Chicago photographer and creative entrepreneur Felton Kizer had worked in three cities in three years and was about to move from Chicago to New York City when, in April of 2020, COVID travel bans grounded him.
Chicago coffee culture is lucky it did.
Monday Coffee Company, the e-commerce and pop-up concept Kizer and co-founder Amanda Harth started during the lock-down, has been breaking barriers ever since.
“Monday coffee was legit born out of necessity,” says Kizer, adding that Black-owned coffee businesses are a rarity; even rarer are Black- and queer-owned businesses with a community focus.
“We had already been doing the planning on it for about a year when the pandemic hit, and [then] the protests and riots broke out around George Floyd’s murder. That made us move to launch more quickly,” says Harth. “Being people of color and launching a coffee company with community, education and representation as the pillars seemed super-important. We felt we were presenting this product to people at a time of need.”
Positive response indicates they were right. Selling cold brew in a cold city during COVID? Somehow it worked.
Launched online in late October, 2020, the company sold out of its core coffee product within a week. At the same time, it ramped up production to meet demand, and the team was invited to do pop-ups, which enabled them to foster their community focus in physical space.
“It was crazy,” says Harth. “We found out about all of these opportunities to take up space and build our company all in the same week.”
Artist and University of Chicago visual arts professor Theaster Gates offered Monday Coffee a three-month residency at Retreat at Currency Exchange Café through his Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit supporting Black artists and entrepreneurs. (Monday Coffee has just completed that residency.)
Soho House, a creative and business workspace where Kizer is a member, then invited Monday Coffee to do pop-ups as well, which grew to the company’s seven-days-a-week presence operating the first-floor public coffee bar.
Most recently the Garfield Park Conservatory asked Kizer and Harth to roll their coffee cart into the lush, scented warmth of Horticulture Hall where they’ll sell Monday Coffee this spring.
For the pair, early success has come with a big coffee learning curve. Kizer, who worked as a barista in Chicago and in coffeehouses in New Orleans, is self-taught in the practice of cold brewing, a process where roast coffee is steeped in water for six to twelve hours to make a concentrate. To ensure top-quality beans and roasting, Kizer met with several local companies before partnering with Littlefoot Coffee Roasters of Grandville, Michigan, the concern he felt Monday Coffee could best learn and grow with.
There have also been the added challenges of bottling, branding, packaging, labeling and marketing. Online, the company offers bottles of its signature cold brew ready-to-drink, as concentrate, and in subscription packages. Also offered are beans in three roasts: No 1. (smooth, with dark chocolate and date notes), No 2. (which changes quarterly) and No 3. (with notes of white grape, pear and caramel).
Although new to the coffee business, both Kizer and Harth are experienced at community building and creative entrepreneurship. Kizer’s offkilter.co media company produces an online magazine (in print as The OK Times) offering a plunge into conversations on contemporary art, men’s style and queer culture. Harth’s Clothing Humans Company is an umbrella brand for concepts she creates to promote sustainable lifestyles in a complex world.
The two met through shared networks, supporting each other at events and then becoming close friends and business partners.
“Maybe two years after we met, we got our first studio space so that we could work on projects together and find new things to create and launch,” says Harth. “Monday Coffee has been the most successful yet.”
More is still to come. Kizer is about to launch a new tea concept, and with his bottled coffee, he’s adding blended drinks. Introduced last summer, the first is “The Good Day,” a mix of cold brew, oat milk and house-made lavender syrup..
“We are super-excited to start rolling out new products,” says Harth. “Felton creates the recipes and I handle the label design, language and marketing.”
Even with their pop-ups, community-building events remain core. Harth says she and Kizer hope the virtual coffee-break events they hosted on Instagram will become in-person this year. They also regularly host Monday Coffee Club events with coffee cocktails, live music and art, plus coffee education and discussions around world events at Soho House’s Green Street Studio.
“The seed that we are growing… Building this brand… How we do that changes every day,” Harth sums up. “I think that’s a good thing. We are an experiential coffee brand and we want community always to be at the center: community, education and representation.”