Matt Driscoll

A Parkland coffee shop owner was targeted by racism. So the community fought back

Parkland coffee house owner grapples with racial prejudice

John Gore, owner of Notes Coffee Company in Parkland, talks about dealing with incidents of racial prejudice at his business.
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John Gore, owner of Notes Coffee Company in Parkland, talks about dealing with incidents of racial prejudice at his business.

John Gore wasn’t sure if he should continue.

Or if he wanted to.

Months after buying a previously closed coffee shop in Parkland — which Gore renamed and reopened in February — he found himself at a personal and professional crossroads.

At the root were several incidents of overt racism that shook Gore’s conviction and made him wonder if doing business in Parkland was worth it.

Recently, a Facebook post thrust Gore’s dilemma and business into the spotlight.

The post illuminated both the hostile environment that a black-owned and operated business has experienced, and also the community’s overwhelming response to hate.

In 10 months of operation, Gore’s business, Notes’ Coffee Company on Garfield Street near Pacific Lutheran University, has been burglarized. He believes he was specifically targeted.

Later, a belligerent man called Gore, who is black, the “N” word. The police had to be called.

Then, during a musical performance, an intimidating group of men arrived wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and Confederate flag t-shirts. The men bought nothing. Their sole purpose seeming to be to menace others.

To Gore, the message Parkland was sending at the time was clear: We don’t want you here.

So, in June, he closed the coffee shop to contemplate his future.

Gore is a businessman and entrepreneur accustomed to success, so the thought of failure was foreign to him.

At 9, Gore says, he was named “paperboy of the year” delivering the South District Journal near his home in Seattle. He had turned one route into three.

More recently, Gore launched All City Ice Cream in 2005 after buying and rebuilding a single ice cream delivery truck. He now owns more than 50 trucks, renting them out and building a catering business.

But serving coffee in Parkland was proving to be more than he’d bargained for.

“I just decided, this isn’t working right now,” Gore said this of his decision to close the shop.

Gore’s hiatus from making coffee lasted through the summer. In September, he decided to reopen after Melanie Morgan, who at the time was running for the state House of Representatives, happened to drop in.

“She told me, ‘Don’t leave. This community really needs you,’” Gore said this week while preparing a round of raspberry peppermint mochas for a group of young customers who had taken a seat at a table with a chess board.

“I’m really grateful that she stopped in that day, because I think I would have gone away and closed. But I didn’t, and I think back to that conversation. It was coming from someone I respected,” he added.

The good news was that Morgan’s encouragement gave Gore a new-found resolve.

The bad news was his troubles with racism didn’t end.

On Dec. 2, Gore’s girlfriend and business partner — who also is black — was pulling shots of espresso when a man approached her.

The customer told the barista she should smile more so “she could be seen in the dark.”

This last troubling episode served as the impetus for Gore’s Facebook post, which — locally, at least — went viral.

“I’m not really sure what to do next,” Gore wrote on Facebook.

“I’m the only black business owner in the area and most likely the only one this community has ever seen running a Coffee House. … I feel like I’m being attacked.”

The post, which a friend urged Gore to make public, has since been shared more than a thousand times and attracted a similar number of comments — most of them supportive.

The response to Gore’s post has extended beyond the confines of social media as well. Throughout the week that followed, he saw customers steadily increase, with many people — including an outpouring of PLU students — telling him they visited the coffee shop to show their support.

By the following Saturday, Gore said he had more business than he knew what to do with.

“I was unprepared for the amount of business I received,” Gore said.

“It showed me that there was more to be seen in this community than I had seen out of these windows up until that point,” he continued. “There were people who really cared. There were people who want this business here.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Diane Crews was one of those people. Sitting with her colorful notebooks splayed out on a table, she said she lives a block away and has been visiting the coffee shop regularly for years. She recalled being thrilled when Gore took the reins back in February.

She feels the same way now, only more, knowing what Gore has gone through recently.

Crews, who also is black, said she wasn’t surprised when she learned what Gore had experienced.

“People are spilling hatred ... we need to deal with the root of that. Because that’s not a good thing, all the way around,” Crews said. “It’s a community problem.”

For Morgan, what Gore experienced serves both as a disturbing reminder of the hate some people harbor and as an example of the Parkland she knows and loves — and which often gets overlooked.

“It’s very disappointing. Basically, they were trying to run him out of town, and that’s disgusting,” said Morgan, who went on to win her House race in November. “I do not believe that’s what the residents of Parkland stand for.”

On Wednesday, Morgan was on her way to Notes’ Coffee Company when we spoke for a meeting with other local leaders about how to make the community response a lasting one. She talked of the importance of supporting black business owners in Parkland like Gore and offering tangible resources to help them succeed.

“What we saw here is exactly the community that we are. We support one another, and we just want the best for each other,” Morgan said of the response Gore’s Facebook post has received. “I think this incident shows we have some issues, as every community does, but this will not be accepted or tolerated.”

Gore said these are exactly the kinds of conversations about racism and discrimination that need to happen, and while his part in helping to inspire it hasn’t been easy, he’s glad he spoke up.

“I believe talking about something is way more important than not talking about it,” he said. “I felt like it was time. It was just time for me to say something, like it was necessary to put it out there.

Behind the counter of his coffee shop, Gore looked back on 10 months that have tested him as a business owner and human being, and a week of support that has given him the strength to continue.

What has he learned?

“There’s a lot of love in this community,” he said.

“A lot.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.