When Coffee Connects

 

Raise a to-go cup to the trailblazer
Raise a to-go cup to the trailblazer

Vague generalisms like “coffee connects people” or “coffee shops are a third space that builds community” are tired clichés. What’s not tired–what’s quite refreshing, actually–is unexpectedly experiencing third space coffee community connections in ways that are concrete and real and not at all vague.

Case in point: I almost always make my coffee at home in the mornings, but with this summer weather (and the final push to the end of the school year), I’ve occasionally been stopping for an additional iced coffee right before I walk into work. I vary my venue; in general I consider myself immune to participation in third space coffee communities because I never have the same routine two days in a row, meaning when and where I get coffee is anyone’s guess.

I guess I had stopped into the Starbucks by my school more times than I realized, because when I went in at the beginning of last week the chalkboard that usually lists the recommended Frappaccino/pastry combo instead read, “This is Josh’s last week as morning shift manager! Wish him luck in new adventures!” and I immediately thought, “Oh that’s so sad–that guy’s great!” I had to pause and catch myself. I had never paid attention to any Starbucks employee’s name or interacted with any Starbucks team member beyond placing a simple order for a tall iced coffee. How did I know who Josh was? If I had never spoken to him, how in the world could I be sad that he was leaving?

It wasn’t so much the name that triggered my gut reaction of recognition (although Starbucks is admirably committed to knowing and addressing its employees and customers by name), it was the mention of his title as “shift leader” that elicited my response. I had never looked at the apron pin to read his name, but from the handful of times I had been to that Starbucks location during the same morning window, I knew that there was one guy who held it down. He wasn’t glued to an espresso machine or a register, but he took orders, made drinks, heated sandwiches, answered questions, remade incorrectly made drinks, and handled the drastic service ebb and flow during morning rush hour at a Starbucks located directly next to a Manhattan subway stop.

I knew absolutely nothing about Josh as a person, but I knew that the morning shift leader ran a smooth Starbucks ship and always smiled, greeted regulars by name, and was never for flustered when the pastry case ran low on scones. This guy single handedly did all those things we always vaguely talk about doing; Josh the rush hour shift leader used the Starbucks third space to create a mini morning community of people connected by positive interaction rather than divided by stress or demands or bickering that can often plague the harried race for urban breakfast. His role in community creation was subtle and unremarkable enough that I didn’t take time to consider the existence of what this one aproned employee could build anew each spring morning. But when the chalkboard told me Josh wouldn’t be there any more, suddenly I realized that maybe there was something different about that Starbucks store as a coffee-buying venue as compared to the Dunkin Donuts or 7-11 or espresso bar or deli just all equally as close to my school. The confirmation of the connections and community I observed were evidenced in the chalkboard itself.

Businesses are in no way obligated to tell you that their employees are moving on or encourage you to congratulate them, and when they do it creates something that is not the overused cliché of “building community” but is the very personal reality of “building a cohesive space that I am right now immediately a part of.” Hearing regurgitated stock phrases is exhausting, but when you suddenly step inside of a catchphrase and feel what it means, suddenly the phrase comes alive and is no longer empty. Saying the words “coffee brings people together” is very different from saying to yourself “I am surprisingly sad that the blond dude who manages the facility where I sometimes get my iced coffee is not going to be in charge of that space any more. If I am sad it must mean that his management—shift leadership—led the other employees to do something to make me feel happy enough when I visit the shop that the inverse emotion of his leadership being removed makes me feel sadder than I would expect to feel about a coffee shop employee I’ve never spoken to directly.” Maybe we don’t know how much the sharing of a morning beverage connects us until that connection is severed and we feel the slack of a loose thread where there used to be a taut tug.

I don’t usually have reason to discredit or laud Starbucks; for me, as a coffeeperson and as an average citizen, it is usually just there as part of the scenery. But a few days after the chalkboard about Josh offered reason for me to give Starbucks a nod of respect, the beautifully written and powerfully accurate article “Resist Dogmatic Coffee” by Nathaneal May of Portland Roasting for Fresh Cup Magazine’s June Coffee Almanac gave me reason to pause further and give them an even bigger chin tilt of respect.

May writes, “Starbucks paved the way for so many coffee professionals to be in the positions they’re in and have the businesses they have. I owe a huge portion of my coffee career to Starbucks, and thousands of other people do as well. That’s why I bristle a bit when some colleagues are so quick to put them down. There are tremendously talented coffee people working for lots of very large coffee companies. Are they less talented or lesser professionals because they’re working for companies that roast coffee dark or serve a segment of the population that isn’t willing to spend a lot of money on their coffee? I don’t think so.”

Sometimes we forget that the things that seem obvious, the ubiquitous brands and chains and stuff and food and drinks that are just there (and there pretty much everywhere), are the product of decades of incredibly laborious toil and as a result of that toil now afford hundreds of thousands of people the invaluable opportunities to grow, learn, get curious, discover, and eventually create something new of their own. Starbucks usually lies outside of my radar, but May’s article poignantly argues that it shouldn’t; all of the trendy new micro roasters or shops of the week owe their existence to the path Starbucks carved out and then paved.

May reminds all coffeepeople (and regular people) that pastries and Frappaccinos are a great place to start to fall in love with coffee. It might be a mint chocolate chip blended drink that first calls you into the third space, but if you stay you’ll discover a fantastically vibrant and thriving community of people connected by coffee threads, from Josh the former morning shift manager to May the reflective roaster to the greenest green-aproned barista-in-training at the Starbucks nearest you.

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