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What Made Coffeehouse Culture Go Boom?

A not-exactly-empirical analysis of how the cafe became a trademark of almost every city neighborhood.

Elaine Thompson/AP

In a recent post about the gentrification of the urban sitcom, I discussed how the cafe became the ruling avatar of city life in the 1990s, especially after Central Perk coffeehouse was a major setting in the TV show “Friends.” But this is my own theory. There are many explanations out there for what triggered the explosion in coffeehouse culture. But it’s difficult to verify any of them, given that some of the best data on coffee consumption is expensive to access.

I tested out my hypothesis—that “Friends” triggered the proliferation of boutique coffee shops across the nation—on Facebook a few days ago, and found some agreement. My good friend Kenyon Farrow, an award-winning writer and advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, who’s based in D.C., was with me on this, writing, “I think ‘Friends’ (and ‘Seinfeld’) are totally responsible for marketing cities to young white suburbanites, [which] helped fuel the market-demand side for gentrification to take place in the ‘90s and 2000’s.

”

That was about the extent of agreement on my “Friends” theory, though—my barista cred all damned to hell now. But others in the debate made the gentrification connection Farrow offered. Wrote Ben Adler, who I worked with at Grist: “Americans have increasingly become alienated by the social isolation of suburban, car-dependent life. That's fueled both the urban gentrification that brings the cafes, and the cafes themselves.”

For others on our Facebook thread, the secret of the coffeehouse’s mainstream appeal was pure and simple: It’s just “a good idea,” wrote my buddy Justice Rajee, a family advocate at the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center. “Having someplace to sit have a beverage and do what you need when you can't go home is good.”  

Coasting off of chain shops

Rajee also credited the mega-coffee chain Starbucks with “spread[ing] a feature of northwest cities to other places.”

He was far from the only person to cite Starbucks as the jump-off point for the cafe craze. The coffee chain blew up in the ‘90s. In 1994, when Starbucks opened its first drive-thru operation, the company ran 425 stores across the country. By 2000, it had 3,501 stores open across the globe; by 2005, it ran 10,241 outposts.

That massive expansion triggered a revolution of boutique coffee shops in cities that didn’t previously have strong ties to coffee culture. As my colleague Robinson Meyer, a writer for The Atlantic, noted, Starbucks:  

[G]ot people used to paying $4 for coffee, and then as people wanted a less corporate experience, the hipster cafes filled in. … I feel like most of the liberal-ish cultural trends of the 2000s pushed that way, right? Because of the perceived collusion of the Bush administration and Big Business, [and] because of post-industrial anxiety about the loss of local community, [and] because of the hate for corporate food systems and the fear of rising obesity levels.  

Said New York City’s Jay Smooth, the inimitable cultural commentator behind the highly revered illdoctrine blog: “Starbucks got [people] used to paying an inflated price for good coffee, which in turn created a market for places to sustain that habit after noticing Starbucks is not good coffee.”

Does anybody say “cyber cafe” anymore?

Smooth also posed some important questions in our Facebook conversation about whether the spread of cafe culture was tied to other shifting trends:

I'd be interested to see a chart of how closely the rise of coffee shops coincides with the rise of laptops (and subsequent portable devices), and the demand for workspaces with wi-fi that they (along with changes in the economy/job market?) have ushered in.

Maybe the boom was boosted by “laptops (and the ability/desire to work/appear to be working/do creative stuff somewhere other than at home)?” commented Jenée Desmond-Harris, a staff writer at Vox who lives in Washington, D.C.

Wrote Justin Charity, a New York City-based staff writer for The Ringer: “[W]hen I still lived in Richmond, I remember thinking for a while that cafes—Starbucks and chain bookstore cafes especially—were doubly clutch for access to good coffee and access to good internet, neither of which I had at home.”

Reporting on this topic supports the correlation between coffee shops and laptops. This 2005 article in The Christian Science Monitor noted how that was the first year that laptop sales eclipsed desktop computer sales on Black Friday. In the article, Michael Gartenberg, vice president of the consumer technology firm Jupiter Research, alluded to growing wi-fi availability in cafes in the article, saying, “Thanks to wireless, you can connect to the internet in more and more places outside your home.”

