‘Sip with intention’: Owner of new KCK cafe serves community with more than just coffee

·7 min read

T.J. Roberts’ Kinship Cafe is easy to spot.

The white and blue building sits on the corner of North 6th Street and Ann Avenue in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, across from the municipal courthouse.

The heart logo at this Black, male-owned business was meant to stand out. It represents what Roberts hopes to manifest inside the cafe’s walls: kindness, intention, purpose, service.

It started with a simple cup of Folgers when he was just 10 years old.

At a church in Wamego, Kansas, just outside of Manhattan, the seven-fingered bi-racial child of two white pastors served coffee he brewed to the worship team at his family’s church. It’s there he was drawn to a role he felt he could play in service to others, in welcoming others, and in fostering community.

Now 30, and living in Kansas City Roberts recently opened Kinship Cafe. He’s been working toward the space for years.

It used to be a cupcake shop. On Sunday, Roberts finished many of the final touches, working with the Chiefs game on in the background. The space has a minimalist design with white walls and deep blue details. Small plants garnish the tables.

A menu featuring food from Gigi’s Vegan + Wellness Cafe sits near the counter, behind which Roberts serves cold brew and flash brew, which he describes as less bitter and acidic: perfect for an afternoon pick-me-up.

Five years ago, when he realized how difficult it would be to invite people into the conversations around race he felt compelled to have while working in insurance, he decided to marry his love of coffee and service.

Nabil Hossain, left, and Brock Sauvage drink coffee at Kinship Cafe in Kansas City, Kansas.
Nabil Hossain, left, and Brock Sauvage drink coffee at Kinship Cafe in Kansas City, Kansas.

Sip with intention

The heart of Kinship Cafe is equitable programming.

Some Monday evenings, the dozen or so tables inside Kinship Cafe are pushed to the side to make room for a meditation space, complete with a speaker series on holistic living. On weekends, Wesley Hamilton, the founder of Disabled But Not Really, brings his mobile gym for workout classes.

Roberts also has business incubation classes in the works. And a friend who can teach about nutrition. A vendor who can instruct on cooking with non-GMO products and how to eat healthy on food stamps.

He’s partnered with Black Drip Coffee, and a portion of his sales go to Porter House KC, a nonprofit that helps bring entrepreneurial resources to under-served communities in the metro.

His motto: “Sip with intention.”

“The core of our business is about being in places where we’re not represented,” Roberts said.

Yes, he sees his cafe as a reprieve from the office, but also a place for customers to step back and focus on themselves.

But he’s also curating a space that allows for room to grow.

“The goal is we want to see people prosper and grow and develop and move out into the real world and into their business the way they want to be,” he said. “And sometimes they just need to be in places where they see people like them, and know that it’s okay to fail, you know, and that you’re in a safe place to fail.”

Kinship Cafe in Kansas City, Kansas.
Kinship Cafe in Kansas City, Kansas.

A lifetime of grit

An older white woman stopped by Kinship Cafe recently for a coffee. She was on her way from the Jewish clinic down the street. They chatted and she asked Roberts where he was from. When he answered, she nearly dropped her coffee.

“The first thing she said was, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Roberts said, recalling the conversation with the woman who’d grown up not far from his rural hometown of Wamego.

She remembered how people had been small-minded, racist.

“I can’t imagine what you went through,” she told him.

Most people can’t.

Roberts was raised by white parents who adopted him from Kansas City before he was old enough to remember.

In high school, the superintendent called him a racial slur and threatened the head football coach not to play Roberts, who was one of the best football players on the team.

Roberts was the first African-American male to graduate from Rock Creek High School.

In college, he faced a new kind of adversity while playing on the Mid-American Nazarene’s football team. Roberts has seven fingers: Five on his right hand, two on his left. Some players called him “Crabby,” or refused to touch him.

The coach at Nazarene eventually told Roberts that until he grew 10 fingers, he would never let him run the ball.

“That’s when I had to dig super deep,” Roberts said, recalling the suicidal thoughts that crept in as he re-learned his self-worth.

So he left. He joined Kansas State’s team as a running back, becoming one of the only D1 players in the Big12 to play with a deformity.

“It’s been a part of my life since I was born, you know, just to have that grit,” he said.

TJ Roberts is the owner of Kinship Cafe, in Kansas City, Kansas.
TJ Roberts is the owner of Kinship Cafe, in Kansas City, Kansas.

The search for equity

He worked in insurance after graduating from college. He won rookie of the year twice, once with AAA, and once with Farm Bureau. He was one of the top producers in the state four years running. But he was tired of being the only Black person in the room.

Through a little research he found that only 4% of the industry at the time was represented by people of color. Of the about 8,500 insurance agencies in the Kansas City metro, he said only four or five were Black-owned.

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In the wake of Floyd’s killing by a white Minneapolis police officer, and the national racial reckoning that followed, Roberts took on the brunt of uncomfortable conversations around race at work.

Roberts prayed a lot. He listened to those with platforms speak about the Black experience in America.

“You have to be vigilant against racism,” they said. Roberts asked God to give him the energy and compassion to do just that.

Over the summer, his job let him go unannounced. They never gave him a reason why, he said. At the time, however, he’d been starting a lot of conversations about race at work, and was posting candidly about it on his Facebook page.

“They didn’t like my tone. They didn’t like the things that I was revealing,” Roberts said, adding that the company didn’t want to take responsibility or accountability for their lack of diverse hiring practices.

Roberts had just signed his lease on the coffee shop. He hadn’t planned to run his new business without his other job as financial support. But to be honest, a part of him was relieved.

TJ Roberts, owner of Kinship Cafe, prepares a caramel cold brew coffee.
TJ Roberts, owner of Kinship Cafe, prepares a caramel cold brew coffee.

While he’d been working 60 hours a week at his desk job in insurance, Roberts picked up a side gig as a barista at The Roasterie and at Messenger, where he spent nearly three years learning the craft of coffee, and the industry.

And now, the industry is giving back. Many of the household coffee names have asked how they can help, some even supporting him on their social media pages.

Daniel Smith, a co-Founder of Porter House, said Roberts’ story is one of searching for equity, so it’s natural he would seek out a similar purpose in his own work, including as a youth mentor.

“He’s just a phenomenal young guy, and I’m excited to see his growth and help support him along the way,” Smith said.

Mike Schroeder, co-owner of Oddly Correct, another local coffee shop on Troost Avenue, said what makes Kinship Cafe unique is Roberts himself.

“Coffee shops copy and paste from each other all the time, but you can’t duplicate a person; especially one like TJ,” Schroeder said. “As he succeeds and his opportunities grow, we’re going to get to see more of what’s important to him, and judging from where he’s been putting his energy so far, that’s going to have a positive impact on KCK and the metro coffee community at large.”

A GoFundMe to help support start-up costs of the cafe can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/partner-with-kinship. As of Monday, Roberts had raised about $4,500 of his $15,000 goal.