Iced Coffee

Place Dauphine

In the airy but over-aired romantic comedy Me Before You (2016), the dashing but damaged Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) laments bygone times when he refers to, “Paris. Place Dauphine, right by the Pont Neuf. Sitting outside the cafe with a strong coffee, a warm croissant with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.” Place Dauphine is not just a scene in Me Before You; it’s a real square in the heart of Paris.  And it probably has Will’s cafe, thanks to the nearby river and central views of the city.  Yet French cafes are growing scarcer every year.  In fact, these quaint little gathering places are disappearing in droves.

Painting by Vickie Wade

If someone asked me to paint a scene from a French country village, I’d surely highlight a charming cafe on a cobbled central space, bursting with patrons.  In the cafe, the proprietor would serve incomparable pastries alongside fine, pressed coffee.  The room would swell with music and chatter; the locals swapping their work-day adventures before heading home to supper.  The evening stopover in the cafe seems to me a staple of French culture.

So it pains me to read about closed doors on France’s rural cafes, according to a recent report of the Wall Street Journal.  Sixty years ago, you would find over 200,000 of them liberally dotting the country.  Today, there are less than 40,000.  “Progress” – in its various forms – has forced the rural worker out of traditional French industries and into the big cities.  Time once spent in the cafe is now given over to the workday commute.  Adds a village mayor, “Without a cafe, a village is pretty much dead”.

A “French cafe” in Ireland

Even though I’ve been to Paris, I can’t claim to have spent time in any of its cafes, not even the famed Les Deux Magots, where writers like Hemingway and Joyce were said to have gathered.  And yet, I’ve still experienced authentic “cafe culture” (and I don’t mean Starbucks).  On a trip to Ireland several years ago, my wife and I concluded our first day of sightseeing by ducking into what we thought was a small pub in downtown Dublin.  Turns out the place was more “French cafe”, complete with black-and-white prints on the walls, candle-lights on the tables, and coffee, tea, and pastries to beat the band.  We were so taken by the place we stopped in every afternoon for the better part of a week.  Perhaps the most showstopping memory of all: we never saw a phone, tablet, or laptop.  Patrons were there to gather and chat, or at least – in the case of a few loners – to lose themselves in a good book.

van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

The French cafe is made all the more romantic thanks to the artist Vincent van Gogh.  In 1888 in the southern town of Arles, van Gogh observed the play of a cafe’s lights against the nighttime sky, which inspired his painting Cafe Terrace at Night, the precursor to his unequaled The Starry Night

“Yellow vest” protestors

Perhaps you recall France’s “yellow vest movement” a year or so ago, when protestors took to the streets to battle aggressive economic policies.  Turns out the French cafes played a part in the melee.  The government sought to impose an increased fuel tax to reduce the number of cars on the road.  The protesters interpreted the tax as an impolite shove, to get more people to move to the big cities.  In other words, less people in French country villages.  And no people in French country cafes.  Remarkably, one of the government’s concessions following the yellow-vest protests was subsidies towards small businesses.  Perhaps the French country cafe is not dead after all.

Had I written this post two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have come up with much positive spin on this topic.  But let’s face it, those of us “sheltered in place” right now yearn for social interaction (not social distancing).  We want face-to-face again, not Facetime.  We want the congregation, not just the church service.  So perhaps there’s a silver lining to the current pandemic after all.  When we return to “new normal”, my hope is we’ll have a newfound appreciation for gathering, instead of hiding behind our electronic devices.  As well, my hope is my next visit to France will find the doors of French country cafes wide open again, just beckoning me inside for “strong coffee and warm croissant”.

Creamer Schemers

A couple weeks ago, my Nespresso coffee maker sprung a leak. As it brewed a cup, it also “espressed” a small river of coffee from the base of the unit. An online chat with the good people at Nespresso determined, a) the maker really was broken, b) the one-year warranty covered the repair (whoo-hoo!), and c) the fix would take up to ten business days. Well beans; ten business days meant regressing a full two weeks on drip coffee instead.  Hold the phone; did I just label myself a coffee snob?

Nespresso

Nespresso – for those of you not familiar – is one of the many capsule coffee systems on the market today. Unlike the Keurig K-Cup, “Nestle-Espresso” capsules spin as the water passes through the grounds (7,000 RPMs – vroom vroom!), adding a light-colored frothy cap of “crema” on top. The crema enhances the aroma, but more importantly delivers the mouth-feel of a latte, as if you stirred something in from the dairy family. But call me fooled; Nespresso’s nothing more than coffee in the cup.

