Specialty coffee doesn’t have a reputation for being a particularly diverse or welcoming industry. In Minneapolis, entrepreneur and community builder Houston White set out to change that in 2020 after the police murder of fellow resident George Floyd. White soon founded The Get Down Coffee Co as a brand for everyone, but especially for the Black community.

Although the company has just one brick-and-mortar coffee shop in North Minneapolis that opened in November 2021, the coffee roaster recently made huge strides by launching in more than 60 Chicagoland Target stores in August 2022, including the West Loop, South Pulaski, Wilson Yard on the North Side and West suburban Broadview. The launch includes whole bean bags of their most popular blends – the Drip Drip, Plus One and Turntables.

Get Down’s Director of Coffee C.J. Porter Born is on a mission to make space for and amplify the representation of people of color in coffee. 

I roasted all of the coffee that you’ll find on Target shelves,” Porter Born said. “We want to do pop-ups and samples and have organic connections and relationships spring up out of that.”

The TRiiBE caught up with Born to learn about his personal journey as a coffee roaster and how coffee builds community.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

You've been in the coffee industry for more than a decade, beginning as a teenager at your local coffee shop. What first drew you to this career and why are you so passionate about coffee?

C.J. Porter Born: There was a coffee shop just four blocks from my house – JS Bean Factory – in St. Paul and that was the first place that I really felt like I belonged as a teen. As somebody who is mixed, I’ve always struggled with identity socially or in school friend groups and it was hard to figure out who I was. I had a bunch of people telling me where I belong or don’t belong and the coffee shop was the first place that I didn’t feel any of that and I could just exist. I could go there to celebrate, to be alone and grieve, to hang out with friends. 

The coffee shop is a pretty magical place as a concept and that fascinated me from a very young age. By the time I was 14 or 15, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this industry. I just didn’t know exactly how.  My friends always made fun of me because if I wasn’t at work, home or school, I was at the coffee shop. My passion for coffee just came from the way that I felt when I was at a coffee shop.

How did you break in and get your first job in the coffee industry?

Porter Born: Over time, I became friends with the boss and staff, and my first job was as a teen sweeping the floors every night. I wasn’t expecting to get a job, but I knew that if I was around long enough I would eventually get an opportunity. It was only a couple of months sweeping floors before a barista job opened up and they offered it to me so it was a pretty quick turnaround to doing what I wanted to do all along. 

I attribute all of my success at the root of it all to the people at the Bean Factory for giving me the opportunities that they did.  And they roast their own coffee, so having the roaster in the back running all the time, I could smell the coffee roasting from our house even though it was four blocks away.

Have you ever experienced racism in your career?

Porter Born: Absolutely. It was discouraging at the beginning because I’ve always taken everything with the lens that if you want to be great at what you do, you should learn from people who are at the top of their field. When I first started roasting, there were so many things about the science, art and craft that I didn’t understand. I could get the technical aspects – I was turning green beans brown – but there are so many things involved in the roasting process that change how your coffee is going to taste. I wanted to learn about the chemistry and science and I sent out dozens of emails to the most highly-rated coffee roasters around town, and offered to buy lunch and pick this person’s brain for an hour, or apprentice and work for free for a couple of weeks, just trying to do something that would literally cost these people nothing but would help me understand a little better and be a better member of the coffee community. 

Absolutely nobody responded. Most ignored me and some just slammed the door in my face and had unkind words to say. Part of it was racial, but part of it was just that the industry was so closed at the time. It was not a collaborative industry when I first started 10-plus years ago. It’s slowly, very slowly, starting to change, in part because of the work of myself and my colleagues.

The Get Down's Director of Coffee C.J. Porter Born. Photo courtesy of the company.
The Get Down's Founder and CEO Houston White. Photo courtesy of the company.

You've worked at several different coffee roasters in your career – what drew you to The Get Down?

Porter Born: I reached out to The Get Down in May of 2021 over Instagram because I had been subscribing to their coffee for a while, just because I like to support every Black-owned business that I possibly can. I was working at Spyhouse, but I wanted to let them know that if there was anything they needed help with, whether that was being connected to a green coffee supplier, or dialing in a roast profile, my experience was at their disposal. I just wanted to see this business thrive and succeed. At that time I wasn’t looking to change jobs, but after an hour-long conversation with Houston, I put my notice in the very next day. Houston is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met in my life. If he tells you he’s going to do something, it gets done, regardless of what it takes.

The back of all of your coffee bags says “Cultural Collision.” How is your coffee bringing people together?

Porter Born: North Minneapolis is a predominantly Black neighborhood but our customer base is very diverse and I think that is a great example of what you can accomplish with a great product and great vibe in a little shop. 

Coffee brings so many people together in unseen ways. The way that we’re bringing everyone together is just by existing, having our arms open and inviting people to come in and see what we’re doing. Try the drinks that we have on the menu because they might be different from what you’re expecting, but I’m confident they’ll be good. 

One of our most popular drinks is the Sweet Potato C.R.E.A.M., like the Wu-Tang Clan song. We’re trying to be the antithesis of pumpkin spice, because you see that everywhere. And it’s a tip of the hat to Black culture. It’s created intentionally, and not overbearingly sweet. It’s savory, but it’s got that nutmeg, cinnamon and brown sugar. Try the sweet potato C.R.E.A.M. latte and tell me that that doesn’t feel like cultural collision.

How do you imagine The Get Down Coffee creating community in Chicago?

Porter Born: I roasted all of the coffee that you’ll find on Target shelves, and we had intended to get out there physically ahead of the launch but that didn’t end up happening. We want to do pop-ups and samples and have organic connections and relationships spring up out of that. Our business has expanded and we are absolutely open for wholesale customers and I am the main contact on the wholesale end right now. Always happy to talk coffee to anybody who has questions – just email me at cj@getdowncoffee.com.

My biggest hope for everything that we are doing is that it allows more people of color to feel comfortable doing something in coffee. If they want to, then they should be able to. That’s my biggest long-term legacy goal. It’s a really fun and cool job and allows you to connect with a lot of people all around the world. It has changed my life. I was on a pretty rough trajectory before I got into coffee and it’s changed my life for the better.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.