Reinventing the coffee house: Two takes

fancy coffee

I love my coffeehouse. But — it has way too many of those business-intense people hunched over computers, so focused that they forget to drink their (carefully crafted, best-in-town) latte until it gets cold. Since I’m one of them, why is that a problem?

Well, I see it as a problem from two directions: profit and play.

First of all, I don’t know what my three-hours-one-large-latte does to the coffee shop’s bottom line. Is it really okay, because there are enough seats, and I’m not occupying space that could / should turn over once an hour? I try not to stay longer than an hour if it’s really busy, but still …

And then there’s the social aspect. If I’m buried in my computer and you’re also working, and the next three people are working, does that make the vibe more like an office and less like a third place, a community, a place to hang out with friends?

Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg literally wrote the book on third places:  “Most needed are those ‘third places’ which lend a public balance to the increased privatization of home life. Third places are nothing more than informal public gathering places. The phrase ‘third places’ derives from considering our homes to be the ‘first’ places in our lives, and our work places the ‘second.’ … The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. …They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”

I recently read two articles with interesting takes on the business and social lives of coffeehouses. The first, A Café for the Freelance Nation, notes the rise of pay-per-minute “coffices” in other parts of the world.

“Customers clock in on arrival and pay a nickel a minute for as long as they stay. The coffee and Wi-Fi are both complimentary, and you can work for as long as you like — entirely guilt-free.”

That works out to $3 an hour, which is hardly exorbitant, and one of the difficulties the author notes is that it’s not profitable enough. Starbucks, especially with its (deliberate?) lack of ambience and high traffic carry-out business, makes much more money. Maybe that’s part of the reason that, “from Bogotá to Istanbul, emerging economies have been the early adopters of this trend, while big Western cities have been surprisingly slow on the uptake.”

Of course, I don’t care about Starbucks. I just want to be sure that my (local, independent, amazing) coffeehouse stays profitable enough to support the family that owns it and the baristas who work with them.

The second article focuses on the play part of my concern, describing A Country Club for the Rest of Us, a community center/coffee house with classes, video games, a kiln, 3-D printers, and more, where “discussions are meant to recall the lost art of salons, only with more steampunk-y subject matter and made-to-order espresso drinks.” Okay, Maker House in Tucson is way over the top, but it is definitely and intentionally a “third place,” free and open to the public. It sounds absolutely amazing — but I have no idea how it is funded. (Maybe one clue — it is “not currently” a 501 (c)(3), but does accept donations.)

I definitely don’t want my coffeehouse turning into Maker House (way too big) or a “coffice” (not social enough), but I’m still thinking about the questions of profit and play.




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2 responses to “Reinventing the coffee house: Two takes

  1. I’d say that as long as there’s always at least one table available for newcomers, the longer you stay, the better it is for the coffeehouse—even if you’re just buying a single cup of coffee. Your presence is an advertisement for the quality of the coffee and the desirability of the social space.


  2. Macy

    I’d say the longer you stay the more you realize that the shop is by no means a coffice; the baristas get to know you and the other customers get to know you. Even if you’re buried in your computer. Of course, I’ve got more than a little bias.


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