Which Came First?

When my son wrapped up his undergraduate college years, he gradually reduced the stock in his refrigerator to just about nothing.  Living on a shoestring budget, he wasn’t about to purchase food he didn’t need after graduation.  I’ll never forget the phone call one of those last couple of nights.  He told us – rather proudly – he’d made a meal with two eggs… and a can of processed chicken.  A “chicken scramble” if you will.  To which I replied, “ick“.  If we’d been on FaceTime he’d have seen my face turn a lovely shade of green.

Some foods were just not intended to be consumed in the same bite.  I can’t think of a better example than chicken and eggs.  All chickens hatch from eggs and all chicken eggs are laid by chickens, so why on earth would we eat them together?  Can we skip the biology class and agree – at least by one definition – chickens and eggs are essentially the same “thing”?  And really; how often have you found them side-by-side on your breakfast plate?  Hopefully never.

The memory of my son’s kitchen creation locked itself away in my brain until recently, when Starbucks decided to meddle with their sous vide egg bites menu.  Not content to offer just “Egg White & Pepper” and “Bacon & Gruyere”, Starbucks now offers “Chicken Chorizo Tortilla”, described as “perfectly cooked, cage-free sous vide egg bites, including chicken chorizo, and…” and… and… and I stopped reading right there.  I couldn’t get past eggs and chicken in the same offering, gag reflex included.  I’m not sure I’ll order any egg bites anymore.

To lend credence to my chicken-OR – not chicken-AND – claim, I turned to one of the experts in the field: fast-food icon Chick-Fil-A.  CFA offers an extensive breakfast menu (Starbucks does not) so I figured, a restaurant built entirely on chicken would never offer eggs mixed up with chicken.  Wrong-o.  To my disbelief (and horror), two entrees loom large on CFA’s breakfast menu where you can get plenty of both.  Choose from the Egg White Grill: a breakfast portion of grilled chicken stacked with freshly cooked egg whites on an English muffin; or the Chicken, Egg, and Cheese bagel: a boneless breast of chicken along with a folded egg and American cheese.  Seriously, who buys this stuff?

I’m not sure who said it, but some would assert “the chicken is merely the egg’s way of reproducing itself”. (The same applies to the caterpillar’s “use” of the butterfly.)  I like that, evil as it sounds.  Kind of devalues the chicken, but also kind of proclaims: the egg came first.  And what about that quandary, “which came first”?  There’s not much to discuss if you really think about it.  Make the simple choice – science or religion.  Science votes for the egg, laid by something that wasn’t quite a chicken (but evolved into one once the egg hatched).  Religion votes for the chicken, created by a higher power in those first six days.

Maybe chicken + eggs is the greatest thing never eaten and I just don’t know what I’m missing.  I suppose I could ease into the idea one entree at a time.  Start with corned-beef hash… with fried eggs.  Move to full-on steak… and eggs.  Swallow hard over chicken… and waffles (eggs in the batter).  Then, at long last, order that new sous vide egg bite from Starbucks.  Yeah right, that’ll happen… as soon as we all agree on “which came first”.

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.

Dream Puffs

Last year, Starbucks surpassed Subway as America’s #2 restaurant, measured by gross sales (McDonald’s is still top dog).  I don’t consider Starbucks a place to “dine”, so second-place is impressive.  Then again, Starbucks’ bakery case has matured since its initial offerings.  There are temptations-a-plenty now, en route to the barista.  The traditional breakfast items share space with yogurt parfaits, fruit-and-cheese boxes, “fold-over” sandwiches, and entree-size salads.  But it’s the smaller offerings I want to talk about today.  Look closely through the glass – you’ll see sous vide egg bites and Bantam’s bite-sized bagels.  Those little guys could be the future of fast food.

egg bites

I haven’t tried the mini bagels, but Starbucks wins me over with its egg bites.  The first time I gave them a whirl, my wife and I were in the middle of Lent, trying to find alternatives to the foods we gave up.  Egg bites to the rescue.  The sous vide prep means cooked in water, with nothing but a bit of spinach, red pepper, and cheese mixed in for flavor.  Simply elegant (elegantly simple?), and the light, fluffy texture makes them as delicious as they are convenient.

