By Nick BeJeaux
On September 29, Highland Coffees, a cultural fixture of the Northgate community, announced it would close its doors forever on Christmas Eve.
For 25 years, the shop’s owner, Clarke Cadzow, has managed to keep his business going, one cup of in-house roasted coffee at a time. During Highland Coffees’ quarter-century lifetime, its address has had numerous owners, but the latest, Hank Saurage, decided that the property at 3350 Highland needed to “go in a different direction” – one possibly paved with burgers and chicken wings.
The announcement – which, in the bitterest of ironies, came on International Coffee Day – sent shockwaves through the city and LSU’s campus, prompting outrage on social media and the formation of movements to save the cornerstone shop. A “Save Highland Coffees” Facebook page quickly collected more than 2,000 likes, a #savehighlandcoffees hashtag is spreading like wildfire on Twitter and Tumblr, and a petition started by LSU grad student Peter Jenkins addressed to Saurage/Rotenberg Real Estate to keep Highland Coffees open indefinitely has so far gathered more than 5,000 signatures. But, despite its success, Jenkins and dozens like him didn’t stop at a petition.
Last week, Jenkins and co-organizer Ashley Monaghan, a public relations sophomore, hosted a meeting attended by well over 70 supporters of Highland Coffees, some coming from as far as Austin, Texas to be in attendance.
“We didn’t really know what to expect because this was the first meeting, but 72 people came out, and I was very impressed,” said Monaghan. “I’m also very hopeful because the community is obviously very passionate, and all the ideas of how the community can support Highland Coffees that we heard are what we needed. We were unsure what we needed to do to take this movement to the next level, but I think we got that tonight, and it’s only the beginning.”
Passions ran high during the meeting, and ideas for working and organizing with Cadzow to keep the shop in business were popular. However, that isn’t necessarily the direction that Monaghan or Jenkins thinks their group should take.
“We can talk about what Clarke should do until we’re blue in the face. In the end Clarke has been the one controlling his business and working the books for 25 years,” said Jenkins. “He knows what he can do and what he can’t do. What we need to do is focus on showing people that we want to a resolution to keep Highland Coffees where it is. We’re here to put pressure on the realty company to come up with some fair deals.”
At the end of the meeting, 35 volunteers signed up for three newly formed Save Highland Coffees committees, each dedicated to bringing more supporters to the cause.
“The biggest aspect of tonight’s meeting was our question and answer session, where many people were asking ‘What’s next?’” said Jenkins. “Those steps will be taken by our committees. Over the next week or two, these committees will be meeting to consider all of the suggestions and whittle them down to the ones we can really put into direct action, keep us clear and concise, and help us accomplish our goal of keeping highland coffees open.”
While Saurage – who did not respond to DIG’s requests for interviews – has provided interviews to various local outlets, Cadzow has managed to remain outside of the media frenzy for the most part. He declined to discuss his negotiations with Saurage/Rotenberg, and while he didn’t attend the Save Highland Coffees meeting, he did express his gratitude to the community for their support.
“I am deeply moved by the outpouring of affection and support from the community. I’m just so appreciative of them,” he said.
Cadzow and Save Highland Coffees have yet to make formal contact, and neither party has expressed any plans to do so. Still, both have arrived at the conclusion that what is happening to Highland Coffees could easily affect other locally-owned businesses in the Northgate area.
“Our neighborhood is under tremendous competitive pressure,” Cadzow said last week on The Jim Engster Show. “I think that we really have to consider how we as a historic neighborhood will survive, given all of our obstacles.”
That’s an idea that also motivates Highland Coffees’ supporters.
“I think it’s very important to strengthen the community and culture of Baton Rouge because it is being taken over by corporations,” said Monaghan. “Highland Coffees is one of the few original businesses that are still standing. This struggle that Clarke and Highland Coffees is going through is a warning that this could happen to any local business. Hopefully that means that other businesses will stand up with Highland Coffees, because they know it could happen to them.”
In light of the public outcry, Saurage – whose family owns Community Coffee – has reopened negotiations on Cadzow’s lease, telling The Advocate that Saurage/Rotenberg “never wanted Highland Coffees to move.” Whether or not this change of heart means Highland Coffees will remain open has yet to be seen, and Save Highland Coffees isn’t waiting around to find out.
“This is something that could happen to any local business anywhere in the world,” she said. “I think this is a call to action for the community to stand by Highland Coffees and say, ‘No, we’re not going to support corporations, and we’re going to stand by us, the locals.’”
DIG Magazine will be covering the situation as it progresses. For updates from Save Highland Coffees, follow them on Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram. The group also has the hashtag #SaveHighlandCoffees on Twitter and a PayPal.