Marine Vets Built Community Through Coffee

D.C.'s Compass Coffee is about more than what's in your cup

Creating a welcoming community space where people can sit, sip and meet their neighbors is always something of a challenge—unless you're already used to challenges. "We had experience, albeit it was in the middle of a war zone," Harrison Suarez, the co-owner of Compass Coffee in Washington, D.C., says.

Suarez and co-owner Michael Haft opened their shop two years ago after returning from serving in the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. "The way that we went about achieving our mission [there] was a lot about building rapport, sitting down, drinking tea with other people in the village or tribal elders," Suarez says. "[We were] sitting down and discussing what we want the town or village to look like."

The pair wanted to create an environment where everyone in the Shaw neighborhood in their hometown of D.C. would be welcome. The result is evident. On an October morning, the airy space was filled with the usual suspects of a third-wave coffee shop: young professionals with laptops, people holding coffee meetings, many rushing to work and others. When asked about the people who set up to work for a half or full day in the space, Suarez says he doesn't mind: "We love it; it's fun."

That community atmosphere extends to everyone, including individuals who frequent Bread for the City, an organization down the block that provides food, medical, and legal services and support to those who can't afford it. Haft gestures to a man sitting at a table across the room who he says is homeless. "He knows he can come in here and for $1.95 buy a small coffee. And as long as he doesn't bother anybody, this is his space, too."

The pair also wants the coffee shop to be a place for veterans. "Really, the whole military runs on coffee," Suarez says; it's where the pair picked up their love of caffeine. Those in uniform are given a 30 percent discount, a fact that Suarez says "is true to our background, to who are we in a past life, and it's also taking care of the people who are taking care of us."

Guests who look closely may notice another token from that past life. Behind the coffee bar is a flag, folded into a triangle and framed. It's one of the flags that flew on their patrol base in Afghanistan. They had another, but when Cedric Maupillier, the French-born chef who owns nearby restaurant Convivial, became a citizen, they passed it along to him as a sign of inclusivity. "We really believe in that process," Haft says.