Three Little Griddles
Æbleskiver

Now let’s talk about real breakfast foods.  Last weekend, my wife and I went to a nearby restaurant called Three Little Griddles.  Much to my delight, Griddles had Æbleskiver on the menu.  If you’re Danish, you already know what I’m talking about.  Æbleskiver is heaven-sent breakfast: puffy little balls of pancake with a sweet surprise in the middle, finished off with a delicate dusting of powdered sugar and a side of raspberry jam.  Æbleskiver is Danish for “apple slices”, but you’re more likely to bite into a strawberry or a fruit-compote filling instead.  Three Little Griddles also offers Æbleskiver with an egg/bacon filling, coated with a maple-syrup glaze and powdered sugar.  A complete breakfast!

NOT Æbleskiver

If you haven’t heard of Æbleskiver and the first thing you thought of was “doughnut hole”, shame on you.  Doughnut holes don’t even qualify as poor man’s Æbleskiver.  Doughnut holes are a clever product designed to get you to buy more when it appears you’re buying less (think “fun-size” candy bars).  I have two issues with doughnut holes.  One, they’re not actually the “hole” of a solid doughnut, but prepared and baked separately instead.  Two, they’re not shaped like a doughnut hole should be (picture it – something more like the hub of a wheel).  They should be called doughnut balls.  But enough of this talk; I’m wasting words.  Let’s keep the focus on Æbleskiver.

My first taste of Æbleskiver came when I was little, in the Central California village of Solvang.  Solvang is like, well, a kid’s “Little Denmark” – a town small enough to walk around, with an overabundance of shops selling toys, candy, and ice cream.  Several windmills spin slowly above Solvang’s high-pitched shingle rooftops.  A church sits prominently on the edge of town.  A small park serves as the town square, complete with a bandstand-sized gazebo.  All that’s missing is some water-filled canals and cobble-stoned streets.  But meanwhile, there’s plenty of Æbleskiver.  Some restaurants even bake them out on the sidewalk, rotating those little dream puffs to perfection in their unique iron skillets.

If you credit the Danes with the invention of ball-shaped food, the rest of the world takes a distant second with its imitations.  China makes a spherical egg-based fruit-filled waffle called Gai Daan Jai.  Japan makes a variety of savory ball-sized snacks called Takoyaki. (Savory? Yuck.)  And America makes doughnut holes called Munchkins.

As if Æbleskiver isn’t cool enough as a food, it’s also a cool word with a unique spelling (note the “letter” Æ).  Perhaps Starbucks will start carrying it, along with the egg bites.  I’d buy both and a coffee for a complete breakfast.

Finally, if Æbleskiver has you wondering what other delights Denmark has to offer, consider ÆblekageÆblekage is “apple charlotte” – stewed sweetened apples layered with butter-roasted bread crumbs and crushed makroner (an almond-flavored meringue), topped with whipped cream and red currant jelly.  Oh my; sounds like dream stuff.

Æblekage

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Crafts of the Hand

Several months ago, my wife and I went to dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants – a place we frequent every few weeks.  As we pondered margarita options, we asked the waiter for an order of table-side guacamole, a delicious specialty and a great way to kick off the meal.  Much to our disappointment, our waiter informed us we could no longer get guac table-side; rather, it would come already prepared and straight from the kitchen.  Sigh.  Add another item to the demise of handmade food and beverages.  Rekindle the pour-over argument.

What’s the “pour-over argument”?  It’s perhaps the most contemporary example of the struggle between handicraft and automation.  At your local coffee bar, most drinks are poured-over, meaning individually-prepared using a single paper filter, adding the coffee grounds and finishing with a slow pour of the water.  If your coffee arrives with foam-art, consider it a pour-over.  The argument asks whether it’s worth the wait for an individually-prepared coffee, when a large-batch machine can produce the same result in a fraction of the time.  One estimate claims large-batch can produce 100 coffees in an hour, while a barista creates less than ten.

I’m not here to defend the pour-over, but simply to discuss it.  In fact, my first thought when I heard “pour-over” is what you see in the photo above.  Admittedly, I love the speed and consistency of Keurig’s K-Cup’s, and I’m an unashamed frequent-flier at Starbucks.  But that’s not to say there’s not a chair at the table of life for pour-over’s.  Even if the quality of handmade can’t be distinguished from large-batch (taste test, anyone?), what about the calm of watching “drink-art” creation, and the opportunity to socialize with the barista?  Perhaps it’s the fringe-benefits making pour-over’s the healthier option.

