It Was Never About the Coffee

In the end it’s not really about the coffee for most people. Not everyone can do a coffee cupping exercise and smell and taste the hints of citrus, the South American soil, or surmise whether the last growing season in Ethiopia was particularly dry or wetter than normal. I do not deny that there are people who can tell these things, but I am not one of them.

I think I first got into making coffee part of my daily routine in the 1990s. I had been in workplaces before then, with drip coffee makers running twenty-four hours a day, but no one would claim the coffee that came from those machines was any good. It was usually close to burnt. We drank it for the caffeine, because we worked unusual hours and we thought it would keep us awake. At this point in American coffee history no one had thought of offering speciality coffee drinks, with fancy names, and sourcing the coffee from far away places and marketing coffee like wine. Coffee was something provided for free in the workplace, along with healthcare and two weeks vacation, as part of the benefits package.

Then a coffee shop opened in my town and on the way to work one day I said to myself, “Oh, this would be a nice diversion. This is a way to delay my commute and get to the office just on time instead of a half hour early.” So I went in. It smelled good. They were roasting the coffee right there. Suddenly the manufacturing of coffee was no longer an abstraction, but something you could experience. But let me be honest; what kept me coming back was the cups.

This coffee shop had beautiful multi-color art work on all its paper cups no matter which size you bought. The art resembled a somewhat modern impressionistic depiction of a sunrise in what I presume was a conjured, mountainous, coffee growing region of the world. It was more than a coffee cup. It was a fashion statement. When I showed up at work, holding the cup in my right hand, people asked me where I got my coffee. They wanted one. They didn’t want the coffee, they wanted the cup.

In the decade that followed Starbucks began to take off, and I have always believed, and I am sure there is research to back it up, lots of people go to Starbucks because they want to hold that white cup, with the green logo, in their hand. It says they are sophisticated. It says they have some disposable income, which must mean they are smart. It says they have a certain urban style. And that all says they are cool. Is the coffee really that great or different from the coffee served in any other coffee shop? No. It is about brand loyalty. It’s about saying to the world, “I am a Starbucks person” and all that goes with it.

American coffee culture began to emerge. Studies showed how communities moved from offering a few coffee choices, to being known for coffee culture; to a culture of roasting, free trade activism, and coffee socialization that overtook the personality of place. Investors searched for neighborhoods with small coffee shops as the best places to flip real estate, because a coffee shop is the first step toward creating a community. Barista became a new career choice and James Joyce became a barista style icon.

Coffee shops became known as the “third place.” Not work. Not home. A place in between where you could relax, have a change of scenery, and be part of a micro-community. Slowly, I began inhabiting coffee shops the way earlier generations frequented bars at the end of the day. I would use them for business meetings. I would go to a coffee shop when I needed to think, to write, to be by myself, to people watch, and to accidentally run into people I knew. Unlike a bar, this activity wasn’t focused at the end of the day, but in the morning, mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

It is one of the things I miss most about my life in the pandemic world we are all living in, but my forced absence from coffee shop culture has taught me it is a luxury I can do without. I would even go so far as to say I have discovered it was partially a crutch I was using to avoid doing more important things during the course of my average day. I knew it then, but now I have proven the theory with field testing.

The experience of the coffee shop is as comfortable as the feeling you have when holding a warm paper cup, with your preferred logo, in your hand. When you walk in you can smell the latest roast, though you may not recognize where it is from. You can feel the fine dust from foot traffic grind under your shoes as you walk across the aged wood, or stained concrete floor. Rainy day music can be heard playing just under the murmur of soft conversation. There, by the window, is your favorite table for two, with a power outlet under the chair and a solid wifi connection. You work alone, but you hope someone will join you so that you can put the work aside. The work was only an excuse to get a coffee.

Though I make coffee at home almost every day I miss the shop experience enough that several times a week I stop by a few of my favorite places to break away from the isolation of the pandemic for some masked human interaction. One place makes you order by phone before you come in to pick up your drink. Another serves from a take out window no matter how cold it is outside. A third lets you come in to order and pick up but you can’t sit down, which is too bad because this particular shop has great natural sunlight.

There’s another shop — the one with the most square footage — that has been able to create small plexiglass rooms for people to sit, work, and socialize with others they believe are COVID safe. I haven’t taken advantage of the set up, but just seeing people enjoying the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee with friends and colleagues gives me the feeling that there will be a return to normal at some point. There will be a time when the plexiglass can come down and we will be free to sit wherever we’d like.

But the big question for me is; now that I have shown myself capable of living without the coffee shop experience, or even without coffee if I wanted to, what will I do when the opportunity comes to re-establish those old habits? I am pretty sure I will return, because it’s about having the third place. It’s about the ritual. It has never really been about the coffee.

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.

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