Bunn’s coffee-monster

Coffee snob? Parvenu, perhaps. It wasn’t that long ago I contentedly drank “joe” from one of those big metal Bunn machines, flavor-boosting my Styrofoam cup contents with a sugar cube and powdered Coffee-mate. Then, I spent a year in Rome and my world was forever coffee-rocked. I returned to the States armed with words like cappuccino and espresso and caffe latte. But America didn’t even know the word Starbucks yet. A “coffee shop” was still a greasy spoon diner; forgettable joe in a forgettable cup.

Mind you, not having Starbucks didn’t mean I was gonna crawl back to the Bunn, especially after a year of Italy’s la dolce vita (look it up). Eventually I dropped hard-earned cash on one of those early model home coffee/espresso/steamed milk contraptions – a machine requiring twenty minutes, twenty steps, and a phone-book-sized operations manual to produce a small cappuccino. The birth of the American barista did not start at Starbucks, my friends. It started in the frustration of orchestrating an overly complicated home-brew system in search of pseudo-Italian-style coffee.

Sometime after Starbucks opened its first doors (but before Nespresso), Keurig developed the K-Cup. The Keurig coffeemaker felt like a huge step up from standard drip (and ushered in the concept of single-serve coffee at home). Keurig opened a seemingly new world of coffee to me – exotic names like Green Mountain or Paul Newman’s or Donut Shop – but let’s be honest. Keurig was basically glorified drip, and I still wasn’t taking my coffee straight, like I did in Italy. And that’s where Nespresso shines. If the K-Cup is a step up from drip, Nespresso is the entire staircase.

Ironically, the same company producing Nespresso markets a line of oil-based creamers sugary enough to make your coffee taste like Easter in a cup. Nestle already offered creamer flavors like Peppermint Mocha or Italian Sweet Creme or Toasted Marshmallow, before recently adding Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Funfetti. Not to be outdone, International Delight augmented its own coffee creamer line – REESE’S Peanut Butter Cup, Cinnabon, and OREO Cookie Flavored, with – no joke – a PEEPS flavor. Better check for bunnies before you take a sip.

For the record (if the Pulptastic website is to be believed), I’m not even close to being a coffee snob. I can choose from any of their twelve defining characteristics and come up short. I don’t read about coffee. I don’t speak the lingo (“Robusta?” “Arabica?”). I don’t know what “cupping” is. I do enjoy a Starbucks coffee every now and then. Finally, I’m half-tempted to check out the PEEPS creamer (maybe I won’t even need the coffee in my cup). See the Pulptastic list for yourself. Maybe you’re the coffee snob instead of me.

I’m still waiting (im)patiently for my repaired Nespresso coffeemaker to come back. I’m barely surviving on my backup K-Cups. But I’m no coffee snob. And I was just kidding about wanting to try PEEPS in a bottle. On the contrary, those creamer schemers can keep their product far, far away from my Nespresso.

Some content sourced from the 2/3/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Rich Sales Boost Coffee Creamers”.

Coffee Breakers

Every now and then I take this blogging habit out onto the road, so to speak.  Instead of typing paragraphs from the home office, I’ll liberate my laptop from its cables, hop in the car, and head over to the local coffee house.  Working in a caffeinated environment – especially one buzzing with grouplets of chatty patrons – brings out the creative juices in me (if not the ability to concentrate).  Lately however, I’ve decided my little laptop show pales in comparison to some of the real road warriors out there.  Apparently, I need to show up with more toys in hand.  It’s time to go “Venti” instead of “Tall” and become one of the true coffee-breakers.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the patron I’m talking about here.  Coffee-breakers recreate their home office (or “office office”) on a table in the middle of Starbucks.  They consume more than their fair share of coffee house real estate (but not their fair share of coffee relative to their extended stay).  They arrange face-to-face meetings with colleagues, and interviews with prospective employees.  They hold Bluetooth conversations as they stare at nothing in particular.  Or FaceTime conversations as they have one-on-one’s with their phones.

