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Brenda Wang
Frankly, My Dear

How much time do you spend thinking about your coffee?

For some, worrying about where their coffee comes from would be like a junkie worrying whether his cocaine was fair trade or not.

This is especially true on Penn’s over-caffeinated campus, where chains like Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Saxby’s are more ubiquitous than tanks during Fling. Head to the perpetually crowded two-story Starbucks on 34th and Walnut streets if you want a visual aid — we want coffee and we’re willing to pay for it dearly.

But when we blindly purchase coffee from big chains, we’re missing an opportunity to do a little good with our daily (soy half-caf latte with a shake of that weird vanilla powder) coffee.

If the entire Penn community — students, faculty, staff, and hospital employees — chose to redirect their business away from chains and towards independent coffee shops, local entrepreneurs and the community as a whole would benefit enormously.

Sure, sometimes you’re in a rush for that 7 a.m. dose of coffee. I’ve been there.

But we also go to Starbucks for meetings, to study, or just to chill out on a Sunday morning, when there are amazing local options only a few minutes away.

Supporting independent coffee shops supports the local economy and the unique character of the community. Independents also (usually) put a lot more thought and passion into their drinks, because they are focused on the process of making quality, authentic coffee, not glorified over-processed milkshakes.

Earth Cup is a great example of the sense of community a local coffee shop can create. Located at 45th and Pine, newcomers and regulars alike are greeted with gruff but friendly banter from Rad, the barista, who’s always eager to talk about the art of the perfect cup of coffee or entertain with stories of his adolescent misadventures in Serbia.

The owner’s whimsical collection of teapots hang from the ceiling, and regulars are known to add teapots they find to the exhibit. One wall is being increasingly covered with currency from around the world, also donated by far-flung travelers who somehow find their way to Earth Cup.

Like many other independents, Earth Cup buys its pastries from local bakers — in this case Margaret, a West Philly resident who put both her kids through a Penn college education with her business from Earth Cup and other independent coffee shops. Not an easy task, as anyone who has suffered sticker shock after opening their bill from PennPay knows. She’s a woman with a large backpack and few words, but her delicious “Jewish Apple Cake” speaks volumes. (Margaret’s Chinese.)

They buy a lot of their coffee from the local roaster Forsecca, located just around the block, who crafts their special house blends and provides single-origin beans for coffee connoisseurs.

Independent coffee shops are also more likely to support community artists instead of decorating with factory produced prints. Rad tells me that it is a painting of a local eccentric, Ed. Ed goes to Earth Cup almost every day, and without fail asks for a cigarette. He’s never gotten one, but that doesn’t stop Ed.

I doubt Starbucks would ever buy from Margaret or put a starving artist’s painting on its manufactured walls.

But Earth Cup isn’t the only quirky neighborhood caffeination destination. Avril 50, on 34th and Sansom, is a hideaway with European sensibilities that serves daring coffee and magazines. Lovers and Madmen have such seething brains — and delicious quiches. Green Line Cafe pulls a punk-rock espresso that you can really feel to your teeth.

Sure, a cup of joe at an independent chain is more expensive. But the money is going straight to local entrepreneurs, coffee roasters, bakers and artists. And if cost is a serious concern, it’s probably more economically sound to make your own coffee with a french press at home.

Convenience shouldn’t be an issue either. Although Penn is littered with Starbucks, there are many options for those who want a quick cup of coffee. At the Starbucks on 34th? Turn the corner and you’ll be at Avril 50. At the Dunkin on Walnut? Walk a few feet to Artisserie. Instead of going to Saxby’s, go down the street to Lovers and Madmen. Across the street from the 1920 Commons Starbucks is Capogiro. Spend a sunny afternoon at the Green Line Cafe or even come all the way down to Earth Cup.

I’ll be here eating a peanut butter & fig jelly sandwich and drinking a cup of their signature Whoop Ass coffee.

Brenda Wang is a rising College sophomore from Chandler, Ariz. Her email address is “Frankly, My Dear” runs biweekly during the summer.

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