Oliver Strand was more direct about the coffeehouse and wi-fi connection in an August 2010 article for The New York Times, noting, “The spread of coffeehouses coincided with the rise of the portable office, as growing numbers of people conducted their working lives with a laptop and wireless signal.”

Zane Curtis-Olsen, a teacher in Queens, New York, raised an interesting counterpoint in our Facebook discussion about this, though:   

The laptop mentions are interesting because now you see the proliferation of coffee shops with "no laptop" tables or "no laptop" hours to provide an "authentic" alternative to the coffee shop/workspace (and to prevent people from camping).

Indeed, this has been true for a while now. As Erica Alini wrote back in 2009 for The Wall Street Journal:

Amid the economic downturn, there are fewer places in New York to plug in computers. As idle workers fill coffee-shop tables—nursing a single cup, if that, and surfing the Web for hours—and as shop owners struggle to stay in business, a decade-old love affair between coffee shops and laptop-wielding customers is fading. In some places, customers just get cold looks, but in a growing number of small coffee shops, firm restrictions on laptop use have been imposed and electric outlets have been locked. The laptop backlash may predate the recession, but the recession clearly has accelerated it.

The WSJ recently revisited the question of cafe laptop bans, and suggested that they have not slowed traffic. In Vermont, business actually improved in cafes in that required people to park their devices, The Guardian reported in 2014.

It’s the economy, duh

The connection between expanding internet access and coffee establishments is incomplete, though, without mentioning the changing economic circumstances that helped drive both. Farrow and Adler’s points above about gentrification are implicated here. The Zillow executives Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries confessed to as much in January 2015 when they wrote: “Starbucks equates with venti-sized home-value appreciation. Moreover, Starbucks seems to be fueling—not following—these higher home values.”

More recently, in a CityLab story about the back-to-the-city movement, Richard Florida wrote:

The most important factor driving the re-urbanization of affluent, educated U.S. whites, according to the study, is access to amenities, things like libraries, museums, restaurants and cafes, a pattern documented in another recent study by the economists Victor Couture and Jessie Handbury. Re-urbanization has enabled affluent whites to simultaneously reduce their commutes, locate in closer proximity to higher paying economic opportunities, and to have privileged access to the amenities that come along with urban living.

In our Facebook debate, however, not everyone agreed that cafes only drew the wealthy. Victor York, a software engineer in New Orleans and the co-founder of Culturalyst, said that the coffeehouse also benefits those on the lower ends of the economic strata. His theory on the rise of cafes:

I think there are 2 main causes: recessions and the higher education bubbles. You have these people [who] aren't able to get or maintain long-lasting careers that are aligned with their degrees, and there’s a poor job market. So, folks need a cheap way to bootstrap their way outta poverty or underemployment. Cafés fit that need, and the more robust co-working spaces are just the next progression in the cafe phase.

My old college pal 
Greg Heller-LaBelle, who runs a meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania, piped in on our Facebook thread and attributed the cafe boom to ”the decline of reliable middle-class employment.” He continued:

As someone in the hipster hospitality industry, I think a lot of it was economic. When you have a much more educated public without a lot of reliable middle class jobs, but tons of money being thrown into the economy at the top, it creates a big space for small food and beverage places.

It’s “high rent” that made that blew up the cafe business, offered Chloe Hilliard, a New York City-based comedian and former news editor. “[People] spend a grip on a tiny apartment, or have several roommates and don't want to be in the house. Or, they are unemployed and are working on their screenplay.”

What haven’t we thought of?  

It’s safe to say that perhaps all of these issues—gentrification, the movement of capital, recession, expanding wi-fi, increased mobile device usage, “Friends”—contributed to the coffeehouse tipping point.

Okay, maybe not “Friends,” but I’m curious about what else we might be missing here. New market tax credits that allowed for easier business start-ups? Fair trade deals with coffee bean producers? We’d love to hear from CityLab readers on what else might explain the rise of the caffeinated class.

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