I’ve come across several breakers in my coffee house stays.  They demonstrate distinct behaviors to separate themselves from those of us who simply want laptop time with our lattes.  First, breakers set up their workspaces, with enough time and attention to detail to announce, “Notice me!”  Then they go to the counter to place their coffee orders, deliberately leaving their setups unattended (as if to say, “This space is reserved!”).  Finally, they begin their “work”, which doesn’t really seem like work.  I can’t help thinking coffee-breakers are more often show than substance.

A few weeks ago at the local Starbucks, I left my laptop and Flat White to take a quick phone call outside the store doors (the polite thing to do).  When I returned, I found I’d been joined by a coffee-breaker.  She was carefully positioning two Bluetooth speakers on the table in front of her; then fiddling with her phone and a few other components from her oversized backpack.  As soon as her speakers gushed music (clashing with the Starbucks music playing overhead), she put in her AirPods and simultaneously took a phone call.  She operated as if she was in her own little world (i.e. I didn’t exist).  Therein lies another distinct coffee-breaker behavior: virtual walls.

On another visit, I was party to a conversation between a commercial real estate broker and a prospective tenant.  He sat his client (deliberately) adjacent to the counter queue, which (conveniently) put him in the center of the store.  The broker was hawking lease space in the adjacent soon-to-be-opened retail center.  No wonder he raised his voice as he spoke.  This coffee-breaker’s sales pitch was as much for me and my fellow patrons as for the captive soul sitting right in front of him.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently published a dozen rules for coffee-breakers; rules that should be laminated to every Starbucks building in the land.  Examples: Work only where and when you’re wanted (i.e. ask first).  Buy first, sit second.  Buy more than one small black coffee during the day.  Don’t take work calls – ever.  And so on.  Perhaps more enlightening was the reader comments in response to the rules.  I perused four pages’ worth (30+ comments) and not one came to the defense of coffee-breakers.  In fact, several comments added more rules to the list.

To my earlier comment about going “Venti”, I talk – of course – tongue-in-cheek.  A little attention is a good thing, but my hope is most of us would not deliberately choose to be a coffee-breaker (else this is the end of Western civilization as we know it).  Nope, I think I’ll take my road show to the library instead.

Some content sourced from the 8/27/19 Wall Street Journal article, “How to Act Like a Human When Working From a Coffee Shop”.

Putting the Kettle On

Kacey Musgraves is a blossoming country music artist whose recent album “Golden Hour” will compete with heavy-hitters at this year’s Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. She’s released only four albums (through major labels), so the nomination is remarkable. And yet – despite the acclaim heaped on “Golden Hour” – my favorite Kacey song remains a track from her second album, “Pageant Material”. In her words, it’s “a little, tiny, music-box-of-a-song” called “Cup of Tea”.

The message in “Cup of Tea” (have a listen here) – is simple: no matter who you are or what you stand for, you’re never going to appeal to everybody.  There will always be haters out there no matter how you present yourself.  My favorite lyrics in “Cup of Tea” are the refrain itself:

You can’t be, everybody’s cup of tea
Some like it bitter, some like it sweet
Nobody’s everybody’s favorite
So you might as well just make it how you please

Kacey wouldn’t mind if I told her “Cup of Tea” gets me thinking just as much about tea as about how well I mesh with other people.  Not that I’ll be steeping anytime soon, mind you.  I can’t seem to acquire tea-taste, no matter how many times I put the kettle on.  Go figure – half my DNA originates from England, so you’d think my instincts would have me setting out the fine china and doilies every afternoon.  I’d nibble on the cakes or scones or whatever comes with, but no tea, please.  I much prefer my morning coffee.

Ironically, tea brews with some of my earliest childhood memories.  My parents used to take my brothers and I downtown in Los Angeles, to restaurants on the streets of Chinatown – probably as much for the cultural experience as for the food. I can still picture those dark, quiet dining rooms, with the strange music and gaudy decor.  The meal always began with a pot of tea, including the little round cups that seemed to have misplaced their handles.  Tea was a cool experience back then. Listen, when all you drank was milk or water (or the occasional soda), tea was pretty sweet no matter how it tasted.  It was like having a “grown-up” drink before being grown up.

