Taste The Rainbow

Finding Focus in a Lifetime of Histories

As we've attempted to make moves with Diaspora, I find myself re-writing business plans, excel spreadsheets, and affirming both visioning exercises and mission statements to help focus the core values of the business, both to make it more holistic, as well as to provide the root of the systems that will make it work. But the one sticking point is when I continue to evaluate menu development, and recipe testing, I find myself somewhat flummoxed. 

Creating a menu of things that reflect culture or background require you to dig deep -- to go back into time and memory and relive experiences, places, things that have stuck with you. Meals sit in memory, memories beget contexts, and that thing that you were reflecting on when you had that bite of something you found phenonenal suddenly comes rushing back. It's first times and last times, moments you think will happen another time and never come again. It's times that were magical because of who was behind the wheel at a given restaurant, or a certain time of year. They are whispers, sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, and there is never a time when you can seperate the dish from the context. 

Finding coherence in memories and whispers of taste can be a challenging proposition. I draw the lists of endless meals and dishes and divine the things that bring back floods to mind: The mel-y-mato at Cesar in Berkeley. My dads brownies/the brownie at Du-Pars. The lumberjack cake at Frances. Roasted pluots and noyeaux ice cream at Pizzaiolo. Apple dumplings made by a fellow resident in the Stebbins Hall co-op at Berkeley. Bakewell slice in the UK. Trazee peaches from Peacock Ranches. Vickis Tarocco blood oranges from Bernard Ranches. 6-hour long lunches at Aunt Mina's in Tel Aviv, finishing with mint tea, Turkish coffee, home-made schnapps, and baklava, small cookies, and most likely a pound cake of some sort after 13 previous courses (the original tasting menu endurance test). New York crumb cake from Seattles Best in LA. Kanelsnegls in Copenhagen. The babka and various sand cookies of a long-forgotten Jewish bakery in Studio City where there now stands a Panera. The white truffle hazelnut macaron at Pierre Herme in Paris. And let's be real, anything to step foot out of the bakery at Tartine. Deeply caramelly steamed puddings from The Robin Hood, our Van Nuys, CA British pub. Foccaccia with red onion "bruscetta" from our local Italian white tabelcloth joint Spumonte, also in Studio City. 

Things like this lend a lot of the mind, and its easy to get lost in fogs of forgotten moments, unlocked feelings for peoples and places where I am not nor ever will be again. It's nice to know my sense of recall is working, and that indeed there are moments of food that permeate strongly through time. Perhaps it's the red wine -- Broc Cellar's 2012 Vine Starr Red Zinfandel, as awesome as the last two vintages I've had the pleasure of having -- that's leaving me a little unfocused in all this listing and reminiscing. But without these memories, the use of personal and cultural history can become an empty, hollow thing, without attachment or purpose. It can become rote, or deeply cynical, or worse, both. A menu, ultimately, reflects much of this. And so focusing on the past is as much attempting to find inspiration as it is to root it down to something meaningful, prescient, and much more powerful. 



Words to Coffee By: Non-Coffee Required Reading for Coffee Pros

Before the new year, a couple of folks requested I write out some individual books that shifted the way I think about coffee. This has proven a useful exercise as we get Diaspora up and running, as many of those same books impacted the way I looked at a number of elements in hospitality at large. 

By and large, the coffee reading list is limited: most books popularized are either methods (think Scott Rao) or feel-good boosterism (Good Coffee Time). Promotional books, such as Joe: The Art of Coffee and the Blue Bottle Coffee book are both useful for perspective, pretty to look at, and are very good brand building materials. There are uses for these all, but they are limited; Rao is really providing a single perspective, for example, without being comprehensive; booster books are fine, but they don't contribute an understanding of what we are as an industry. Baristas who read Rao and Pendergrast are doing well, but if we want to better professionalize and create links between baristas and the rest of our industry, we all need to expand what it means to "know coffee". 

Ive been lucky enough to have had a full background in food studies, along with working in kitchens and having access to environments like Omnivore Books and Kitchen Arts & Letters to expand upon the knowledge base. But even living in the co-ops at Cal, I had a full roster of books that helped influence the way I thought about food and cooking. A lot of that goes back into the books that follow: many do not have a direct link to coffee, but the lessons pulled from them are, I think, essential to understanding how to grow in our industry. I limited the list to 5 books, however, there are others; feel free to get in touch via twitter or e-mail to find out others in other specific topcs.

1. Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli. Formerly a lead chef at Chez Panisse and then at Olivetto in Oakland, Cooking by Hand is less a cookbook than a a manual on how to approach thinking about cooking. Items like how to concieve of menu planning in the seasons -- considering weather, available produce, the heaviness or lightness or textures or flavors evolving over the course of a meal -- gave some definite food for thought. He also looks to the long view -- his chapter on aging balsamic vinegar, what it does, what it accomplishes, and how it is distinct from the mass production stuff -- encourages us to take the long view of our products and consider carefully how we address them. It's the culinary equivalent of lessons in mindfulness.

2. The Art of the Restauranteur, by Nick Lander. The author is the food critic at the Financial Times in London, and the book, profiling not chefs but the people who run and manage restaurants, gives an insight into conceptualization and operations and thinking both big and small lens of running a business -- understanding scope, how growth impacts and changes, how to maintain core concept. It's a book of case studies in how to best conceptualize built environments, and doing so without losing focus of the core goal of providing guest-led experiences. This is an especially important book for owner-operators who don't understand how to produce a coherent experience or environment from the various elements at play in their business plans, which leads to....

3. The Lapsed Anarchists Approach to Building a Great Business and other titles by Ari Weinzweig. The books put out as part of the Zing-Train management course from Zingermans in Ann Arbor, MI, have been some of the most useful exercises for day-to-day operations. Ive used the exercises in this book specifically with consulting clients in order to understand one thing: management does not survive on fiat. Just because you are an owner does not mean your rule is absolute, especially when it comes into conflict with your proposed values. Systems, operations and communications can be derived from strongly written mission statements and visioning exercises that make transparent the values underlying your organization. And places that are successfully able to do that retain staff, build clienteles, and have strong brand-currency that you cannot find if you believe in branding making up for bad product and form. It also includes the most valuable lessons from Danny Meyer's "Setting the Table", which while a fine book is also filled with a lot of fluff. This book and its siblings serve you better, not only as business owners, but as professional baristas attempting to set your own long-term goals and core values in work environments.

4. On Sweetness and Power, by Sidney Mintz. Coffee does not exist in a vacuum. The modern worlds relationship with it goes back hundreds of years and our relationships with coffee growers are still connected to a painful history. This book, which covers the growth and spread of sugar plantations and slavery in the New World, paints the picture that most modern commodities of the tropics -- coffee, sugar, cocoa and tea -- are connected with to this day. If you have people wonder why moving beyond the C-market, or moving people away from quick consumption, or specialty coffees obligation to changing consumption patterns matter, read this book.

5. On the Wine Trail, by Kermit Lynch. Coffee is also a product of dozens of moving parts, yet we focus on very few -- faddish things like varietal seperation or non-local processing methods don't match the big picture of what things matter on the production side. While the wine to coffee analogy doesn't always hold up, the nature of finding and encouraging good coffee, understanding the ecological, biological, and processing and transport mechanisms of coffee are better understood after reading about the various interactions Lynch has travelling through France. It's also a fantastic book for understanding the importance of place and encouraging small producers to excell, because if they aren't making money, there won't be anyone producing good coffee in the future.

*6. The Taste of Place, by Amy Trubek. Suprise! I tacked on one, which wraps up those last two books very cleanly and succinctly. See, Trubek specializes in researching on terroir and its economics, and its impact. And more than anything else, she is comprehensive in her understanding of what the concept means ecologically, economically, historically and (most relevant) socially. If baristas cannot understand the context of terroir both locally -- within the cultures of consumption in which they most directly participate -- and globally -- the context and actions of the trade networks and what they mean at origin -- then a lot of what we do, talking about direct trade, or specialty coffee, or what it means to change consumption patterns, doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. Ultimately, specialty coffee, to me, means breaking away from conventional commodity consumption at large and at home, and building new economic and social patterns. There is a lot wrong with modern consumption patterns, and this book provides some clues as the ways we, within our industry, can rectify it.

(Also see: The Life and Death of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, Food Justice by Gottlieb & Joshi, The Oxford Compendium on Wine by Jancis Robinson, The Ethics of the Way We Eat by Peter Singer, & Miguel Altieri's research on agroecology, for a start.)


