By Justin Shepherd, owner/operator/aficionado

One of the defining marks of the specialty coffee industry is Mission. Efforts toward agricultural sustainability, economic development, environmental advocacy and more are commonplace in our industry — more than just marketing slogans, these ethics are a key ingredient in many coffee companies’ master plans. Spencer’s Coffee has been around for nearly 15 years now, and we’re beyond proud to be a small part of those efforts. Yet, as a single-location cafe in the midsize town of Bowling Green, Ky., our contributions are miniscule. We can (and do) source our coffees from a roaster who backs those values; we can (and do) try to educate our customers on why great coffee is worth the time, effort and expense. But our place in the grand scale is a small one, and our mission looks a little different. 

Since taking over the business in 2005, we’ve sought to make Spencer’s a social hub for southcentral Kentucky. We love coffee a lot, but we love people even more, and building community has been at the forefront of our mission from the very beginning. We’re also connected to the thriving coffee communities of Louisville and Nashville, and in 2011 created an event aimed at bringing those communities together right here in Bowling Green. Dubbed the Kentucky/Tennessee Latte Art Throwdown & Caffeination Celebration (aka KYTN), the event is part coffee-geek competition, part coffee-industry get-together. We invite baristas, roasters and others from all over Kentucky and Tennessee to join us, and also open our doors to the general public in and around Bowling Green. We sample great coffees from a variety of roasters, hold a latte art competition (bracket-style contest to see who pours the prettiest drinks), and raise money for a great cause.

As the parents of two boys on the autism spectrum, my wife and I have a heart for families who face similar challenges — that’s why every dollar raised at KYTN is donated to the Center for Courageous Kids, a donor-funded, year-round camp in Scottsville, Ky., that works with families of kids with special needs. We’ve seen the amazing work they do for families like ours, offering horseback riding, swimming, bowling, arts, music and more — at no expense to the families, and in an environment that lets these special kids be themselves. 

Our first KYTN raised a few hundred bucks; our most recent, held on Nov. 5, raised $1,350. La Marzocco — one of the world’s best-known espresso machine manufacturers — was here to let visitors try their hands at making drinks; something like 20 coffee shops from across the country were represented in the throwdown, coming from as far as Houston and New York City. Businesses throughout Bowling Green donated raffle prizes, while a host of coffee equipment companies made it possible to offer competitors some amazing swag. 

In the end, though, it’s not just about coffee, not just about charity. It’s about community — the cornerstone of a coffeeshop, the thing that transcends drinks and decor. No matter what side of the counter we’re on, no matter where we live or what we do, we’re in this together. Ultimately, that’s what KYTN is about, what it strives to see played out one night each year. And it’s just getting started. 

Thanks to 2015 KYTN sponsors La Marzocco, Pantechnicon Design, St. Anthony Industries, Baratza, Prima Coffee, Acaia, Brew Global, Mistobox, Barista Magazine, Ancap USA, Caffewerks, Able Brewing, Sunergos Coffee and Sprudge. All photos by Loren Gifford; see her blog for more images from the Throwdown. Barista Magazine also has a piece about the KYTN at their blog.