Forty-odd years later, I notched another tea-riffic memory.  My wife and I took a cruise on the Baltic Sea a few summers ago (“six countries in eight days”), and chose Oceania, one of the nicer cruise lines.  Good decision.  As much as we enjoyed the excursions off the ship, we enjoyed the return even more, because every day we were treated to “afternoon tea”.  Oceania’s tea was the perfect respite between the early morning touring and the evening dinners/dancing.  “Tea” included tableside service from tuxedoed waitstaff, countless cakes and petit fours, and those little triangle sandwiches with the crusts removed.  “Tea” even included a string quartet; their soft music adding to the ambiance.  I suppose I could’ve asked for coffee instead, but that would’ve tainted the experience.  Not to say I enjoyed the tea itself.  Just “afternoon tea”.

The culture, history, and preparations of tea could generate a week’s worth of posts.  (See the Wikipedia article here).  What I find more interesting is how tea has become the daily routine of several global cultures.  The Chinese and Japanese consume tea in the morning “to heighten calm alertness”.  The Brits serve tea to guests upon arrival (or in the mid-afternoon), for “enjoyment in a refined setting”.  The Russians consider a social gathering “incomplete” without tea.  Not sure about all that, but I can at least agree with the moment of pause tea provides; the respite from the faster pace.  It’s just… my “cup of tea” is coffee.

Buzz + Booze = 90

In the last day or two, an article surfaced in my newsfeed suggesting coffee and alcohol better your chances of living past 90.  Hello.  Now that’s a little something worth reading!  VinePair’s version of the report (“VinePair is the fastest growing media company delivering accessible, entertaining, and inspiring content about drinks and the experiences you have with a glass in hand.”) covers the critical details in a pleasantly short read.

Bless the research grants bestowed upon the University of California at Irvine (Go Anteaters!).  The Ants have been studying “oldest-old” humans for the past fifteen years and have come up with the following buzz + booze conclusion: those who consumed moderate amounts of coffee and alcohol lived longer than those who did not.  “Those who did not” were labeled as “having abstained“.  Nasty word, abstained.

U.C. Irvine’s study is music to my favorite appliances: the coffeemaker and the wine cooler.  No doubt my habits are mirrored by millions of others – start the day with a cup of coffee and end the day with a glass of wine.  And because I do, Irvine says I up my chances of living past 90?  Bacchus must be smiling down on me (and is there a god of coffee to keep him company?)  I think I’ll celebrate by hiring a personal barista and sommelier.

In the spirit of VinePair’s efficient reporting (150 words!), let’s cut to the chase.  Why have coffee early and alcohol late when you can have both in the same cup at the same time?  What a perfect excuse to start the morning with, say, a Bailey’s Irish Cream Coffee! (coffee, 1.5 shots of Bailey’s, whipped cream, and cinnamon).  Or even better, a Mexican Coffee! (0.75 shot Kahlua and 0.75 shot Tequila).  Or best, a Millionaire’s Coffee! (equal parts Bailey’s, Kahlua, and Frangelico – you decide how strong).  The coffee-alcohol combos are endless.

By vicious coincidence, the same day I read the VinePair article I received a newsletter from my health club.  To kick off the New Year on the right foot, my club chose to “debunk” common nutrition advice.  First, they recommended an 80/20 approach to radical diets instead of “all-in”.  Second, they said weighing myself every day puts too much emphasis on what is likely the wrong indicator of better health.  Third, I shouldn’t pretend I don’t need vitamins no matter how healthy I eat.  Fourth, I shouldn’t toil endlessly at the gym as if I can outwork a bad diet.  (Wait, so my health club is telling me to work out less?)  Finally, they said I need to make nice with carbs again, favoring the complex over the simple.  That’s a list of only five items, but it reads like it’s built on a significant amount of research, while studying the habits of countless people.  Way too complicated for my taste.  “My taste” would rather focus on coffee and alcohol.

To add a little cream and sugar to the study, U.C. Irvine reached another conclusion with the “oldest-old”.  The overweight lived longer than the underweight.  Wait, what?  If I want to live well into my 90’s, I should drink and eat in excess?  Well tickle me pink – and pass the whipped cream while you’re at it.

In the meantime, I’ve converted this welcome research into a superb business idea.  Save the trip to the patent office because I beat you to it.  Coming soon to a store near you: liqueur-infused espresso beans.  And yet, as soon as I come up with the idea, I find out it’s already out there (has been for years).

I’m guessing Stumptown Coffee Roasters doesn’t have a retirement plan.  Their employees probably live forever.