Content, Composition, Contrast


A New Year seems like a good time as any to begin with an introduction (also, this has been a post a long time coming): Hi, my name is Stephen Wade. This blog was started as a way of distilling some of the work I was doing as a masters student at NYU's Department of Food Studies into more easily decipherable, legible, and less jargon-tastic pieces of short-form essaywork. Inspired too by my work in the world of specialty coffee and urban planning, the blog Terroirism was a melange of topics and covered a lot of ground in a lot of different capacities, albeit inconsistently and with gaps in time. (Realization: unless blogging is your professional life, your actual professional life gets in the way of writing occassional. Quelle shock!) 

I graduated with my Masters back in July, having written a thesis that was one part business plan and one part review of food hubs & institutions that mimic their capabilities. The thesis was an amalgamation of work not just in the program, but also professional consulting I had done (and still, on occassion, do) under the name of this very blog. The business plan element was a long time coming, something that I have had visions for but have always put off; coffee I have long jokingly defined as my abusive relationship, and my purpose of getting a masters was, in part, to get me back into the world of public policy, advocacy, and other work that I have done for a multitude of other organizations in volunteer and internship capacities, yet never gotten the opportunity to work in. That's where I always felt I could do the most good, and the reason why I kept doing research papers, presenting at conferences, and doing things that were on the career-track for that line of work.

That line ends now. Or rather, is being recast. Part of what got me in my research was that food hubs take on a number of forms. And some of the restaurants and cafes where I have had the pleasure of working (or spending inordinate amounts of time at) fulfilled many the functions of food hubs, directly and indirectly. They were restaurants and classrooms; community spaces and coffeeshops, distribution points for CSA's and processing facilities for farm produce. Places like Charlie Hallowell's Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Jessica Koslow's Sqirl in Los Angeles, or Matthew Dillon's Sitka & Spruce group in Seattle all had elements of this at play, and all reflect their respective geographies. And they all play a role in my thinking about next steps. 

Ari Weizenberg, of Zingerman's, writes about how new businesses come from a process of good vision planning but also good mission statements. His method for going about this talks about the need to start from content (the who's, what's and why's of what you do) before moving to the composition and contrast of what you do -- the physical, material and structural things you will be building. This was an amazing exercise, and a conceptual framework I have used with clients before. It was crucial in setting up the business plan I assembled in my thesis, and as such, was useful once more when I sat down to reconceptualize the blog, but also my larger goals of which it has always been a part.

Terroirism is still going to be the home for a lot of content regarding urban planning, community economic development, and sustainable agriculture. Those are topics both near and dear to my heart, and are still professionally relevant moving forward. There'll still be thoughts on coffee and elements of the specialty coffee industry. But as one professional relation once told me, my visions and interests are too big to be constrained by sticking to coffee. And while it has served as a good medium for me to talk about a number of topics, there is a time to be moving on professionally within it. 

In that spirit, Terroirism is also going to become a home to document and talk about the day to day development of Diaspora Kitchen & Provisions, the pop-up element to a much larger project, that of establishing the business I laid out in my thesis work. I think smart businesses can integrate the goals of sustainable agriculture into their business models, and not only be profitable for themselves, but for their communities and employees as well. Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and Rainbow Grocery both uphold that fact in very different ways. And while coffee is still a stimulating professional field, I need to begin actually working on applications of my other interests and goals within other fields I consider myself to be a growing and learning professional within. Coffee cannot, as of this time, remain my sole source of income nor can waiting for policy jobs to pick me up be a rational course of action. 

It was also in this spirit that a decision to remain in NYC has become personally important. When I left SF in 2010, I realize in retrospect I did so without putting up much of a fight and without following all my options. Being 23, sort of lost and at that point unemployed an trailing in kitchens was neither going to pay way in SF, and there was a lot of pushback from my parents that I had neither the confidence nor heart to protest. I left a lot in SF and I still regret that particular choice to not dig my heels in and commit. After over two years in NYC, and having split a professional life that has one eye cocked towards the west coast for some opportunity that has yet to avail itself, I've built up too much of a community, too many good people and see to much change that can happen in NYC to leave just yet. NYC has many of the same problems as the Bay Area -- a place I still look to and feel as my spiritual home -- and many things that it lacks, especially where food sustainability issues are concerned. If I can do work in this field -- this wide open space where all these things come together -- and make it here, then, well, you know how that old ditty goes.

Here's to 2014, everyone. Time to take that jump. 


Is Specialty Coffee Shortchanging Itself?

My thoughts recently have been a little ramshackle -- namely, my mind keeps bouncing between a bunch of topics and issues. Let me clarify.

