Cliff Gephart doesn’t drink coffee, but he didn’t let that stop him from opening Conservative Grounds last year. You can find his first coffee shop at the end of a Tampa Bay area strip mall, across the parking lot from an Arby’s. The store’s decal lays out the offerings inside: “COFFEE, DONUTS, PASTRIES,” and of course, “PATRIOTISM”; The slogan underneath the logo reads, “The RIGHT COFFEE FOR AMERICA.”
The interior looks surprisingly cozy; Conservative Grounds has a homey blackboard menu, a smattering of wooden supper chairs, and an overflowing bounty of MAGA merch. Presidential portraits of both Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan gaze over from the rightmost wall, and cardboard standees of the most recent former First Couple beckon toward a selfie-ready re-creation of the Oval Office in the back. Donald Trump Jr. even paid the store a visit and recorded a video that now rests on the Conservative Grounds website. “They’re playing Fox News instead of the Communist News Network,” he says, to a flicker of laughter, gesturing to a television near the bar.
Gephart’s creation brings to mind the cheeky themed restaurants of Disneyland or the jousting knights of Medieval Times — businesses built to appease bored tourists in search of a technicolor lunch. The only difference is that Conservative Grounds doesn’t deviate far from American reality. After all, 74 million people voted for Donald Trump in 2020, and unlike Gephart, many of them drink coffee.
“We don’t consider ourselves as a coffee shop, we refer to ourselves as a camaraderie shop. Because there’s a lot more camaraderie going around in Conservative Grounds than there is coffee,” says Gephart, in a phone call with Vox. “Often people say, ‘Oh, you’re a conservative coffee shop, why don’t somebody open a liberal coffee shop?’ And I say, ‘They have. They all are. That doesn’t need to be addressed.’”
The culture war that has consumed the global discourse has manifested in all sorts of odd shapes and sizes since 2016, but nobody predicted that the battle would eventually be fought in our morning brews.
Conservative Grounds is not an outlier. The Trump administration, and the emerging MAGA faction of the political constituency, has given rise to a number of different coffee shops and brands running Gephart’s playbook. (“I think the success [of our store] has probably spurred some copycats,” he says.)
The most prominent conservative coffee business is perhaps the Black Rifle Coffee Company, a subscription-based roaster founded in 2014 by an ownership group composed of former military personnel, which earned $163 million in revenue in 2020. Black Rifle got national attention shortly after Trump’s inauguration, when they announced that the company would be hiring 10,000 veterans — a retort to Starbucks, which announced that the company would be bringing on 10,000 refugees in response to the Muslim ban. (Black Rifle also caught the ire of certain MAGA corners last year, when it divested itself of any connection to Kyle Rittenhouse.)
Black Rifle does not make many overt references to the former president in their marketing material, but counterparts like Thrasher Coffee in Hiram, Georgia, do. Thrasher’s latest roast is called the #47 Blend, a follow-up to their #45 Blend, which is aimed at those holding out hope that Donald Trump will return to the White House for a second presidency in 2024. (“Tired of liberal Starbucks? All other coffees are FIRED!” reads the inscription on the online storefront.) Covfefe Coffee, a shop in Maine that closed shortly after the election, adopted a similar naming mechanism to Thrasher. Their inventory included the MAGA Dark Roast, Drain The Swamp Medium Roast, and Red Pill Light Roast. Conventional wisdom says coffee does not need to be packaged with a confrontational political persona to move units, but there are at least a handful of businesses that disagree.
The more you dive into this niche, the more it becomes clear that one of the unifying bonds between all of the regressive coffeehouses is a deep umbrage at Starbucks. Gephart tells me he first came up with the idea for Conservative Grounds after an incident in 2019, when a Starbucks employee asked six police officers to leave a location in Tempe, Arizona. “I decided that shouldn’t happen in America,” he says. “That’s the genesis.” (Starbucks would later apologize for the ousting.)
