Clarity Coffee is the coffee shop that defies, in a way, the taxonomy of coffee shops. From Starbucks to the suburban strip mall shop to the downtown hub, coffee shops are now a staple of the community, even small communities. There is a way of thinking about them – a taxonomy much like class, order, family, genus and species – that involves verbiage such as hipster, coffee nerd, coffee snob, comfortable, pretentious, loud, welcoming, obnoxious, etc.
When Steven Willingham opened Clarity in 2014, he did so because he takes coffee very seriously – but not in the way that some shops take it so seriously they lose the ability to communicate with the “airpot crowd,” people who need a cup quick on the way to work in the morning. The vibe at Willingham’s shop truly reflects the demeanor of the owner: kind, quiet, welcoming and gracious. The vibe is at odds with the uber-sleek, modern look and feel of Clarity; while the lines, angles and colors of the shop are not necessarily what you’d call homey or comfortable, the people behind the counter are patient and friendly.
The look of a place is always secondary to the quality of the product or service that place provides, but the aesthetics should never detract from the experience. Clarity flirts with that line, but the coffee and service are so good, no one seems to care. As in many shops, local art hangs on the walls, and lounge-y furniture shares space with functional tables and counters. The water counter across from the front door is the most striking feature; designed by TAP Architecture, it successfully manages to combine modern design with warm, rustic woods. It’s as if interior design were a secondary consideration, and that is the defining feel of Clarity: What and how they serve matters, and everything else is secondary.
“I decided to do a coffee shop with very limited food because I’m very passionate about coffee, and I know coffee; I don’t know food that way,” Willingham says. “The bakers at Brown’s and Kitchen 324 do a much better job than I can ever do, so I just make sure we always have pastries that are baked fresh that day by one of our partners.”
Same with the tea, and Willingham applies his primary rubric here, too. “I pick our partners for specific products: matcha from Woodshed, chai from Urban Teahouse and green tea from 49th Parallel.”
The front counter has about eight pastries, three kinds of chocolate bars, a bunch of bananas some days (coffee and a banana is an underappreciated breakfast) and a selection of Kize bars. The inventory is mostly local, but if Willingham finds something he loves elsewhere, he doesn’t mind bringing it in. Visitors will find cinnamon apple spice and spices for syrups from Savory Spice, and fresh pumpkin for the best PSL in Oklahoma from Whole Foods. He is meticulous about specifics, but not in a systemic way.
The coffee comes from KLLR, a local roaster that Willingham helped start in 2017, but from which he has now stepped back, leaving day-to-day operations to his partners. Clarity’s board has five specialty drinks – currently including the previously mentioned pumpkin spice latte – and they change monthly and seasonally.
Pour overs are made with a Fellow Stagg XF filter, and since I didn’t know what that meant, Willingham explained it, just as his manager Caleb Savage had explained Yellow Mountain Tip green tea to me the day before: without condescension. They are passionate, informed and friendly; they remember when they didn’t know what they’re telling you, and they are happy to share the information. It even feels like sharing, so they avoid being a snobby coffee shop because you feel welcome, and the coffee is great, and you just learned something you didn’t know you wanted to know.