by Bruce Milletto
is no doubt that coffee holds a special place in the hearts of many
Americans. The second most widely consumed beverage after water provides
comfort, taste, and solace to those who drink it. A certain mystique
surrounds the beverage, and new innovations in its preparation bring
the coffee industry new customers every day. But the consumption of
coffee goes well beyond the latest innovation or the most recent crop.
In fact, there is a direct correlation between those who drink coffee
at the local café today and the women who met and socialized
at the well where they collected water hundreds of years ago.
The Social Science of the Bean
There are many reasons coffee has become deeply ingrained in our society.
Of course, the beverage tastes wonderful, but the popularity of specialty
coffee runs much deeper than that. It is very easy for most Americans
to buy great beans, purchase wonderful brewing devices (machines,
grinders, brewers) and prepare coffee each morning at home in a matter
of minutes. Why then do coffee drinkers go to a coffeehouse and pay
two to three dollars for something they can prepare at home for a
fraction of the cost? The answer isn't found in chemistry or physics
books that explain proper brewing principles; it's found in the textbooks
of sociology and psychology.
The Third Place Theory
At the National
Coffee Association (NCA) conference in Florida March 7-9, I attended
the keynote address by Howard Shultz, the chairman of the board of
Starbucks. Shultz is famous in the history of specialty coffee for
taking a few simple coffee stores in Seattle and expanding his vision
into a worldwide phenomena that now includes over 5000 cafés.
After hearing his speech, it became clear to me how his insight and
passion had created the world's largest coffee chain. It has long
been known that Shultz sculpted his vision around "place". Of course,
marketing and product had to meet certain standards, but it was the
creation of the "third place" that drove his vision and fueled the
explosion of retail coffee outlets around the globe.
his book, The
Great Good Place: cafés, bookstores, bars, coffeeshops, hair
salons and other hangouts at the heart of community, Ray Oldenburg
investigates and explains this third place that Shultz found essential
to the success of Starbucks. The third place, says Oldenburg, is where
people congregate to find a sense of community outside of the home
and workplace. By their nature, humans have a desperate need for somewhere
to meet friends or take solace in the familiarity of both people and
From the beginning of our young country, bars serving
alcohol have been the primary third place. From the saloons we see
in early TV Westerns to modern day hip and cool watering holes, bars
were once the only option for people to meet and socialize. The problem
with bars for many people is alcohol. Not everyone wants to achieve
an altered state, and the stigma surrounding this third-place option
has grown with the enactment of stricter drunk driving laws and concerns
about potential health risks.
It's not about the Coffeebut the Break
In the early years of this industry, Roger Sandon, founder and
publisher of Café Olé Magazine, said to me, "Bruce,
this is not about the coffee
it's about the break." Another
Seattle friend, Italian-born Mauro Cipolla, founder of Caffe D' arte,
echoed the same sentiment. Mauro asserts that while the coffee in
Italy is excellent, the reason there are over 200 thousand coffee
bars in that country is that they provide a place to meet friends
and neighbors. These small bars on nearly every corner are where you
learn your close friend's wife is pregnant, someones uncle is
ill, or the score of last night's soccer match.
North America is finally catching up to Europe, with
its older and well-established third-place culture. In the past ten
years, coffee establishments have played the major role in satisfying
the inner need of Americans for a third sanctuary.
A good friend of mine, who recently moved to a bedroom
community of Seattle, told me more about how thrilled she was with
the local coffee bar on the corner than she was with the beautiful
apartment she lived in with a view of Lake Washington. Each time I
called her, she talked more about the hangout she had found than any
other part of her life. She told me about about a group of people
who met each morning before work. She was thrilled the day they asked
her to join them, and she told me she now spends hours socializing
with the group almost every Saturday and Sunday morning. This particular
woman was involved in the coffee industry and could brew up a great
cup at home, but within the confines of her kitchen she could not
brew up the friendship or fulfill the need we all have as humans to
share and interact with others.
From the Bonfire to the Modern Day Coffee Bar
As we enter this new century, I believe we are only seeing the
beginning of the influence that specialty coffee will have on society.
Many have predicted the industry will soon reach its saturation point;
I believe this is far from true. Attendance at coffee tradeshows is
breaking records. Companies within the industry are experiencing unprecedented
growth. Coffee establishments featuring the third place are opening
by the hundreds each day. The great cup of coffeethe aroma,
the tasteis only part of the reason. It is the human need for
contact that drives this industry. Anthropologists who study our culture
in the future will discover that coffee bars met the needs of 21st
century people in the very same way bonfiresbonding firesserved
the cave dwellers who gathered at night many, many years ago.