Monday, August 30, 2010

Making Coffee Conversational Again: The Return of the Coffeehouse

The original coffeehouses were public gathering places. They were social spaces where people could argue politics, get and share news, and just generally enjoy each others' company. This trend persisted despite attempts to ban these meetinghouses and the caffeinated beverage that drew people together. Coffee—and caffeine—had us hooked on this type of downtime. But it wouldn’t last.

In the early 90s, the coffee culture changed: leisure shifted and work began to travel with us. Laptops, smart phones, WIFI—the coffeehouse became an extension of the workspace. But perhaps because we’re in the midst of the Great Recession, people aren’t working quite as much anymore. It may not be by choice, but fewer people are plugged in all the time in the same way they might have been before. And as the working culture changes, the coffeehouse proprietors have the chance to revive the coffee culture (and admittedly, save themselves a few dollars as well).

Increasingly, as a recent NYT article reports, a new type of coffeehouse is emerging. It doesn’t have the comfy chairs and large tables we’re accustomed to. It resembles a bar, featuring long skinny tables and futuristic stools. You grab your coffee, you drink your coffee and hang for a few minutes, and then you leave. You don’t settle in to work. And the reduced seating forces more mixing, even if it’s to say “excuse me” while you shift a stool for access. Could this bring back the convivial atmosphere of these spaces?

I was intrigued, so I decided to investigate. I didn't even have to travel very far—I just needed to play closer attention to my surroundings. When the Starbucks across the street from my job reopened earlier this year, it had been transformed into one of these “coffee bars.” Not a cafĂ©, not a coffeehouse, or a coffee shop. A coffee bar. You went in, you had a drink, and you headed out. If people lingered, it looked like an overcrowded nightclub with the endless line adding a false sense of importance to the space. But it was livelier. People talked more on line—with companions and with strangers as they shared door space. Small civilities—“Excuse me, I need the sugar.” “I’m sorry. I just need to grad a napkin.”—changed the formerly quiet, but clogged store into a buzzing, bustling den.

Regulars seemed to have mixed responses though. Cary Maines who has been drinking coffee and visiting Starbucks for 14 years, is having a hard time adjusting. “I don’t feel like I can stay. It’s always crowded. You can’t really move or have much space to yourself,” she said. Cary first used Starbucks as a place to study in college. For her, coffee and work have always gone together—and to work, you need your space and your tools, things that Cary feels are missing from the new design. She often takes breaks from her desk there with her laptop in tow.

Mike Donnelly’s laptop sat in its bag under his stool. Sure, he used Starbucks to check emails and work on some writing, but he doesn’t feel pressured to do so anymore. His description of the new atmosphere echoed Cary’s: “It’s busy. It’ sweeps you along. It doesn’t have much room to work, but there are lots of other things going on.” Mike’s comments imply that he can enjoy other activities at the coffee bar other than focusing on work even if those other activities are brief.

Of course, there are financial benefits for owners as well. Smaller set-ups require smaller venues, which translates into lower rents. And they cut out a lot of the overhead—someone has to pay for that free WIFI, right?—while hopefully serving more customers. But maybe coffee drinkers can get something out of it too. And the experience of coffee can be a largely social one again.

Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels


  1. I didn't know about the new trend, but I feel like financial considerations must be a primary driver for this.

    I just (very) recently moved from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin. I went to Chicago to be a student after leaving a small college town with lots and lots of study space all over the place. But when I got to Chicago, I had trouble finding comfortable study space and so I looked to the coffee shops but never really found one that was big enough to be comfortable for studying. Now I've moved to Madison to be a student again and have explored the coffee shops here; many of them are large and comfortable with plenty of space to study.

    Property is expensive and often in short supply in Chicago and I think most coffee shops just couldn't afford to be big enough to encourage their clients to stick around for a while. With the kind of business Starbucks does in many of its locations, I imagine they feel even more pressure to keep people moving through. In areas with less expensive rent, you can afford more space for people to hang out in.

    Independent versus chain shops might also be different. I think all of the larger coffee shops I found in Chicago, the ones with more space to stay, were independent. Madison seems to have a large selection of independent shops, which could have something to do with their larger average size and greater average comfort. Perhaps independent owners are more concerned about connecting to their clients?

  2. Definitely agree that financial considerations have a large role in the shift. Many businesses in NYC are finding that they can't afford to renew their leases. (It happened to one of my favorite lunch spots—luckily, they have another location within walking distance!) And honestly, I think the change at the nearby Starbucks was really an attempt to curb the lingering that would happen there.

    There is something to be said for demand though. And Madison as I understand is a fabulous town in close proximity to Beloit, which may mean that they are catering to a demand for these types of spaces. And they may frankly have the space to do so without exorbitant NYC taxes and rents to deal with. Because there are so many independents, it probably also raises the competition factor so that there is some pressure to meet demand.

    In any case, enjoy your coffee shop while you can, Joe!

  3. First of all, very nice blog! I've thought about this before and it’s so neat to see someone else seeing these things too!

    Now, I have my Anthropology degree and work at Tim Hortons (A Canadian based coffee shop) but I work in Buffalo, NY. So, when I'm working I'm being the Anthropologist and definitely analyzing everything I see. Now, I work in a suburb of Buffalo. During the winter it's mainly working class people who live and work there. During the summer and parts of fall and spring is when you have the vacation people come out since the town is on Lake Erie and famous for the beaches that aren't contaminated. The town consists of around 18,000 people. It’s on the corner of a major route where the local high school resides and the high school students can come to the shop during their breaks.

    The store is medium in size. If you've ever been into a Tim Hortons they're really all the same size. There's 11 tables total with 8 of them being only 2 persons table and no wireless available (the owner is too cheap).

    Now, got the logistics out the way. I work from 6AM to 3PM. I have four different groups of people who come in during this time:

    First, the teachers/students. They come in and mostly just order their coffee/capps/teas and a quick breakfast sandwich or doughnut. A few them mingle around waiting for the first bell to ring at the school. In the afternoon (school lets out at 2:21PM) you have them ordering mostly soft drinks, subs, and frozen drinks.

    Second, my "regulars". I see them everyday. I know their orders by heart. They're very friendly towards us as we are to them. These regulars always sit and chat for hours and they are all retirees. They all sit at the three of the 5 person tables closer to the front of the store and basically keep to themselves. Enjoying their morning coffees and talking about gossip around town.

    Third, 9 to 5er's. These are the people hurrying through drive thru to get to their jobs in the city. They're always in a rush to get their coffee and get out.

    Fourth, others. You got the guys coming in quickly to get something on their breaks from their jobs. Some of them I know their orders easily too! Or you got just passerby's who aren't in enough for me to know their orders.

    What I've noticed the most about this specific Tim Hortons is that it’s a social hub with a touch of fast food feel to it. You have other coffee shops (the more main stream) with wireless and books and magazines. When I went to college I went to school in a small town but a college town nonetheless with 4 colleges in a 10 mile radius of each other. The coffee shops there were locally owned. They had couches and wireless and books. Even had local bands come play sometimes. They even had games to play. There's a locally owned coffee shop like that called SPOT but it’s only in the city limits. Its very big, tons of space and the atmosphere is fantastic. It has a very bohemian style to it. Now I’m a 20 something and from what I can see SPOT caters more towards the 20 something generation while Tim Hortons would cater more towards the original coffee drinker generation, high school/middle school kids, and the 9 to 5er’s.

    The whole thing is so fascinating! I also have notes about the local gym I go too! But this ended up being longer than I intended. I apologize!