If, while driving down Georgia Street in Amarillo, you’re seized with a craving for coffee, you will need to weigh several options. Do you want a traditional dark roast or more modern light roast? Do you prefer an old-style cafe or an arty, spacious salon?
Most importantly, at least for some: Do you take your coffee conservative or progressive?
In the High Plains city of about 200,000, two cafes stare each other down from opposite sides of the street. One, Roasters Coffee & Tea, lures a more conservative crowd. The other, Palace Coffee, tends to draw coffee drinkers of a more progressive persuasion.
Not every coffee drinker cares about politics, of course. A full spectrum of beliefs can be represented at either shop on any given day. But for many, devotion to these two cafes—whose owners both roast their own beans and treat coffee as a civic trust—arises not just from what they brew, but what they represent.
It’s easy to tell the two shops apart. At Roasters, anytime there’s a major local election, signs for conservative Republican candidates stand outside and campaign literature waits within. In the cozy main room on a recent afternoon, all tables but one were occupied by groups of middle-aged men wearing baseball caps and chatting amicably.
Across the street at Palace, a sign promotes the cafe’s latest “Kindness” latte, proceeds from which are partially donated to a different organization every quarter, such as a refugee center or the League of Women Voters. The airy, 6,800-square-foot space is full of students peering at laptops.
“I would one hundred percent agree that Roasters is the conservative coffee shop, and Palace is the progressive or, I would say, liberal coffee shop,” Craig Gualtiere, Roasters’ longtime owner, said. Patrick Burns, owner of Palace, was more circumspect. “I definitely have my own personal views on things,” he said. “But I don’t ascribe to any political affiliation.” But Palace clearly serves up an alternative to the politics of Roasters—and of many other Amarillo residents.
After all, Republican senator Ted Cruz beat Democrat Beto O’Rourke with more than 68 percent of the vote in Potter County and almost 80 percent in Randall County, the two counties Amarillo straddles, in the 2018 election. Palace, its website proclaims, “was born because owners, Patrick and Krystal, dreamed of creating a safe ‘third’ place where anyone, regardless of their background or circumstance, would feel safe, valued and appreciated.”
At both coffee shops, though, the interiors say as much about the cafes’ natures as any pamphlet or website. Take one step inside Roasters, and you’ll see a shelf stacked with biographies of President Ronald Reagan. A deer mount looks down glassily from one wall; a painting of a man on horseback looms on another. The subject of the painting could easily be mistaken for Don Quixote, but it’s actually Reagan as a cowboy, alone on a black and white plain.
“I consider myself a Reagan Republican,” explained Gualtiere, 53, who sold the coffee shop in April to his general manager of twenty years, David Cooper. (“Reagan’s not going anywhere,” Cooper said of the painting.)
Gualtiere is well known in Amarillo for his political passions. He remembers being transfixed as a boy watching the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis on TV. “I couldn’t believe how disrespected America was,” he said. “Ronald Reagan changed my life.” In college, incensed at a planned tax hike on businesses, he ran for Randall County commissioner and won. Soon after, he bought Roasters, and he now owns four of the shops in Amarillo plus a roastery.
Although he’s “fiscally right of Attila the Hun,” Gualtiere said Roasters’ philosophy is that all are welcome, no matter what they think of his views. In fact, he sees himself as a social progressive, which sometimes riles his customers, as it did when Roasters offered free COVID vaccines. Some months earlier, when a barista was undergoing a gender transition and a couple of customers complained, “I told them that if they had a problem with it, they could go somewhere else for their coffee,” Gualtiere said.
“Craig puts his money where his mouth is,” said Chris Knight, 69, admiringly noting that Gualtiere spent thousands of dollars to fight a city hall renovation plan. Knight, a retired radio station director, is a Roasters regular who meets with two old friends here every week. Other customers have gotten engaged, even married at Roasters; one couple listed Roasters in their divorce decree, which gave only one partner custody.
On the other side of Georgia Street, in Wolflin Square, Palace Coffee also stirs strong devotion. This branch, which opened almost a year ago, is spacious—the better to foster community gatherings, owner Burns said. A front patio with a rolling icehouse door welcomes customers with dogs. Inside, stylish tables, booths, and couches invite people to take their time meeting and studying.
