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Espresso Is the Drug of Choice for Straight Edge Punks in San Diego

San Diego's Heartwork Coffee Bar is the all-DIY project of six former punk and hardcore musicians who just want a damn good cup of coffee.

Jun 25 2015, 5:00pm

Alle Fotos vom Autor

There's this story that Ian MacKaye—founder of the iconic post-hardcore bands Fugazi and Minor Threat—tells in Edge, the 2009 documentary about straight-edge culture. He recounts being at a show and drinking a cup of iced tea when a young kid runs up to him and informs MacKaye that his friend says caffeine is a drug.

MacKaye told him, "Oh. Tell your friend, 'Fuck you!'"

When I bring that scene up to the owners of Heartwork Coffee Bar in San Diego, they erupt in laughter, reciting it line-for-line from memory. It's become a moment in obscure pop culture that resonates with straight-edge kids who have an Agent Cooper-like affection for coffee stemming from their beliefs in the "edge philosophy," which maintains that strength, honor, dignity, pride, and self-respect are upheld by abstaining from mind- and body-altering substances (namely alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes) and promiscuous, emotionless sex.

"I mean, people eat chia seeds because they're full of protein and pumps them up with energy. So then, are chia seeds a drug? It's ridiculous," says Rob Moran, who opened the boutique coffee house on January 8 along with his fiancée Kim, brother Ati, and sister-in-law Valeria, as well as his close friend Sam Stothers and Sam's fiancée, Chrissy. It's a family-run place owned by three industrious straight-edge guys and their equally indefatigable, non-straight-edge partners.


No, they say, coffee is not a drug. As Chrissy puts it, "You're not gonna have withdrawals and stop visiting your children because of coffee." Still, that caffeinated goodness is the life juice of many straight-edge musicians who spent years touring in hardcore bands and preferred to hang in cozy coffee shops over loud bars. These ones, in particular, took their love of coffee and fulfilled a longtime dream by opening Heartwork, even though two of them already made a pretty major mark in the hardcore scene in a previous life.

Rob was a founding member of the hugely influential post-hardcore band Unbroken, as well as Over My Dead Body, Some Girls, and countless others. Sam spent years in bands like Multiple Stab Wounds, Makeout Boys, and alongside Rob in Narrows. Anyone that's ever taken a Sharpie to the back of their hand and drawn out big X's may be familiar.

"If you ever asked him what he would do if he won the lottery, Rob would always say 'open a coffee shop.' This is his dream," says Kim.

Rob and Sam have been talking about it for years, hoping to bring the type of great coffee they enjoyed while living in Seattle years ago to their own hometown. Now they've been able to make it happen as a family- and friend-owned business, all the while staying true to their musical roots. A shelf on the wall displays photos and 45s of artists like Morrissey, Minor Threat, and Suede, and the sound system sets the mood with everything ranging from vintage rocksteady to Northern soul. They even recently welcomed Boz Boorer, co-writer and guitarist for Morrissey, as a guest barista, further boosting their cred amongst pompadour-sporting coffee lovers.


On the tail of other major cities, San Diego is working its way towards being recognized for handcrafted coffee as much as it's lauded for its craft beer, relentless sunshine, and a regretfully unabashed love of Jason Mraz. The city is usually playing catch-up with other major cities, and yet Heartwork is already thriving because of the team's commitment to making good coffee.

Every bean they use for espresso is sourced from the small, local, independently owned roaster James Coffee Co. while Dark Horse Coffee—another San Diego-based roaster founded by Kauai-born coffee perfectionist Daniel Charlson—supplies them with beans for standard brewed coffee and pour overs.

Independent, local bakers such as Papa G's Vegan Donuts provide small batches of homemade pastries daily. Eventually, the Heartwork owners would like to add more food to their menu or bake in-house, since Chrissy is also a baker. They make their own vanilla syrup for teas and specialty coffee drinks, and even the stools and chairs in the shop are made by local designer Omar Quintero.

In fact, about 90 percent of everything you see or taste at Heartwork is from San Diego, so when you stop in, you're getting a slice of the city's culture that tells the story Inside SoCal left out.


Artisan this-and-that aside, Heartwork is pretty badass. Prior to its conception, no one on the crew had ever worked as a barista or run their own business. They just truly love good coffee, which sounds like an oversimplification, but does anyone really need a better reason for opening a coffee shop?

Because of their inexperience making coffee outside of their own homes, they spent the months before opening learning to make the perfect cup with the help of the baristas at James Coffee Co. and Dark Horse, who let them practice on their machines and gave them pointers along the way.

Also, they had practically no money. They pooled every dime they had, choosing not to find investors or take out bank loans. Some quit their jobs; others worked multiple part-time gigs or sold off prized records to make extra cash. Their background in the hardcore and punk scene led the team to take a wholly DIY approach to building their shop from the ground up. Throughout the process, they rolled up their sleeves daily and got to work, pouring concrete by hand and laying pipes in the middle of the night.

"Hiring anyone to do anything beyond what we could do ourselves was really not in the picture," says Sam, who has worked as a contractor in the past. "We just didn't have the money for it, so to do it the way we wanted to do it, we were going to have to do it ourselves. I put these guys through hell."


Though they had lots of help to get to their opening day, the year-long process was grueling and their exhaustion is palpable.

"The name says everything. It's all us. Not just the ones here, but our circle of friends to lean on," says Ati, whose wife Valeria came up with the name. "We poured our blood, sweat, and tears into this project. I think the name just captures everything about what this place is, for the community and for our own personal lives."

"And it's a great Carcass album, too," adds Rob.

All that work, however, has led to something pretty special. Years of touring and visiting dozens of coffee shops all over the world—and just hanging out drinking coffee—informed them on the kind of shop they wanted to open.

Part of that might also be their distinctly un-punk attitude towards customer service. The crew makes a point not to be assholes—because they actually want people to feel welcome at their shop. If you walk into an upscale coffee shop in virtually any city, including San Diego, you'll find that friendliness is a turd many baristas just can't force out.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's just coffee. You're just a barista. It's not the cure for cancer," says Rob. "Yeah, you're hot shit at your shop, but outside of your shop no one gives a shit about you. It's like, what are you doing to give back to the community?"


That focus on kindness and community is what keeps the crew scurrying around all day serving a seemingly non-stop line of people. For Rob, building Heartwork feels like playing music again. But instead of watching people in a crowd as they listen and scream along to the album they made, they're watching them drink their brews.

"You're just like, 'This is what it feels like when I'm playing on stage.' That's the only thing I can equate it to," he tells me. "Every time someone is satisfied, it's like 'That was a great show.'"

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.