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Long before Starbucks announced their disastrous #RaceTogether campaign to foster race relations dialogue among its customers and baristas, there was The Mix Pop-Up Coffee Shop (now known as The Mix Coffeehaus) in the Port Morris neighborhood The Bronx last year.

When Starbucks launched the campaign almost two weeks ago, Vernicia Colon, the brainchild behind the idea of the Mix Coffeehaus reached out to Welcome2TheBronx with concerns of how similar their campaign was to her project.  “We were surprised to see such a large corporation like Starbucks implement what we felt was a very unique concept. It was brought to our attention by many of our followers that noticed similarities between Starbuck’s #RaceTogether campaign and The Mix Coffeehaus” said Colon.

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Several times within the past year, including over the holidays straight through the end of January, Colon and her business partner Pedro Medina, held the pop-up cafe to talk about just what Starbucks executed in utter failure — with the exception that the Mix Coffehaus succeeded in their mission.

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For three days last April, Bronxites flocked to the Mix Coffeehaus and people engaged in deep conversations about race. Even the barista wouldn’t ask your name but would ask, “What are you?” and if you told her what you considered yourself to be, she would ignore it and give you whatever label she saw you as.

That was particularly brilliant since oftentimes we are given labels by society that are purely superficial and people’s quest to box others into neat, little categories, but as Vernicia and the Mix Coffeehaus proved, that is rarely the reality.

Colon said that, “The Mix Coffeehaus was inspired by my experience at Sundance last January 2014, during my winter break. I immediately presented the idea to a close friend Devon Edwards, I was actually embarrassed to mention the concept out loud, because it was such a bold statement to make even for me” she said.

“I received a lot of support and feedback, that led me to finalizing it as my thesis project for Parsons. It wasn’t a quick process, many late nights of research, organizing interviews, surveys, designing the experience, and implementing user testing. The bulk of the work was spent refining, but at the end it was worth it. Though the concept was thought up by me, I had a great team that made it come to life, too many names to list. Jamie Jones, Peter Medina, Alana Smith, Serafina Colon and many more gave their time, and hard work to may my idea come to life.”

Mix Coffeehaus – Chapter One | RACE IN AMERICA from Mix Coffeehaus on Vimeo.

In an open letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Mix Coffeehaus writes:

Dear Howard Schultz,

What business does a coffee shop have leading conversations about race? We think it’s a bold and ambitious idea, and that’s why we opened The Mix Coffeehaus as a series of pop-ups in April 2014 and during Holiday Season 2015. When we learned Starbucks was leading #RaceTogether conversations at stores across the country, we thought it wasn’t executed quite as successfully as what we have done. Lots of others agree, and Howard Schultz, we invite you to have a coffee with us in the South Bronx to talk about what Starbucks can do to get this right. 

Our coffeehaus has been located in a rapidly gentrifying, low-income neighborhood where racial relations and access to power (with one another and the larger world) is a daily negotiation. As a mixed race woman who identifies as Black and Puerto Rican, I know firsthand the topic of race is filled with complexity; it comes in many shades, tones, and subtleties. Furthermore, as a parent of a teenage son who faces discrimination and the threat of violence, the topic of race is a daily conversation in our household. I have a personal stake in raising consciousness using the tools available to me. My partner, Peter Medina and I feel while Starbucks has made a heartfelt attempt, the conversation should have been more inclusive. As you will see on our website (themixcoffeehaus.com), honest and nuanced discussion can emerge when people of diverse backgrounds are invited to shape the conversation. Our careful design, research, and implementation of this conversation allowed for a truly open dialogue that was carried far beyond the walls of our cafe. Guests tell us it reached the dinner table at home, or made its way to classrooms and into an expanded web of personal experiences, creating shifts in perspective and an elevated awareness.

Conversation is at the heart of our business model. That’s why we created The Mix Coffeehaus as a space for communal debate, critical thinking, and engaging in new ideas. This kind of forum is greatly needed in underserved neighborhoods like ours. We built this from the ground up as an effort to bring the community together. In the future, we’re using The Mix to facilitate a number of conversations–not just on race–but on the environment, gender equality, and any topic our neighbors deem to be important. As young artists we feel it is our responsibility to use the skills we have in design and our social awareness to impact others. Our goal moving forward is to continuously keep our hand on the pulse of what is important to the communities we serve, and work in a collaborative effort in hopes of empowering people and giving a voice to the voiceless. We’d love for you to see how we’ve done it.

Despite our differences, it’s interesting to note where our paths have been similar. Like you, Howard, a fellow native New Yorker, we’ve come from humble beginnings, one or both of us have lived in housing projects, are first generation college graduates, and are passionate about creating a for-purpose company that inspires change. Join us for a cup of coffee as we launch our permanent location here in the South Bronx. We invite you to #mixtheconversation

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When we asked how #RaceTogether would impact their plans to open up a permanent home, Vernicia simply stated, “Our goal for the past year has remained the same, to lay our foundation here in The Bronx. It has been a long road, but we are hopeful that we will have a permanent space soon enough. The community has been so supportive. We cannot wait to go from a pop-up to a brick and mortar.”

And they are not bothered that they may be perceived as imitators of the larger coffee giant.
“We aren’t as concerned with people assuming that we are copy cats, that just isn’t our style. We are confident that people will see our authenticity and integrity through our work and efforts. We understand that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and all we can do is get back to work and continue to develop our brand, our company and our vision.” said Colon

One thing we can vouch for is that almost a year ago, the South Bronx held these conversations in a little pop-up shop long before Starbucks announced their plans to do the same and there is no doubt who the originator of the concept was.

Perhaps Starbucks should hire The Mix Coffehaus as consultants since they do seem to know how to properly execute the conversation.

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