At one of the tables, three elegantly dressed African American women said they were well aware of Palace’s progressive profile—that’s why they chose it.
“The atmosphere is different,” said Angela Burrell, 68. “The people are younger. They’re students. You feel welcome here. Nobody’s body language is unfriendly.”
For Burrell, Amarillo often still feels like the racially bisected town of forty years ago, when she left to live for years in Los Angeles. Seventy-year-old Donna Warner, sitting next to her, agreed: not long ago, when she went to sign an apartment lease in Amarillo, the owner blurted “I thought you were white” and claimed the place was unavailable.
Palace feels open-minded, Burrell and Warner said. And they were here to celebrate. The two are colleagues at a women’s post-prison transitional house and dreamed of launching Texas’s first SAFE Housing Network house, a specialized facility with comprehensive services including childcare and job help. That morning, they received word they’d been awarded $110,000 to replicate the program in Amarillo.
Even coming from enthusiastic customers like Burrell, the “progressive” tag makes Burns skittish. Palace’s ideology, he said, is simply caring for people. It’s been the through line of his career, starting with his first job in retail and continuing when he later worked for a megachurch. In 2011, he and his wife opened Palace Coffee in Canyon, about eighteen miles from Amarillo. They envisioned a quiet nook where they could bring their inclusive social values to life. In just a couple of years, Palace was named America’s Best Coffeeshop in the national Coffee Fest trade-show competition—and it began growing.
Now there are four Palace coffee shops in Amarillo plus a roastery. Burns insists he chose the Wolflin spot because it was a good deal, but Gualtiere frames it as capitalism in action. “It’s called burger synergy,” he said. Fast food restaurants tend to launch new franchises near existing ones, and both benefit. “I guarantee we help their business just like they help ours.”
It was COVID, though, that brought the country’s political divisions directly into the coffee shops. “We were one of the first small businesses in town to require masks,” Burns said. “We relied on the data.” Ornery customers poured coffee on tables; a man in his fifties threatened to punch a barista when she asked him to adjust his mask.
At Roasters, meanwhile, Gualtiere was outraged when state and local officials later made masks mandatory. “They made us the police force,” he said. He told employees not to pressure clients. “If customers are going to come in without a mask, that’s on them,” he said. “I am about freedom.”
Coffee shops, clearly, can be as politicized as any voter. But is there such a thing as conservative or progressive coffee? Maybe there was once. “There certainly is/was a perception that specialty coffee is ‘hipster,’ ” Zac Cadwalader, the Dallas-based managing editor of online coffee magazine Sprudge, said in an email. For some, he said, that perception might translate to elitist, nontraditional, fancy—possibly left-wing. As Roasters customer Knight, who drinks only Americanos, joked, “The cheaper the coffee, the more manly the man!”
In reality, Cadwalader said, “I don’t think it really shakes out that way.” Like craft beer, he said, specialty coffee now has gone mainstream.
Coffee drinkers, in any case, defy pigeonholing. This was less the case in eighteenth-century London, according to Mark Pendergrast’s book Uncommon Grounds. At peak popularity, he writes, the city’s coffee shops were closely tailored to specific demographic groups including “Protestants, Puritans, Catholics, Jews, literati . . . Whigs, Tories . . . lawyers, clergy or wits.” More recently, the conservative Black Rifle Coffee Company, founded in Utah, has gone a similar route, marketing its coffee to what it calls the “pro-America” and “anti-hipster” community.
In Amarillo, though, such lines tend to blur. Every Wednesday, for example, Tom Grimes, who regularly meets conservative friends for coffee at Roasters, sets aside time every Wednesday for coffee at Palace. He goes there, he said, to write.
Even at Roasters, the clients don’t always play to type. Not long ago, said Cooper, the new owner, a lone cowboy strode into the shop close to sunset. He was covered in dust, still wearing chaps from a day working on horseback. “He looked like he’d just come from doing a horse deal,” Cooper said. “The kind of guy you’d expect to take his coffee black, nothing in it.” Instead, after silently waiting for his turn under the stuffed deer and Reagan portrait, the cowboy reached the counter and made his request: white chocolate mocha latte.