CoffeeQ pays it forward, one cup of coffee at a time

Alex Wittenberg loves a good cup of coffee. So much so, he envisions a world where patrons to Cleveland’s coffee shops share their love by buying their neighbor—whether it’s a friend, the next guy in line, or even an unknown stranger—a cup of coffee.

To that end, Wittenberg, along with co-founders Sebastian Thimmig, Adam Fishburn, and Edward Liu, have created CoffeeQ, an online app that allows users to buy a cup of coffee for someone else. “The goal is to get to the point where paying it forward is an everyday thing in Cleveland,” explains Wittenberg. “Paying it forward brings Clevelanders together and makes Cleveland a happier place."

The group came up with the CoffeeQ concept last May while attending GiveBackHack, a social innovation event held at StartMart. “The team and I had a great time working on it over the weekend, and we got great feedback from coffee shop owners,” says Wittenberg, adding that—true to form—they continued to hone their business model at local coffee shops.

“Part of the reason we’ve been able to make such good progress is because we’ve been so caffeinated,” he jokes. “The app went live in our first coffee shop in October.”

Wittenberg reports that 200 users have paid a cup of coffee forward in the first four months since CoffeeQ's launch. Today, CoffeeQ is running in five Cleveland coffee shops—both Six Shooter Coffee locations in the Flats and Collinwood, Passengers Café in Ohio City, Pour Cleveland downtown, and Tremont’s Beviamo Café. More are possibly in the pipeline, as Wittenberg says they are in talks with additional shops.

Customers who want to send a friend a cup of coffee simply walk into a CoffeeQ-equipped location and enter the person’s cell phone number. (The CoffeeQ team provides the locations with iPads and the app.) Recipients get a text with a code that they can redeem when they go to the coffee shop.

Alternatively, Wittenberg says customers can also buy a cup for a stranger and leave it to the barista’s discretion to give the coffee to a deserving individual. “[The cup of coffee] just goes into a communal pot,” explains Wittenberg, adding that the practice “builds stronger communities." In the future, the CoffeeQ team plans to add a function where a customer can buy a cup for the next person in line.

CoffeeQ takes a small percentage of each coffee purchased through the app, but the company also pay it forward in its own right—giving a percentage of the purchase to a charitable organization. Currently, CoffeeQ is partnered with Refugee Response and St. Malachi Church; in fact, the team sponsored St. Malachi’s annual St. Patrick Day Church Run this past Saturday, March 10. Wittenberg says they are looking for additional nonprofits with which to partner.

“What we’d eventually like to do is let people choose what charity they’re giving to,” says Wittenberg. “We’re building community through the power of coffee."

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.