LGBTQ Utahns say these Salt Lake City coffee shops are their safe spaces

From Sugar House Coffee to Coffee Garden, queer Utahns say these coffee shops serve as hubs for both connection and acceptance.

Facing a lack of queer-specific gathering places in Utah, many members of the state’s LGBTQ community have embraced coffee shops as their de-facto safe spaces, serving as hubs for both connection and affirmation.

It can be difficult to put a finger on what makes certain coffee shops more welcoming places than other spaces, but those that do offer the opportunity to be fully themselves: to wear clothing that best expresses their gender and identity, to be openly affectionate with a partner, or to otherwise present as openly queer.

Indigo Mason, a 21-year-old Salt Lake City resident who grew up in Park City, said in a recent interview that there’s a “decent queer coffee culture” in Utah — and that those spaces provide a way for queer Utahns who are sober or who are too young to go to gay bars to build community.

“It’s like, what do you do when you are 19 in Salt Lake City and you want to meet other people?” Mason said. “Maybe you go to Sugar House Coffee or a coffee shop.”

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For McKenna, a 19-year-old from Sandy who identifies as bisexual and asked that The Salt Lake Tribune not use her full name because she’s not fully out to everyone in her life, coffee shops already have a sense of community, “even if you don’t know the people there.”

And she thinks that could be especially prominent in Utah, where the predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — which deems that it’s not a sin for members to have “same-sex attraction” but that it is immoral to act on it — teaches its faithful not to drink coffee.

“In coffee shops it’s kind of obvious you’re going to encounter people that drink coffee, which in the LDS population kind of attracts people who aren’t LDS for the most part,” she said. “I think that’s definitely an aspect of it.”

Here are four coffee shops in Salt Lake City where members of the LGBTQ community say they have found acceptance:

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sugar House Coffee launches a new Pride project, asking customers to write what they are most proud of on a rainbow colored heart on Friday, May 28, 2021.

Sugar House Coffee

Queer Utahns who filled out a recent poll asking about safe spaces in the state named Sugar House Coffee, tucked into its namesake neighborhood in Salt Lake City, more than any other establishment.

Kody, a 27-year-old teacher in the Davis County School District, attributes that in part to the signs signaling welcome to the LGBTQ community, including the pride flags that often hang around the shop.

“Having that visibility and that openness — walking into a place where you hear discussions and conversations from members of your community — that’s one of the things that really is a big thing,” said Kody, who uses they/them pronouns and asked that their full name not be used for fear of retribution from parents in the district.

“Every June we get the lip service of corporations and businesses wanting to show pride and whatnot, trying to sell us pride products and all this great stuff,” they added. “But it’s places like Sugar House Coffee that do it quietly without fanfare, they make sure that these spaces are normal. And I think that’s the big thing. It’s not a unique thing for us, it’s just that we are comfortably visible there.”

Sugar House owner Emily Potts says it’s a natural thing for a coffee shop to be a safe space. Potts’ father started the business in 2002, and she subsequently took over the business in 2013. But, even before the transition, it was important that Sugar House Coffee be a public gathering space, she said. “Gradually it became a safe space for the LGBTQ community. And then, eventually, we became louder and louder about it.”

Sugar House Coffee is a member of the Utah LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce, along with a handful of other restaurants and food and beverage companies.

For Potts, authentically supporting Utah’s LGBTQ+ community goes beyond just hanging rainbow and Trans flags year-round. She hosts fundraisers for suicide prevention and is particular about the employees she hires, training them on inclusivity — “like asking customers their preferred pronouns and not just assuming.”

Potts was an LGBTQ ally long before Jaxson, her now 14-year-old son, came out as gay, she said, and she hopes Sugar House Coffee is an example to other business owners on how to be a welcoming space.

“If you have that platform, use it,” she said. “It’s a waste of a business to not help populations that struggle.”

Occasionally, Sugar House Coffee has received one-star reviews online, complaining that the business is too liberal. But Potts shrugs off those few dissenters.

“We want everyone living their authentic self,” she said, “even if it’s just for an hour in a coffee shop.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sugar House Coffee displays their mission statement next to their patio seating on Friday, May 28, 2021.

Coffee Garden

In 1993, Alan Hebertson and Dieter Sellmair opened one of the first locally-owned coffee shops in Salt Lake City’s popular 900 East and 900 South neighborhood.

