Soft guitar strumming plays in the background as a singer-songwriter’s voice fills the illuminated space at Union Coffee. Stark, white walls decorated with geometric prints give off a minimalist, big-city vibe in the newly opened specialty coffeeshop in downtown Greensboro.
Black, flat-bill caps with the Union Coffee logo and sweatshirts with the words “The Boro” printed on them hang on a rack near the entrance. Fake ivy trails down the back wall and encircles an exposed pipe behind the counter. A black fanny pack with gold accents — $50 — sits next to some backpacks on a shelf waiting to be bought. The place is a bit of a millennial trap; all that’s missing is a bright, Instagram-worthy neon sign.
At first glance, Union Coffee seems like just another NYC-wannabe endeavor. However, a closer look at the shop’s association with a local church reveals some conservative opinions that contrast with its hip aesthetic.
The shop, located off West Friendly Avenue, opened in November 2018 after Spencer Loman and Daniel Davidson discovered the space near Elon Law School downtown. Loman works as the lead pastor of United City Greensboro, a newish Wesleyan church that owns the coffeeshop.
“We wanted to create a sense of presence and community in downtown,” said Loman who co-founded the shop with Davidson. “We talk a lot about ‘third place’ — a place where you gather outside of where you live or work. For some people that might be a gym or park, barbershop, microbrewery, or it’s a coffeeshop.”
Loman said he and Davidson came up with the idea to open a coffeeshop after seeing a news report about how Greensboro ranked No. 99 out of 100 big cities in terms of coffeeshops per capita.
“People were begging for a specialty coffeeshop in the city,” Loman said.
Using third-wave beans by Black and White roasters out of Wake Forest, Union Coffee offers options that are lacking in the city like pour-overs, and a knowledge of the difference between single-origins and blends. The shop also sells tea by Vida Pour Tea and baked goods from Easy Peasy Bakery.
Sara Chapman, owner of Vida Pour Tea, said that she was unaware of the affiliation, and that Union buys just one of her teas, the vanilla chai.
“[Vida Pour is] supportive of the LGBT community, we have multigender restrooms, we have an extremely mixed, diverse customer base who we love,” she said. “Everybody’s free to be themselves here. We want everybody to have tea.”
Erik Rankin, one of the owners of Easy Peasy also said that they were unaware of the affiliation with the church.
“We have a couple of different businesses that we wholesale to and we don’t investigate what their affiliations or stances are,” Rankin said. “We are super friendly to the LGBTQ community. In fact, our first wedding cake that we did was two guys getting married. We were totally unaware.”
Specialty coffee, like the kind served at Union Coffee, is particularly popular with the millennial demographic, according to data by the National Coffee Association.
Their 2017 drinking trends report found that those from the ages of 25 to 39 drink more “gourmet” or specialty coffee compared to other age groups.
At Union Coffee, a pour-over, carefully crafted in a glass carafe, costs four bucks while a shot of espresso rings in at two-fifty.
The menu is short and offers only the essentials like Americanos, cappuccinos and lattes and just a few choices for flavor like vanilla or a classic mocha.
“We live in a Starbucks culture,” Loman said. “We wanted to highlight the coffee, not the extra flavors.”
And he’s right. Besides the Table on Elm and Green Joe’s on Battleground, Union Coffee is the only place in town where you can get proper specialty coffee, where the friendly baristas measure the ounces of the beans before they pour and can list off the flavor notes for each roast. It’s caffeine, down to a science.
According to Loman, all of the profits go back to United City Greensboro or into the shop.
The church is part of the Wesleyan denomination and espouses a fairly conservative worldview.
Listed on the Wesleyan church’s official website are several “position statements” that are anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality and anti-transgender. The statements make claims that homosexuality can be healed and that gender noncomformity is a “violation of the sanctity of human life.”
When asked about United City Greensboro’s views on these topics, Loman said that the church aligns with the Wesleyan church’s official statements.
“We have a traditionalist view of marriage,” Loman said. “Between one man and one woman.”
Still, Loman repeatedly argued that the coffeeshop has nothing to do with the church.
“We want to use the proceeds to love others,” Loman claimed.
When asked if the shop is profitable, Loman just responded by saying that “the coffeeshop has been growing.”
He said that the goal isn’t to evangelize customers. For him, Union Coffee is just about bringing specialty coffee to downtown Greensboro and “fostering a love for the community… and add to all the wonderful development in downtown….”
Inside the coffeeshop, nothing indicates that Union Coffee is associated or owned by United City Greensboro. No signs at the register, no scattered church pamphlets. They don’t even have Bible verses on the bottoms of their cups (looking at you, Chick-Fil-a and In-and-Out).
Stephanie Adams said she visited the shop for the first time last year around the holidays. She was meeting up with a friend and brought her daughter along. She said she visited because she was curious about the shop after seeing posts on Instagram.
“The décor looked more modern and they promote themselves in a way that makes you think their coffee was gonna be really good,” said Adams, who is a millennial and used to work for Greensboro’s Church World Service office.
When asked whether or not she knew about the shop’s association with United City Greensboro, Adams said she knew that there was a tie to a church but not about the details. After learning about United City’s views, she said she probably won’t go back.
“I don’t want to support businesses that can’t be inclusive,” Adams said. “Knowing that it directly funds that message through a religious establishment is really a bit bothersome. The fact that they are affiliated with a church is not a problem. The fact that they are affiliated with a church that is not inclusive and the fact that they don’t share that outright is troubling to me and makes me feel like I really don’t wanna go there.”
Loman noted the shop’s significance with its target millennial population, referencing the coffee shop’s Instagram following, which has more than 2,300 followers.
“We have more followers than any other coffee shop in the city,” Loman boasted.
Pictures from the store’s Instagram page showcase smiling, bearded baristas and shots of the bagged coffee, as well as action shots of employees.
He said the staff doesn’t solicit or invite people to the church. Union Coffee does however, sometimes host events associated with United City Greensboro at the shop. Mostly, the staff are just focusing on the coffee according to Loman. Last month the shop hosted their first latte art throwdown, which is a popular event in the specialty coffee world.
“We packed out,” Loman said. “It creates synergy and energy that we feel like is lacking in downtown as far as coffee is concerned.”
He said he plans to introduce cuppings, the industry standard for tasting coffee, to Union as well.
He also mentioned that the coffeeshop gives free coffee to homeless people and raises money to provide clean water in Africa.
“We want to make a difference locally and across the world globally,” Loman said.