Loose Lips Sink Sips

Twenty years from now, my granddaughter will wander into my home office as a young adult, just for a look around.  She won’t find much of interest on the desk or the cabinets (if we still need desks or cabinets twenty years from now), so she’ll direct her attention to the things on my shelves.  Besides photos and books, she’ll find mementos from times and places past: greeting cards, concert programs, sports tickets, autographed items, and so on.  She’ll also find items no longer necessary in her world, like a newspaper (from the day I was born), a paperweight (will anything be on paper anymore?), and a few music CD’s I can’t seem to part with.  To this last group of items, perhaps I should add a drinking straw.

“Grandpa?”, she’ll say when she spies it, “What’s the narrow little tube with the colored stripes?”  “Oh”, I’ll smile and say, “That’s a straw. People used them back in the old days to suck drinks out of their glasses.”  She’ll ponder that for a bit and then ask, “Why wouldn’t they just drink straight from the glass like we do today?” Good question, granddaughter.  Then I’d pull up a chair, and explain the tragic tale of the drinking straw – the humble roots as a durable replacement for rye grass; the evolution into kid-friendly varieties like bendy, Crazy, candy, and spoon-ended (for slush drinks); the proliferation into seemingly-essential varieties like miniature (cocktails), “extend-o” (juice boxes), extra-wide (bubble-tea), and trendy doubles-as-a-stirrer (Starbucks).  Finally, I’d talk about the straw’s fade into obsolescence – the promoted shame over “one-time-use” products, the YouTube-sensationalized horrors of polypropylene impacts to the environment, and the headlines and bans and laws which would ultimately exterminate the little suckers.

Perhaps my granddaughter would pose another question: “Why the fuss over a little piece of plastic, when so much else in the world deserved equal-if-not-more attention?”  Exactly.  I asked myself the same question when I sat down to write this piece.

No matter where you stand on the drinking straw debate, it’s a great example of the power of social media to elevate a topic to a level of importance beyond what it might deserve.  According to those in the know, straws account for a tiny portion of the plastic waste in landfills and oceans.  But they have our attention, don’t they?  As Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen puts it, “We look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem.”  “Gateway issue” – I like that.  The straw is simply the catalyst, easing people into an awareness of a much more significant problem.

As for the demise of drinking straws, we’ve moved from opinion to discussion to debate, and finally to laws and bans to discourage their use, yet we’ve hardly reached a resolution.  An effective replacement for the plastic straw simply doesn’t exist.  Paper straws durable enough to last the life of the drink don’t decompose much faster than plastic.  Paper straws cost five times as much, so the restaurant industry will have to swallow hard.  Reusable straws have their merits (ex. metal, glass), but unless restaurants budget them to the bottom line, we’re facing a massive change in behavior.  You’re already leaving the house with your car keys and your phone, but hey, don’t forget that reusable straw.

More likely, straws will simply disappear altogether.  As we speak, we’re in that awkward middle-ground where straws are still an option in restaurants, but more and more establishments (and entire states) mandate the customer must ask for one. From there, you can make the easy leap to guilt-by-association – as in, sure you can have a straw, but do you really want to be seen using one?  The only resolution in my mind is to do without, like we do hot coffee, beer, and wine.  Time to drink everything straight from the glass.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and articles from Business Insider, Eater, and Sprudge.

Kindling the Fire

Last Sunday, in the midst of a sleep-in/no-alarm kind of vacation, my dad dragged my wife and I to early church. That meant falling out of bed by 7 and leaving the house by 8:15. Not my idea of a relaxed schedule, to be sure. On the drive to church and all through the service, I found myself in a fog and close to nodding off (the meh sermon didn’t help). Even at brunch afterwards – stoked with a double-dose of mimosas – I couldn’t seem to shake the cobwebs. It wasn’t until much later in the day I realized something significant went missing from my daily routine. I hadn’t had my morning coffee.

Morning coffee is more a habit than an addiction for me.  Or so I thought.  It wasn’t so long ago I occasionally substituted juice or water, and the day proceeded as normal.  Sunday’s drowsiness made me pause.  Maybe the impact of caffeine is more significant as you age.  Maybe drinking a hundred cups (or more) in a hundred days creates a dependency.  As they say, caffeine is “the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug”.