Table-side guac is just one example of “pour-over’s” threatened by today’s demand for speed and efficiency.  If I ask you to think of a product previously handmade but now produced by automation, I’m sure you can name several.  Milkshakes. Beer. Even pizza, which can now be prepared start-to-finish by a robotic chef.  But the flip-side of robots is advertisement focused on food-prep the old-fashioned way.  “Handmade” milkshakes.  “Craft” beers.  “Fresh-squeezed” lemonade.  And pour-over coffee.

Business’s bottom line loves the idea of automation.  Labor is typically your most expensive line-item, so who would argue with removing it?  Well, maybe those willing to pay for the experience.  At your finer restaurants, you can still find table-side salads (Caesar), entrees (Chateaubriand or Steak Tartare), and flaming desserts (Baked Alaska, Bananas Foster, Cherries Jubilee).  At Sunday brunches you can still enjoy made-to-order omelettes and waffles.  With those examples, I’d argue you’re not just paying for the food.  You’re also paying for a slow-down moment: a chance to enjoy a chef-artisan do his/her thing while engaging in a little conversation. As a recent Wall Street Journal article puts it, “[pour-over]… is more about delivering peace in a fast-paced time”.

Here’s my plea.  The next time you’re having something prepared in front of you – whether a simple burrito at Chipotle or an elegant Steak Diane adjacent to your white-clothed table, put away the phone, take a deep breath, and just enjoy the moment.  Have a chat with whomever is preparing your meal.  It’s an experience worth poring over.

Sweet Charity

Several times during the recent year-end holidays, I passed through the drive-thru at Starbucks, and as I paid, I asked the cashier to include the purchases of the car behind me. I’ve been participating in this Starbucks-wide trend for several Christmases now, and it brings me an inexplicable feeling of goodwill and satisfaction.  The goal of the effort is anonymity. Or to put it more comprehensively, blind faith.

Blind faith is defined as “belief without true understanding, perception, or discrimination”.  That’s powerful.  “Faith” is a spectrum that starts with basic trust and ends with the highest forms of religion.  But add on “blind” and it elevates the meaning.

Buying a free cup of coffee at Starbucks is the easiest form of blind faith, like handing over a dollar to a beggar.  No judgment as to “what happens next” allowed.  But the intention behind an act of blind faith is worth a bit of exploring here.  Dissecting my Starbucks gesture, I note the key components.  First, I don’t waffle over the amount of the purchase I’m covering.  That’s the blind faith in choosing to pay in the first place – it shouldn’t matter how much.  One time I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw a car with four passengers.  Their bill was well over $20.  But my decision had been made before the car even pulled up behind me, so the point was to stick with it.  Another time my recipient was a well-dressed woman wearing sunglasses and driving a recent-model BMW.  Again, no judgment.  Pay for her coffee and move on.

The second component concerns my “getaway”.  As I’m waiting for my own purchases I’m considering my escape route – the path that gets me away from Starbucks as quickly as possible, with enough turns and traffic lights to deter my beneficiary.  My goal is to remain anonymous, and unless the person behind me memorizes my license plates (or something else unique about my vehicle), I’ve achieved a moment of goodwill and will never see them again.  Frankly, it would spoil the whole effort if the car pulled up next to me at a nearby red light.  They might offer their gratitude, or they might offer to pay me back.  They might even be annoyed, as if I had no business intruding on their “personal life”.  I’d rather not know.  I prefer to lean on blind faith that I brought an unexpected smile, or delivered a tiny give-me-a-break in an otherwise trying day.  Maybe they’ll even “pay it forward”, as a string of 374 consecutive cars did at a Starbucks in Florida back in 2014.

Come to think of it, there’s a third component in the Great Coffee Giveaway.  Never expect the gesture in return.  In the countless times I’ve driven through Starbucks during the holidays, I’ve never thought to myself, “I hope the car in front of me picks up the tab”.  If I knew this was happening, I might just order a half-dozen breakfast sandwiches and several cake-pops to go with my Flat White.  Just kidding, of course.  I hope the thought never crosses my mind.

