The Coffee Commune

Coffee should taste good. This assertion should be uncompromising. But what about the café? What role does the café play in one’s coffee experience? Or does the coffee matter at all? What is a café? What should it be? Why do we need it?

This piece by guest blogger Niels Lee (friend, historian, coffee addict, author of this post on coffee house culture) addresses these questions, and boldly states what some may consider to be heresy: “the taste of the coffee does not matter.” Whether or not you agree with this statement, this is a topic worthy of discussion.

I welcome your thoughts. Enjoy.

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Not too long ago, I walked into one of my favorite local coffee shops known for its artsy interior, flamboyant cupcakes and soul-soothing coffee. I came for the coffee, but stayed for the atmosphere; it was one of the few places where I could just let my imagination wander about with the right amount of distraction. The occasional laugher, pictures that aren’t too distracting, the sound of people typing on their laptops, mixed with some light background music has been difficult to find nowadays with coffee shops experimenting with various moods, styles and provocations. But then again I wasn’t surprised when one day I received a cold response after having preceded my order with the word, “tall.”

“Yeah, I don’t really get the whole Starbucks lingo, what size is it you want?”

It was a slip of the tongue. I also prefer the “small, medium, large” metric since “tall, grande, venti” are not units of measurement. Yet I was a bit taken back.  Although the barista knew exactly what size I wanted, she thought it was necessary for me to say “small” before finishing my order. No, I didn’t feel angry enough write up some obnoxious negative review on Foursquare or Yelp. But it did make me wonder what we as should actually be looking for in a coffee house.

I’ve read enough coffee shop reviews to see that most talk about the drinks, atmosphere and service. But let’s face it, most of us have no clue if we’re actually drinking “authentic” coffee, “cozy” is such a subjective term that it can for some mean “claustrophobic,” and if you can’t tolerate wobbly tables and red-eyed baristas, you shouldn’t even be here. So I’ve just come to the conclusion that our (or perhaps my) obsession with the wonders of hand pour coffee, power outlets and comfy couches is misguided. Or let me be blunt: even the taste of the coffee does not matter (that much). Let me explain.

There was a time when the public’s philosophy surrounding businesses and corporations wasn’t so cynical. Ask any marginally educated individual about the business practices of contemporary firms, corporations and local shops. Most will simply state that of course they’re out for your money, as their primary motivation for opening a shop is to profit. You’re just being naive, the saying goes, if you’re expecting Corporate America to be fair with their prices and use legitimate resources and materials. Thus, the appropriate attitude of a customer is the reward and punishment system: “Ah, so you’ve decided to screw me by using styrofoam cups, well you’re never touching my wallet again.” It’s like a bad marriage, where the relationship is not based on any sense of loyalty or commitment, but a default suspicion that the other side can (and eventually will) fail the litmus test.

Yet the truth is that not too long ago, many believed that having a local business was about serving the community, and the community, in return, becoming loyal customers. Of course, making a profit was still important, but the monetary drive rarely overpowered the want and need to be part of a particular community. If this sounds too idealistic, here is John Bogle, not some economics professor shaking his first at Wall Street, but investor and retired CEO of The Vanguard Group being interviewed by Bill Moyers:

BILL MOYERS: What should be the dominant? What is the job of capitalism?

JOHN BOGLE: Well, ultimately, the job of capitalism is to serve the consumer. Serve the citizenry. You’re allowed to make a profit for that. But, you’ve got to provide good products and services at fair prices. And that’s the long term, that’s what businesses do in the long term. The businesses that have endured in America have done that and done that successfully.

For those interested, in his article “Democracy in Corporate America” published in the journal Daedalus, Bogle goes on about the “pathological mutation of capitalism,” but I’m more interested in how we as consumers should respond in an age of cynicism. I am for one suspicious if the job of capitalism is indeed “to serve the consumer” even if the modern sense of greed is diluted, but nonetheless the sense of community that business provided is something worth pondering.

This is where my blasphemous remark comes to play: what matters more than the taste of coffee (which nowadays seems to be the mere fetishization of “authenticity”), is how the coffee shop interacts with its surroundings. One of my favorite coffee houses as an undergraduate was a placed called “The Pour House.” It brewed a decent cup of coffee, had plenty of tables and sofas, cute baristas, but it stood out because it actually was part of the town. You could see everything from local happenings, posters with dogs that needed to be adopted and a list of foreign and local charity organizations the coffee house was sponsoring. I stopped by the Pour House almost every morning and I would usually see the same people, half of whom seemed to have just rolled out of their beds. The owners didn’t seem to mind us students rubbing our eyes as we stared into our laptops, though I suppose most of us were civilized enough to order a pastry or another cup of coffee if we were planning to stay more than two or three hours. For us, it was an extension of our living rooms, a place where a hot cup of coffee and familiar strangers greeted each other with a gentle nod. And of course there is nothing more welcoming than the barista who starts preparing my order the second she spots me walking through the door, drenched in rain or history papers. There were at least two coffee houses that actually served “better” coffee than the Pour House, but the other establishments couldn’t deliver a rivaled sense of community.

Yes, the financial side of things is important, especially with the rise of franchises. But even from a monetary perspective, the refocusing on building a sense of community also seems to be the best means of defending local establishments against the tyranny of Starbucks and its minions. Many local coffee houses, adherent to the third wave coffee movement, have been distinguishing themselves by promising high quality coffee – sourced and roasted by distinguished roasters across the world – that stands in contrast to the burnt and bland incorporated. While this is a noble tactic, what will they do if Starbucks actually begins to, well, serve properly roasted beans, and command their baristas to hand pour every drip order? Offering free Wi-Fi has been one successful Starbucks tactic in bringing in more customers, steady improvement of how they roast and pour their coffee seems only years away.

Yet one thing franchises will never have a monopoly on is the unique local(ness) of a particular coffee shop. Franchises thrive because of “consistency” – you know what you’ll get when entering a McDonald’s, Olive Garden, Subway or Seattle’s Best. Whether their coffee is consistently bad is another discussion. But this is also a franchise’s limitation. Predictability, along with corporate policies and an overarching shadow that hovers over trademarks and products, make it extremely difficult for any chain to present itself as an integral part of a local community. This is precisely why it’s a stretch for Howard Schultz to believe that he can create some sort of global community under the Starbucks brand, driven by the need to combine the often contradictory impulse of universalism and local(ness).

Coffee houses are unique communities. In no other public establishment do we conduct business, catch up with friends, flirt with the barista, write papers and rotate our iPhone screens out of boredom. As such, in the long run, it seems only appropriate to lower our expectations for a masterfully poured cup of coffee and instead look for places where a sense of community is set as the priority. The idea of a coffee shop where community and high quality coffee coexist in holy matrimony is a near fantasy, especially during an economic downturn, where businesses struggle to keep up with the price of high quality specialty coffees. While you can pour yourself a near-perfect cup in your kitchen, your kitchen is no community. Your café should be.

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Niels is one of the many poor graduate students you will find wandering around various coffeehouses. He is trained as a historian, a romantic by trade, loves Dostoyevsky, and hates taking out the trash. Publications include “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Identity” published by The Birch, but understands that most people don’t really care much about tedious history.

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3 comments
  1. Big companies like Starbucks want to be your “third place”–the place you go to other than home and work. But to truly be a third place, you have to engender that feeling–the coziness described here. I think it’s a tough task. But you know it when you find it.

  2. I like looking through a ppst that can make men and women think.
    Also, thanks for permitrting me to comment!

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