While I debate the impact of no caffeine today, I can absolutely attest to the impact of lots of caffeine, with two examples of inconvenience.  For me, caffeine sends a loud-and-clear, pulsing, Times-Square-sized announcement to my bladder saying, “IT’S TIME TO PEE.”  Not in fifteen minutes.  Not in fifteen seconds.  Now; as in – get up and go NOW.  I better have my path to the bathroom mapped out, and that door better be open.  It’s like clockwork biology, forty-five minutes after that first coffee sip.  Remarkably, the experts still question whether caffeine is a diuretic AND they wonder whether the amount of liquid expelled is equivalent to the amount consumed.  I emphatically answer “yes” and “MORE”.  With all the expelling, it’s a wonder my body doesn’t dry out and disintegrate.  No matter; it’s a small price to pay for my daily drug.

Here’s the second impact of caffeine.  Beware the cup of coffee (or any choice from Starbucks) after three in the afternoon.  Let that late-day caffeine hit take hold and you’re in for a long night.  I can very dependably fall asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow except when my coffee intake is late-day (and on that note, why is upscale after-dinner restaurant coffee so good?).  I toss and turn like laundry in the wash cycle, staring at the ceiling and ruing my beverage mistake.  Then I stare at the bedside clock.  What a pretty clock it is.  Such colorful numbers.  It’s fun to watch the numbers change every minute.  Every hour.

Let’s review.  Assuming I plan my bathroom trips and lay off the coffee by mid-day, I can safely embrace my caffeine habit.  And if “habit” concerns me at all – its synonyms include “addiction” after all – here’s some good news.  Four cups a day is ideal for heart health, according to recent research by the Germans (my new favorite people).  Not up to four cups, but exactly four cups, netting you about 300 mg of caffeine.  Four cups is also the equivalent of a Starbucks “Venti” (the Nitro cold brew somehow packs in 469 mg of caffeine) but I steer clear of the big cups.  Wouldn’t want to get “addicted”.

We’ve only been talking about coffee here, but thankfully caffeine is found in only a handful of other foods and drinks.  What starts as a naturally-occurring compound in plants finds its way to teas, cocoa, cola soft drinks, energy drinks, and over-the-counter meds (i.e. cough syrup).  The only one I touch is cocoa (my chocolate habit justifies its own blog post).  So, unless I exceed my daily two-square ration of a Lindt 70% Cocoa Excellence Bar, my caffeine intake is all about coffee.

If you count milligrams the way you count calories, know that 300 of caffeine is the threshold to avoid anxiety and panic attacks.  A warning sign might as well pop up after 300 saying, “STOP!  Proceed with caution”.  It’s like there’s this sweet spot with coffee – an oasis between falling asleep in church and earning the jitters – that kindles my fire.  Gives me justification to start every day with a cup of coffee.  Or four.

Creatures of Habit

WHAT IF Starbucks decided to close its stores for a whole day? Imagine, you’re driving to work with early-morning brain fog, you pass by the most convenient Starbucks, and from the street you see a big “CLOSED” sign behind the glass.  Not to be denied, you head for the drive-thru, but your access is blocked by green cones (everything matches at Starbucks).  You’re still in denial, so you pull into a parking space, get out of the car, and peer through the darkened windows. Horrors. Your 7×24 caffeine-addiction fixer-upper (well, almost 7×24, but who craves coffee at 3am?) has taken the day off.  Are you getting a case of the jitters just reading this paragraph? Is this a Catch-22, because you can’t think up another coffee option until you’ve actually had your morning coffee?

We had a little “sip” of this scenario earlier this week, didn’t we?  For reasons that were relevant-today gone-tomorrow (maybe), Starbucks took the high road and delivered several hours of anti-bias training to its employees, closing 8,000 locations in the process.  For one interminably-long afternoon and evening on Tuesday, you had to search a lot harder to find your grande no-whip Caramel Macchiato.  When Starbucks’ announcement lit up the front-page headlines last week, my first thought wasn’t, “the lines are about to get longer at the bathrooms” (though admittedly, it’s a legitimate concern since I’m a man of frequent visits), nor was my first thought, “we’re about to see a lot of, uh, interesting people at Starbucks now” (because we already do, don’t we?)  Rather, my thought was, “how the heck are we gonna cope with several hours of no-Starbucks, when 100 million patrons – you read that right – frequent their stores every week?”

In a related headline, an economist claimed this one-time Starbucks shutdown would cost the company $12 million and be a boon for “coffee competitors” like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.  Laughable.  I know those restaurants have their fair share of coffee allegiance these days – if you consider “fair share” less than 1%.  No, the world didn’t rotate off its axis on Tuesday, but I also won’t promise patrons didn’t line up at the Starbucks drive-thru hours before the open on Wednesday morning.  Our Starbucks habit was ingrained at an early age, well before the competition stepped up.  Howard Schultz is a genius.