Back then, the couple didn’t advertise that the Coffee Garden was a gay-owned business. The owners just welcomed everyone with artisan coffee and house-made pastries.

Soon it became the natural gathering place for a neighborhood and a refuge away from Utah’s dominant culture. The aging housing stock was — at least back then — more affordable than other parts of the city and drew many liberal-minded residents who worked downtown or at the University of Utah.

“We built this little niche mostly by virtue of the neighborhood,” said Hebertson. “Ninth and Ninth has always been a progressive neighborhood and includes a cross section of people that you don’t get anywhere else in the city.”

The original Coffee Garden was located on the northwest corner of the 9th and 9th intersection in a former furniture store, said Hebertson. The pair moved the business across the street to its current location, 878 E. 900 South, in 2006 sharing ownership of the building with the irreverent gift shop, Cahoots.

In recent years, the business district has expanded to include several restaurants, bars and retail shops. But the Coffee Garden remains the central gathering place. Even during the pandemic, when the shop has been closed to inside seating, guests have continued to gather at the tables outside.

“We’ve just been very lucky to be in this neighborhood,” Herbertson said. “We do have a sanctuary here.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). Mike Tuiasoa and his wife Cori Christine and their children work at Watchtower Coffee and Comics in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

Watchtower Coffee and Comics

Also frequently mentioned: Watchtower, a comic book and coffee shop that recently moved to 1588 S. Main Street in Salt Lake City.

Karen Lowe, 50, said the community comfortability within the space may have something to do with the meet up groups the cafe would host before the pandemic — bringing together everyone from people who are polyamorous to those who were formerly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to individuals who like to knit.

“They’re welcoming and supporting of these groups that are outside of the mainstream, so even if they aren’t hanging a giant rainbow flag, just by allowing people to use their space” gives it a welcoming feel, she said.

Lowe stressed that she doesn’t have a partner and doesn’t appear queer, which impacts the way she experiences spaces as a member of the LGBTQ community. But she said she feels more welcome when she’s around “like-minded folks.”

On a recent morning, owner Mike Tuiasoa chatted with a customer and explained the origins of his signature latte, made with his own caramel-coconut flavoring.

“We never set out to be a safe space — but that’s nice,” said Tuiasoa, who knows what it’s like to be outside the mainstream. The self-described comic book “nerd,” moved to Utah from Hawaii when he was about 13. It was a bit of culture shock, “being the only brown kid on the school bus,” he said. “And I got teased for drawing Batman in my notebooks.”

In 2015, Tuiasoa and his wife and business partner, Cari Christine, took over another Salt Lake valley coffee shop and renamed it the Watchtower — a nod to the Earth-based headquarters of D.C. Comic’s Justice League of America.

“It’s the gathering place of heroes,” Tuiasoa said. “That’s where the good people convene and watch over the city.”

A third owner, Krystophe Eshalomi, is a transgender man and plays a large role in running the business.

Their cafe nurtures that same protective atmosphere. Pride and trans flags are visible from the street, as is a Black Live Matter sign. In addition to comic books, and vinyl albums, the shop has T-shirts with clever sayings, like “Keep Salt Lake Nerdy.”

“We want everyone who comes through the doors,” said Tuiasoa, “to be treated with respect.”

Tinker’s Cat Cafe

No matter their race, religion or sexual orientation, when customers step into Tinker’s Cat Cafe they are united by one thing.

“The cats,” said owner Lisa Boone. “It’s all about the cats.”

Tinker’s Cafe, which also received several mentions as a safe place in The Tribune’s survey, is really two businesses in one building. The west side is the cafe, while the east side is the lounge where people pay an hourly fee to spend time with a dozen or so felines.

At any one time the cat lounge will have an eclectic mix of people, said Boone. “The thread that binds them is being around animals — specifically cats.”

Three of the felines are permanent residents of the lounge, while the rest are available for adoption. Since opening in November 2017, Boon said she has found 280 cats new homes.

A decade ago, cat cafes became popular in Japan, because many people live in small apartments that don’t allow pets and the cafes offer cat companionship.

Tinker’s does the same whether it’s for college students who miss their cats back home or people whose spouse or significant other has cat allergies.

Whatever the reason, she said there’s a need for public places that are “welcoming to all.”

“Everyone needs a place,” she said, “where they can just come and not be judged.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A cat yawns inside Tinker's Cat Cafe in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 30, 2020.