This week and last – no surprise here – I’ve read dozens of blogs about resolutions for the New Year.  Allow me to contribute my one-and-only.  I’m going to lean on blind faith in the coming year, whenever I have the chance to give someone a break.  Remember the rules: 1) No conditions on the amount (read: cost) of the help.  2) Keep it anonymous, as a) recognition defeats the spirit, and b) giving simply for the sake of giving might inspire “pay it forward”.  3) Don’t expect a similar gesture in return.  That’s not to say you won’t be pleasantly surprised when someone buys your Starbucks coffee one of these days.  You’ll just know there were no hidden agendas.

 

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.

Manipulation Games

In April of last year Starbucks modified its customer loyalty program, linking reward “stars” to dollars spent instead of store visits. Where previously you nabbed a free coffee for twelve trips to the cash register, you now need a total purchase value exceeding $63 .  According to CNN, “…customers were furious with the new program.”  Maybe so but those customers didn’t stay away either.  Starbucks’ 2016 gross sales were $21.3B, up 10% from its previous fiscal year.

Once upon a time I resisted customer rewards programs but over the years I’ve made peace with them.  I keep a couple dozen loyalty cards in the car or on my phone, ready to play whenever I visit this store or that restaurant.  I still control where, what, and how much I purchase.  Since I don’t keep a close eye on my rewards, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever I qualify for a freebie or a discount.

But here’s what I don’t like about rewards programs.  They’re designed to manipulate your spending habits.  That’s where Starbucks – like so many other merchants – gets a “fail” on my customer satisfaction test.  In addition to their stars program Starbucks sends emails every other day (which I unsubscribe from but always seem to return).  Those emails encourage me to purchase in certain ways or quantities or timeframes with the allure of “bonus” stars.  It’s a ruse; plain and simple and obvious.  No amount of “free” will ever tempt me to buy three breakfast sandwiches in five days.  Or three Frappuccino’s in three days.  (I don’ t even buy one breakfast sandwich or one Frappuccino.  Just coffee.)

Starbucks may annoy me with their sales tactics but I still buy their products.  The same cannot be said for credit card companies.  The newest Visa and MasterCard programs include sophisticated reward programs where spending is literally the only path out of debt.  Take Chase Bank’s Sapphire Reserve Visa card.  As trendy as this elegantly thin metal card appears to be, it’s utterly manipulative.  For starters, just holding the card in your hand sets you back $450 a year.  Then you’re encouraged to spend $4,000 in the first three months to qualify for 100,000 reward points (recently sliced to 50,000).  You’re also tempted by an instant $300 travel credit – which can only be used through Chase’s partners – as well as credits towards Global Entry, TSA Pre, and airline lounge fees.

No matter how you justify the rewards of Chase Sapphire Reserve you’re still spend-spend-a-spending to recoup the costs.  Consider Sapphire points are valued at 2.1 cents each.  The best-case scenario therefore – spending on travel or dining – still needs to add up to $15,000 before you’ve paid off the $450 annual fee.  Too rich for me.

Las Vegas is getting in on the rewards game too.  Sin City’s legendary “free drink” is about to enter the history books.  Slot machines now include small colored lights, easy to spot by the passing cocktail waitress.  If you’re “red” she’ll walk right past you without so much as a smile.  If you’re “green” you’ve fed your machine enough to earn a “free” drink.  The same goes for casino parking lots; spend enough inside the building and you’ll earn a voucher for outside.  Is it any wonder gambling is no longer the biggest source of revenue in Las Vegas (in favor of hotel, restaurant, and bar purchases)?

Despite these trends, I’ll keep playing the rewards game and very occasionally cashing in on anything “free”.  But I’ll also be wary of the subtle manipulations.  Just yesterday I received my umpteenth Southwest Airlines’ Visa card offer.  All I must do is spend $2,000 in three months for 50,000 points and no annual fee.  That application goes straight to the shredder every time.  My one and only Visa card with its no-frills-no-cost rewards program suits me just fine.

 

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.

29 - requiescence 2 (1)

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.

29 - requiescence 2 (2)

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.