I’m loving this old video, shot in documentary style, looking at the wide variety of cafes that had opened up in London in the 1950s and 1960s. Part of its charm lies in its anthropological gaze, spending most of the allotted time on the unglamorous and precarious economic end of the business, while highlighting the wide range of cafe styles, strategies, and clienteles that emerged in response. In the end, if you’re paying attention, the coffee emerges as secondary to all the other features, including the physical place, low cost of access, aesthetic style, performing certain identities or lifestyles, political values, conversational space, and a business model that requires a certain type of labor and laborer, and a certain type of customer.

It’s a useful reflection that begs the question: what are we really consuming when we visit a coffee shop? Or if you’re a coffee professional, what are you really selling to your customers? What else could or should you be selling? This blog focuses primarily on highlighting quality taste and consistency above all else, as it’s perhaps the one variable in the equation that has, historically, seen the least overall improvement or innovation, aside from a few notable exceptions, only gaining mainstream momentum over the last decade or two. In these so-called third-wave, specialty coffee shops, the coffee has been elevated, even fetishized, to the point where the barista and the theatre of technical display is one of the main selling points. But the other elements are still very much part of the experience.

The similarities between these old cafes and modern cafes are numerous; the differences, though, seem fewer and less marked. Why is this the dominant way we produce and consume coffee? Perhaps this illustrates why single-cup, hand-poured brews, exotic devices, in-shop roasters, visible cupping rooms, and so on are used, beyond their functional value, as props or signs to distinguish “specialty” or “quality focused” product from the very similar looking norm. It makes me wonder how all those secondary factors could be more innovatively designed or co-opted in specialty-focused cafes?

In Asia there are some pretty adventurous models: maid cafes, book cafes, board game cafes, multi-level themed spaces with set menus and carefully casted hosts, dog and cat cafes, or one of my favorites for it’s craziness, the Dr. Fish cafe, where you can have cake and coffee while you dangle your feet in a pond and the dead skin is eaten away by dozens of little fish. Unsurprisingly these innovative spaces rarely, if ever, serve decent coffee. Some are downright terrible, exploitative, or gimmicky, and most might not suit the specialty coffee experience, but they do suggest that the elements that constitute a cafe are far from fixed.

Intelligentsia’s Venice cafe, and the table service at LAMILL Coffee in Silver Lake come to mind as nice efforts, as do the growing number of combined cafe/office spaces, brew bars or ‘slow’ bars, the temporary Penny University shop, events like Coffee Common, the open bar and roasting space at Coffee Collective’s Norrebro shop in Copenhagen, and blended multipurpose spaces like Prufrock at Present.

Have you come across any cafe (or other establishment serving coffee) you thought was particularly creative, breaking the mold and redefining the coffee experience? Or do you think there’s enough variety as is?

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