuring transparently sourced beans, a simple but impressive menu, friendly service, and well-cared-for staff. Sey Coffee landed the coveted top spot on Food & Wine's roundup of 2019's Best Coffee Shops in America, and the brand doesn't show any signs of slowing down.
From unique settings and artful brews to a slower pace and ethical purchasing options, there are tons of good reasons to seek out independent coffee shops when you travel. By asking for local recommendations and taking the time to do some research, your pit stops for coffee will be about more than fueling your travels — they'll become a memorable part of the journey.