More likely, the impact of Tuesday’s shutdown is what I refer to as the “Chick-fil-A effect”.  If you’re a fan of CFA, you’ve known from the get-go their stores close on Sundays.  It’s a simple building block of the founder’s philosophy: CFA employees should spend their Sundays resting and at worship, with family and friends.  Now, you might pass Chick-fil-A on a Sunday and think, “Closed.  What a nice gesture – more companies should do that.” But I’m pretty sure you’re actually thinking, “Damn – I was really craving a #1 meal, hold the pickle, w/ lemonade”.  And that thought will stay with you until Monday. And Tuesday, And Wednesday, or whatever day you next pass by Chick-fil-A.  Maybe their alt-slogan should be, “Closure Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” or something like that.  It’s as much a business strategy as a thoughtful benefit for CFA employees.  On that note – trust me – Starbucks will make up Tuesday’s lost business by the time I hit the “publish” button on this post.

Nothing Bundt Cakes (“Home of the Most Delicious Bundt Cakes Ever!”) is kinda sorta the same animal as Chick-fil-A.  For reasons suspiciously vague, NBC allows its franchisees the option to close on Sundays.  Google your NBC’s hours before you head over for a white chocolate raspberry bundt or a lemon bundtlet.  The next time you find their doors unexpectedly locked, I predict your dreams will be relentlessly invaded by dozens of little flying bundtinis – at least until you satisfy your craving with a purchase.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Here’s the irony about today’s musing: I’m typing my post from a Starbucks.  I’m sitting quietly at a table, enjoying a grande cold brew with a touch of cream.  The baristas are unusually perky (surely a side effect of their recent training).  The restaurant feels quiet and “inclusive”.  In other words, I didn’t cry over spilt coffee on Tuesday. Instead, I just proved my theory.  a) Tuesday afternoon I couldn’t go to Starbucks.  b) I wasn’t even planning to go.  c) The store closures were in the headlines, which inserted “caffeine denial” into my brain.  d) Here I am, just two days later, getting my Starbucks on again.

Touché, Mr. Schultz.

The Euphoria of Joe

Today I’m perched at one of my favorite Colorado coffeehouses, sipping the local version of a cafe latte.  The air is rich with the bitter aroma from the nearby roaster.  I’m surrounded by chatty patrons, each with their own coffee-based delight-in-a-cup.  If I had a handful of the crunchy chocolate-covered espresso beans they sell, I could say coffee’s hitting all five of my senses today (instead, I have a delicious apple fritter).  These days, coffee is as infused into American culture as baseball and Apple (pie).  And how far we’ve come from the cups of Joe former generations would brew with store-bought cans of Folgers.

How far have we come (besides the requisite latte foam-art)?  Consider this: my coffeehouse does not allow to-go orders.  You read that right: if you get your coffee here you’re drinking in-house.  According to the resident “roastmaster”, paper cups alter the flavor of the coffee and thus they won’t sell it to-go.  Hard for me to swallow (the cup thing, not the coffee), as my palate has never been very discerning.  Yet here I am, paying top dollar to drink real-cup coffee “in the house”.

It wasn’t always this way.  Not so long ago all you had on the menu was a “cup of coffee”.  Take it black or take it with sugar/cream, but that’s where your options ended.  And the reference to “Joe”?  That comes from a 1914 ban of alcohol on U.S. Navy ships by then Secretary of the Navy Josephus “Joe” Daniels.  The strongest alternative to a “real” drink on-board was black coffee.

Today’s kids get their first taste of coffee at Starbucks.  My own first taste took place in Italy, during the college year I lived there in the 1980’s.  Italians take their coffee very seriously.  Walk into an Italiano café, belly up to the bar, and order an espresso shot and sweet roll.  That’s your standard-brand Italian breakfast, and you take it standing up.  You’re in, you’re out, and you’re on your way again in less than a minute, sufficiently caffeinated.  Not many are baptized on straight espresso, but that was my experience.

