We sit down with the owners of Foolish Things Coffee, Justin and Katie Carpenter, who are improving their community through coffee—one cup at a time.
Foolish Things Coffee is a small specialty-coffee shop off the iconic Route 66 in Tulsa, Okla. Between serving delicious drinks, owners Justin and Katie Carpenter also find ways to serve the community and work with local organizations to better their neighborhood.
BY L.L. PRUITT
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
L.L. Pruitt: When did Foolish Things open?
Justin and Katie Carpenter: We opened our doors in September 2012, and part of the philosophy for us is that we wanted to open a shop that was great at craft and hospitality. Because I think sometimes that there are shops that take a lot of care in the craft but are pretentious and elitist when it comes to the coffee. Then you have the really friendly shops that are less motivated by quality. So we really wanted to do something where we serve the best possible product available but do it in an egalitarian way so that everybody could enjoy it.
LLP: What is the ethos of Foolish Things?
J&KC: Our foundational values are pursuing excellence in craft and hospitality, and to do that on a holistic level is to be much more than just a coffee shop. We wanted to be a community hub. We wanted to create space for community to happen. And for this place to have longevity and for us to say we were successful with what we set out to do, it was to bring down the barriers of “big brother” businesses. We want local businesses to come in and have success around here. We want to be good for our neighborhood, and I mean that in the most immediate sense possible, not just the philosophical idea of being neighborly. We want to create space for businesses to thrive.
LLP: I know you are very involved in the community, and you’ve worked with different organizations to improve it. How did the collaboration with Tulsa Young Professionals come about?
J&KC: The TYPROs have been a really active organization in the community, and for the last eight years they’ve been doing an annual event called Street CReD, where they focus on a neglected part of the city to try and paint the picture of what it would look like if it had outside investment in it. We had seen it done really well in the Red Fork and Pearl District neighborhoods. The most dense area of Tulsa for parking is this part of downtown, and so we approached the TYPROs people, and said we love what you guys are about, would you be willing to focus on this area of downtown and catalyze redevelopment?
My wife and I are very passionate about walkability, safety, lighting, and the streetscape. These are all great things when it comes to redeveloping downtown, and TYPROs was incredibly gracious and found value in it. That summer they decided to do a Street CReD event in south downtown to help paint the picture.
LLP: What is the current status of the neighborhood where Foolish Things is located?
J&KC: In south downtown, there is a lot going on—Brady and Blue Dome, which are the main entertainment and restaurant districts. When my wife and I lived in Kansas City, we witnessed Westport, the downtown Kansas City area, explode, with walkability and restaurants. That was something that we wanted to help bring to Tulsa. I think Tulsa is five or six years behind most major metropolitan areas when it comes to seeing value in the downtown core of the city. But with that we have the vantage point of seeing what works and what doesn’t. How do we do gentrification in a responsible way? How do we invest in a community without taking advantage of people? We want this place to be one that is a positive to the neighborhood as opposed to one that is predatory.
Brooklyn [N.Y.] is a perfect example of how it exploded in popularity and edged a lot of people out who were native to that area. Tulsa, even though we are a few years behind, we’re able to look at those communities and say, OK, they learned something by living through it, we can learn something as we invest. So because of that we are passionate about redeveloping downtown Tulsa, especially this neighborhood in downtown.
LLP: What projects are you currently working on?
J&KC: One of the projects that we’re working on now is helping redevelop Route 66, which runs right in front of the café. Route 66 is one of the most iconic and historically significant parts of American history in the Midwest. We are working with Ken Busby, the CEO of the Route 66 Alliance, to make it great and showcase the businesses on the route and attract development. We’ve created a neighborhood association, the Cathedral District—it’s of architectural significance to have this much density of cathedrals in the neighborhood. We are really focusing a lot of our time and energy to attract business and development in this area. So neighborhood development is a huge project we’re working on.
And then also a social thing we’re really passionate about is teachers. Oklahoma’s teachers are not paid nearly as much as anywhere else in the region. So for us, we’re trying to step back and look at the things we can do. From now on, we’re giving every teacher in the Tulsa area a 15 percent discount off every purchase. These are easy things we can do to bring attention to the issue of teacher pay and how we take care of teachers in our state. I’m much more interested in the institutional change. There is very clear evidence on the trajectory of an individual’s life based on their education, and access to good education. I’m not in state politics, but from where I sit, there are poor decisions being made when it comes to stewardship. One of the things I’m exploring is what does it look like to get involved on a systematic level, to make sure that we can as a community support our teachers. We are at the beginning stages of this.
LLP: What legacy do you hope to leave with Foolish Things?
J&KC: To a certain degree this is encapsulated in our name, Foolish Things. The name is to say we pursue very lofty ends with the foolish means of a cup of coffee. Even our logo is the cheshire cat, which is reminiscent of what it means to be a fully bodied humanity, and we’re not there. You’re never going to see the fully bodied cheshire cat in the logo, because there is always going to be work to be done. But, we think our responsibility is to step into that tension, to make the neighborhood a better place after we’re gone, to do it in a sustainable way. Foolish Things is not about Justin and Katie—if anything, we want this place to have an identity independent of us because we want it to outlast us. We want it to be something positive for the community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
L.L. Pruitt is a freelance writer and barista sharing and expanding coffee in Atlanta, which you can see through her Instagram @coffeeatlanta.