21st Century Coffeehouse Society

How are U.S. coffee shops turning into the office away from the office?

February 18, 2012

Credit: Dimitri N./Flickr (CC-by-2.0)

A century ago, it was Vienna, the Austrian capital, where crowds of people tended to lounge around the coffeehouses. They paid for a cup of coffee, and newspapers were available for anyone to read and share.

There was a lot of talking going on throughout the day. And as long as one held on to that cup of coffee, one “owned” the space. A great perch to look at people streaming by, talking to friends, daydreaming and, yes, writing. Truth be told, for all the nostalgia we might have for this era of sophisticates idling in coffeehouses, many of those folks were, quite literally, “breadless artists.” Few made enough money to live on, many were at best scraping by.

A century later and a continent away, the phenomenon that came to symbolize fin de siècle Vienna can be found aplenty in major cities all over the United States. Once upon a time, the country was a true coffee desert, a hopeless case where dark hot water was sold as coffee, served in Styrofoam cups, and gulped down hurriedly.

The younger generation of Americans has brought an end to their forebears’ on-the-run and in-a-hurry culture. In a nation where, not so long ago, there were few places one could linger in a somewhat cultivated atmosphere throughout the day, something changed.

Starbucks brought on the initial wave of semi-restful public spaces with decent coffee. But even now, when the Starbucks phenomenon has cooled off, variations and copycats of the Starbucks concept are spreading merrily across the country.

What is different now in the big downtowns is that it is increasingly hard to find a space to actually sit in those coffee shops. They are chock full of people. Evidently, the lengthy periods of time they spend in these shops is reflected in the prices of the coffee and sandwiches sold there. They are so high that they surely include a direct contribution to the shop owner’s monthly rent.

One could of course argue that ever since the blogging phenomenon got underway in earnest some years ago, coffee shops were the listening/observation/lingering posts of those laptop-equipped writers.

But what is truly different is that a new wave of customers has rolled in. In the current recessionary atmosphere, costs are still being cut wherever possible. One way to reduce wasteful overhead is by getting rid of the downtown office. Instead, work from home and have team meetings, even meetings with clients, on the fly in a coffee shop. Preferably in a central location, near mass transit stations, easily reachable from all directions around the metro area.

And so it is with our coffee shop across the street in Washington, D.C. When we amble out of the office to take a quick break, there is a veritable battle going on for seating. So one of us tries to scout for an open table while the other gets the coffee. More often than not, the old routine – get a coffee and then sit down – doesn’t work. The last remaining seat will be taken before you have your coffee in hand.

What is fascinating about the scene is how busy it really is. These coffeehouse inhabitants look neither breadless nor like artists, as in old Vienna, but there is plenty of conversation and lots of writing. Instead of lofty discussions of philosophy and literature, however, one is far more likely to hear talk of funding proposals, cost estimates and contract negotiations. Laptops are open everywhere, and so are spreadsheets. This may look and feel like a coffeehouse society, but it’s a different animal altogether.

It is the post-office generation that meets here. It is the generation of young people that has been told that they will have ten different employers by the time they reach 35. It is an ever larger army of independents that tries to make the best out of a difficult situation.

So people still congregate. They still try to win contracts. But many of the old rituals, including having a permanent office and other fixtures of the Western-style of the command-and-control economy, are gone, never to return.

I can’t shake the feeling that downtown real estate is not a business one wants to be in for the long haul.

Takeaways

And as long as one held on to that cup of coffee, one "owned" the space. A great perch to look at people streaming by, talking to friends, daydreaming and, yes, writing.

It is the post-office generation that meets here. It is the generation of young people that has been told that they will have had ten different employers by the time they hit 35.