“That’ll never fly here.”
— Well-meaning curmudgeon
The good people of North Dakota don’t much care for change, in many ways. And for good reason. One glance at most of the world around us and you’ll find a litany of ticks in the column of Bad Things In Life that have either failed to show up here or are very slow in coming. Being semi-Luddite is considered a plus in places, leaving ND as an oasis of common sense in a world where break-ins are but a nuisance to police, while little girl lemonade stands are a public health hazard.
Here, we live in a bit of a bubble that for whatever reason has kept lots of positive things in and many negative things out.
Sounds like a recipe for stagnation, but that’s not the case. North Dakota was the first state to be completely wired, including the largest fiber optic network in the country. Ask any farmer — any — if he could do without his GPS in his tractor. Two-thirds of all phone service is conducted via cell, making us fourth-highest nationally in wireless-only households. Higher than California. (!)
And need I bring up fracking technology?
In the culinary arts, though, we seem to turn to comfort food — fair burgers and kuchen, church suppers and lefse, sticky buns, summer sausage, and a home-grown garden tomato.
Oh, and beer. We drink a lot of beer here, too.
So where does this “coffee culture” stuff fit in? There’s nothing wrong with a warm thermos of Folgers, but what about “expresso” (sic)? Is it just a frou frou fad, or is it of the devil? Or does it fit somewhere in between?
When, in the early Oughts, I mentioned that a coffee house would make a lovely addition to the declining downtown, a local curmudgeon — well-meaning and sincerely caring about the future of his town — harumphed to me, “That’ll never fly here!”
I can understand his skepticism. North Dakota was still battling a decades-long population decline and brain drain of young people. Services and worldly consumerism centered in the four big cities. (Two, if you believed the Red River to border on the edge of civilization — or at least the worlds of UND and NDSU.) And while Starbucks was the stuff of legend with venti tales brought back from journeys through far-flung airports or the Mall of America, it was always considered Too Outside, too blue-sky for North Dakota. Even getting a Subway Sandwich shop was a BFD for any small town. McDonald’s? A pipe dream.
So “fancy coffee,” like indoor water parks, was reserved for vacations, reunions, or weekend shopping trips. Unless you were college-bound.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the decline and fall of Great Plains Civilization. First, the world economy tanked, and North Dakota was left standing as the only state with a budget surplus and unemployment under three percent (thank the Luddites). Then, as demonstrated by the existence of the platypus, we found that God has a sense of humor, and he gave us Oil.
Black Gold. Texas Tea.
Well the next thing you know, our out-migration problem reversed, full-throttle, helping drive our population to an all-time historical high. With no jobs in popular (read: warmer) states and plenty here on the “frozen tundra,” the influx of outsiders from all over the country brought both good and evil to our way of life — a story for another blog. But they also arrived with a thirsty habit for specialty coffee. And if there’s one thing we know about Americans and their habits — we love them, we want them now, and by god, we’ll pay for them if it’s the last thing we do.
This is illustrated by the exaggerated so-called Death of the Four Dollar Coffee, compliments of the past (and current) Recession. While yes, Starbucks closed a few stores and re-emphasized a more practically-priced cup, it turns out they and the industry proper not only weathered the storm but actually grew since 2007. No matter how much Katie Couric wanted Howard Schultz to admit it just wasn’t working anymore.
How does all that fly in North Dakota, then? To paraphrase Spiderman’s Uncle: with great growth comes great responsibility — to be open to positive change, to be willing to offer the people what they want and grow our local economies in the process. We need to be a teensy bit cutting-edge while retaining our heritage of wait-and-see. Our small and large towns want to attract workers and new residents, and to do that we need to make it worth their while to stick around. A little more like the home they came from, with the added benefit of remaining true to ourselves.
To show the world that we can have our espresso and drink it, too.
So we have small cafes and big chains, over a hundred of them, sprinkled around the state, with more popping up every day. Drive-thrus and sit-downs. Home decor shops and college-age coops. And, for the first time, we are seeing shops that roast their own, or do pourovers and siphons, that offer cold-brew, and pull shots off of machines we have to work at to pronounce… shops that take the culture of coffee more seriously because there is a market for that. And we see more rural downtowns with “Espresso” signs in the window, attracting the school kids and the widows and the working women — along with the farmer and the truck driver and, by heaven, even the well-meaning curmudgeon once in a while.
(I’ve seen him there. Just don’t let on.)
We Luddites are flapping our coffee wings as hard as we can around here, on the verge of the next practical step. And God knows, we’re all about being practical, even while we engage in the risky dreams of rural living.
Taking off is just a matter of time.