That antipathy might seem paradoxical — the Seattle mainstay has traditionally enjoyed a long, prosperous history of relative social inertness — though there is an argument to be made that Starbucks has always been slyly oriented toward rank-and-file Democrats. The company has taken progressive stances on gay marriage and gun control in the past, and they’ve sold plenty of Norah Jones CDs. But there is nothing about their brand identity that orbits anywhere close to the boldness of Conservative Grounds, which has held concealed-carry permit classes for $49.95 on weekday evenings. (Even Howard Schultz, Starbucks’s former CEO and prodigal liberal darling, has entrenched himself as a staunch centrist.) However, Starbucks has been beset by constant, keening Trumpian grievance over the last four years, initially spurred on by a boycott campaign over the company’s muted Christmas cups. Slowly but surely, coffee became a wedge issue in America, and an easy target for the relentless MAGA grift.
“Starbucks as a polarizing brand is a more recent development. So this is interesting to see. But people have always liked a good opponent. It’s always impactful when you find a good foil, when you can compare two things and put forward an argument,” says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University.
Calkins notes that coffee is an easy commodity to sell. It doesn’t expire, benefits from a wide appeal, and can be sourced from all over the world. That flexibility offers any enterprising reactionary a canvas to broadcast a bespoke set of values that have nothing to do with the blends themselves. “You give the coffee a name that has lots of meaning, and suddenly, you’ve done it,” says Calkins. “It’s a perfect product to express a differentiation of political views.”
That was one of the most pressing questions I had for the MAGA coffee roasters: Is there anything about their flavor profiles, tannins, or mouthfeel that could reliably be identified as conservative? Or at least, as conservative as the packaging itself?
“We call our flavor profiles bold — they are all very strong and many say they don’t even need cream and sugar in them,” says Liz Martin of Thrasher Coffee, when reached over email. “It is our messaging that is more or less conservative, not our delicious roasts.”
Clearly, these baristas understand what they’re really selling, as they hand over a piping hot mug filled to the brim with #47 Blend.
Thrasher, it should be said, merchants a wide swath of MAGA ephemera beyond coffee. Like Conservative Grounds, they too have an apparel store that caters to every flavor of Trump/Pence outrage. The most recent addition to the catalog appears to be a raglan shirt emblazoned with the red-and-white striped top hat from The Cat in the Hat. “Come and take it,” reads the words printed just below the logo — a reference to the ongoing, exhausting debate surrounding certain racially insensitive Dr. Seuss books. That is the core gambit that empowers MAGA profiteering; to make money by appeasing the New Right, one must be in constant search of the latest cultural combat zone, and be agile enough to jump on the bandwagon before it’s too late. Coffee, children’s books, pinto beans, it doesn’t matter. The substance of the product was entirely immaterial during the advent of Trump, and he continues to cast a shadow over so many of our consumer decisions. Gephart himself is a minor Facebook celebrity with over 22,000 subscribers attuned to his standard MAGA pontifications. Just as he said, people in this sector are offering camaraderie over anything else.
If there is to be an eventual disentanglement between US brands and US politics, it likely will not come in the short term. Within the last few years every company — not just niche, conservative coffee roasters — was forced to take an ideological stance. Last summer, in the midst of the George Floyd protests, countless mainstream brands filled their social feeds with messages of racial consciousness. Some were heartfelt, many were hackneyed, but the overarching theme was clear; there was no option to sit on the sidelines anymore. That’s a curious development, especially considering how long and hard commercial enterprises have worked to posture themselves as neutrally as possible. But something about Trump morphed the ethereal quality of Washington legislation into an urgent element of identity for so many Americans. We have never been more politically engaged, and therefore, never more willing to shop along those partisan lines.
“Brands really struggled with Donald Trump, and how to navigate Donald Trump. You could see companies thinking about every word they said, and attempt to play down the middle when it was impossible to play down the middle,” says Calkins. “But Joe Biden hasn’t been the polarizing figure that Trump was. Brands aren’t struggling to navigate Joe Biden. The real question is what comes next. Will politics become less polarizing? Or will the country fracture in ways that force brands to take a side?”
A lot of Democrats are hoping for the former, as the prime MAGA agitators remain banished from Twitter and Biden continues to posture himself on a platform of unity. But the divisions of the last four years are drawn deep. With Trump plotting his own social media platform and newly radicalized firebrands like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn in Congress, it is clear that the unsteady peace that Calkins speaks about is tenuous. The culture war continues, one mug at a time.