My coffee journey continued after college, but it was quite a stumble.  I graduated from Italian espresso and regressed to the standard-brand Bunn coffeemakers of corporate America.  Starbucks and its kin would not arrive for another 5-10 years.  Office coffee was a mindless, characterless, tasteless experience.  A Styrofoam cup of black nothingness, with a few unbrewed grounds thrown in for texture.  It was like descending from the Golden Age of the Roman Empire to the Dark Ages.

Thankfully, my coffee habits persisted until coffeehouses became an American staple in the late 1980’s.  The houses themselves still aren’t the vision of Starbucks’ Howard Schultz: “comfortable, social gathering places away from home and work”, but at least we’re getting past the Frappuccino-this and macchiato-that, evolving back to straight coffee.

My one dedicated-cash phone app is for coffee.  I literally wake up and smell the coffee thanks to my Keurig; then structure my waking hours with the possibility of a drive-through cup of Joe later on.  To get really serious I could spend $200 on a Ninja’s home coffee bar, which claims to be a coffee system (“Variety of brew types and sizes!” “Built-in frother!” “Tons of delicious coffee recipes!)  Their tagline: “See what all the coffee buzz is about”.

Coffee buzz is no joke, as patrons of America’s 33,000 coffee shops will tell you.  The euphoria we desire – the blissful effects drawn from caffeine – actually has a name: “margaha”.  For that reason, whether your preference is a nitrogen-infused cold brew, a coconut-milk mocha Macchiato, or a take-it-straight cup of Joe, it’s safe to say coffee is here to stay.

Can We Talk?

We lost a good friend last month.  Wisdom Tea House, one of our local cafes, closed its doors for good after eight years of business (and a little snow).  And that’s just sad.

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Why am I sad?  Let’s start with a quick tour of the house itself.  You walk in the front door to the roomy foyer, commanded by a large hutch with dozens of tea cups – choose your own – and a welcoming kitchen where you place your order. If the scrumptious lunch items don’t tempt you, the fresh-baked goods on display certainly will.  Then choose from any room in the house and pull up a chair. Perhaps the living room with the small fireplace. Or one of the upstairs sitting rooms with their small couches and comfy chairs. Your tea and cakes will be delivered no matter where you sit.  This could just as easily be your grandmother’s house.

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Here’s what I’ll really miss about Wisdom.  You won’t see people talking on their cell phones or working away on their laptops.  You won’t plop down next to a large, loud group of people gathering after work for a drink.  Wisdom’s music is quiet and instrumental.  The tea and coffee are served in their simplest forms (no Oprah Cinnamon Chai Tea Latte here).  In sum, they created a gathering place for requiescence – a bit of rest to escape the bustle of the world beyond the windows.

As I reminisce on Wisdom, I’m sitting at Starbucks.  I typically appreciate the convenience of the drive-thru, but today I’m on the inside, observing Starbuck’s brand of “gathering place”.  Open floor plan.  Hard surfaces.  Rock music.  A few high tables for two and one large low table for many.  Stools at a counter facing the windows with no view to speak of.  The handful of patrons I observe are to themselves, engrossed in all forms of personal electronics.  The few engaged in conversation raise their voices above the music and the baristas just to be heard.  It’s all just so “un-Wisdom”.  But that’s Starbucks – and it works.  It’s grab-n-go coffee, especially with that drive-thru lane (churning out cars so much faster than people passing through the front door).  Having your coffee inside a Starbucks almost feels wrong.

A few years ago my wife and I visited Ireland for the first time..  If you’re ever in Dublin, find your way along the cobblestones to Wicklow Street (just off the wonderful Grafton Street shops), and stop into a little cafe called Gibson’s.  Gibson’s is akin to Wisdom Tea House.  Order at the counter (the pear tarts are a must) and choose from one of the dozen small tables just beyond.  Take in the gentle ambiance and soft decor, and breathe deep.  The Irish come to Gibson’s to meet and to chat; to catch a break from the fervor that is downtown Dublin.  We stopped in several times during our trip and it was always the same: happy patrons engaged in quiet conversation with – at least for the moment – no cares in the world.  I can still picture one particularly well-dressed gentleman a few tables over from ours, sitting alone with his coffee and reading a book.  The very picture of requiescence.

Perhaps you have a Wisdom Tea House in your town.  A place the locals seek out to unplug, and to spend a quiet moment or two with each other.  If you are so fortunate, be regular patrons and keep your little gathering place in business.  Without Wisdom, our little town has precious few places to rest.  We might as well just head home instead.