While owning a business isn’t always the romantic dream Gabe Hagen and Jesse Shank had, their loyal and resilient customer base makes everyday worth the stresses of running a small business.
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Opening a coffee shop was only a retirement dream for Gabe Hagen and Jesse Shank before the COVID-19 pandemic—but working from home and seeing the nation’s polarization pushed them to make their dream a reality just over a year ago.
The couple grabbed their opportunity in July 2021, assuming a lease where they are currently located in Tempe off of Rural Road and US Route 60.
“The pandemic kind of, you know, shakes things up, and you reassess things, and we had an opportunity,” Shank said.
Brick Road Coffee, the name a nod to “The Wizard of Oz,” has been growing every month since their grand opening in January 2022.
Some of their drinks fall on the “Wizard of Oz” theme, with a signature favorite called the Flying Monkey that has six shots of espresso.
Shank and Hagen pride themselves on being a safe place for the LGBTQ community, but don’t label themselves as a “queer coffee shop” —they said they just celebrate that community the loudest.
“The main reason why I started working here was just because of how comfortable it was and how inclusive it was,” said Debanhi Pettypool, a Brick Road Coffee barista.
The Tempe coffee shop hosts a variety of community events, from drag story hours and queer meetups to Dungeons and Dragons events and book clubs.
Looking to the Future
Originally working in the financial industry, Hagen started to reassess his impact on society and wanted to create a place that celebrates love and community.
He said he realized there was a lot of work left to be done to be better allies across the board.
Shank still works a full-time job in the banking industry but comes to Brick Road as often as he can.
The couple’s long-term plan for the business is to create more access to the community events hosted at the coffee shop, potentially by physically expanding their space or striking more partnerships with the community to host events at more accessible locations, Hagen said.
“There were coffee shops that were important to me when I was a young person trying to figure things out,” Shank said.
As for opening multiple locations, Hagen and Shank said they would consider areas of the Valley that are lacking LGBTQ spaces.
“We would want to look at our expansion not necessarily from the coffee community, but more from the queer community,” Hagen said.
They don’t see other big coffee chains such as Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts as competitors; those establishments provide convenience, not community, Hagen said.
“Everyone knows everyone. Everyone is super friendly with one another. It’s a huge community,” said barista Sarah Dwyer.
A Sense of Community
Most of Brick Road Coffee’s community events are driven by input from their customers.
“Just through talking to customers, we realized we’re a combination of communities,” Hagen said. “We support the queer community but we are also heavily intertwined with the recovery community.”
Brick Road Coffee partners with the Southwest Center for HIV and AIDS Spectrum Medical to do free, on-site HIV testing a few times a month. They also always have free condoms and menstrual products available for anyone who is in need.
A community member even made them a braille menu, free of charge, Shank said.
Hagen says that being an LGBTQ friendly place centered around coffee makes it a little bit more mellow, as many spaces that fill similar community needs are centered around drugs or alcohol.
Shank described their shop as a place for people to go for people who don’t have anywhere else to go, like those who are too young to go into bars, which tend to serve as a major point of social interaction for the LGBTQ community.
“I feel like this is the first hangout spot that has this vibe for LGBTQ that’s not like a bar or something,” said regular customer Cris Otto, when asked to describe Brick Road.
Drag Story Hours
Brick Road Coffee has hosted a number of Drag Story Hours at their establishment, with many drawing protests and backlash and one even receiving a bomb threat.
But thanks to the community Brick Road has built, and their loyal customers, they have remained resilient in the face of adversity.
“[Our customers are] fiercely loyal. They’re fiercely protective of us because of how we have in such a short amount of time just shown that we will stand with our community and use our voice as a business,” Hagen said.
They are working to get increased security in place for these events to keep providing them for their customers to attend.
“Our mission revolves 100% around spreading joy and love,” Hagen said. “I want [customers] to feel accepted, I want them to feel celebrated, I want them to [have] what I didn’t have as a kid, which is to walk into a place and just feel like I can be me and I have no worries.”
Brick Road Coffee is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
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