I come from a background of training in history, city planning, and resource economics. My graduate work focused on systems-level logistics, food systems, and public policy choices, with a focus on the relationships between urban and rural geographies. All of this relates to how people interact with these environments and are impacted by policy. My work is that of Eric Hobsbawm, Immanuel Wallerstein, Jared Diamond, Karl Polanyi, Jurgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Jane Jacobs, Paolo Solieri, Miguel Altieri, and Alice Waters, all rolled into one. 

This work and research has followed into my work in coffee -- I've been less interested in, say, the technical aspects of grinders, than I have been in the economic relationships and systems of specialty coffee. I want to understand the socioeconomic impacts of our business not only on farmers, importers/exporters, roasters, cafes, and coffee consumers, but how specialty coffee as an industry can work for and against these parties and goals. And right now, specialty coffee is at, without sounding too pedantic, at a crossroads.

We want to pay baristas more and professionalize the coffee worlld, but we are afraid to increase prices. We want to pay coffee farmers for quality, but we still attach ourselves to the C-market. We want to change the way we do business, but QSR-based business models are still all we have. (And unsaid, we acknowledge all this in conjunction with, at least in the United States, a several-decades long stagnation and depreciation of wages across the board, meaning the income our customer base operate with is less than and increasingly less than it was before, and harder to reach in the sense of the slice of the consumer pie who will take us seriously --  though SCAA profiling shows specialty coffee drinkers with a strong affinity for the product across income levels.)

We talk a lot about machinery but not about ecology. We hear talk about water filtration systems but not water sources. And topics on the need for agricultural solutions to scenarios like roya and global warming don't come from agroecology or botany but from the most expensive end of that platform -- genetic modification through laboratory testing. And the more I'm listening to online conversations and in person chatter, I'm wondering if we aren't really missing the wider picture here. And it's frustrating because a lot of these measures are hard to take on  in singularity -- they require both cooperative and structural changes to the way we do business. 

Specialty coffee is a number of things: a subset of the c-market. A values-based supply chain. A different way of drinking or thinking about coffee. But in a lot of times I've begun to feel as if specialty coffee writ-large only believes itself to be the first, and uses those other terms and concepts -- Third wave! Direct trade! Six item menus! -- as window dressing. The number of places that call working with their importer direct trade are legion; the number of those doing direct trade with pricing disconnected from the c-market fewer still. There are companies that spend a lot sending and training single staff members for competition but how many would benefit from investing that money into their staff? 

Specialty coffee can be something more than just a subset of the C-market of coffee. And we owe it to ourselves to figure out what that can be. For now I'm working on a couple of short papers -- based on a few research docs I submitted to the Yale Sustainable Food Conference, which I'll be attending -- that I will post here soon, but I need to ask, do these sound unreasonable? Or are these things that specialty coffee should and can work on? 


The Terroir of Space, or: How Culture Fits in Cafe Design

[Note: This entry was supposed to be published in the nascent coffee publication Longberry, as a sort of long-form polemic on the way cafes are built out and the issue of how culture effects them. You'll note that its slightly less footnoted than my usual stuff -- as polemic, I was given license to be a little more flippant, but I'd like to think the points still stands. A post coming next week will tweak some of the ideas and answer some more specific examples. Till then, enjoy!]

In 2009, 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea opened its doors in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, kiddy-corner from the original location of the city’s forward-thinking coffee roaster, Victrola. When entering, one was greeted by reclaimed hardwood tables, wrought-iron stools, and Edison-bulbs strewn from knotted-wood and rope lamps. Menus written in chalk indicated daily selections of coffee to be prepared lovingly in single cup brewers. It was a taxidermied deer head away from being remarkably twee, were it not for three little words inscribed under nearly everything in the shop.

“Inspired by Starbucks”.

For those not familiar, 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea, as well as its sister café, Roy St. Coffee & Tea, were opened in Seattle by Starbucks. According to Howard Schultz, founder and then newly-reappointed CEO of the company, the idea was twofold, to reflect a less commodified version of the spaces that Starbucks had come to be regarded for, as well as generating a potentially new model for the chain, a way to collapse geographically adjacent stores into a single, more profitable one. The issue of spacial commodification is not a new one – chain restaurants and cafes have, over the last decade, attempted to modify their shops and develop new and interesting ways to appear more individualized, less chain-y – but it does speak to an issue in café layout and physical development, namely, the flavor of place.

We often look to terroir – the French notion of the “taste of place” – as something to be understood at origin, something only the bean, the barista, and the ACF glasses can impart to the consumer. And this is true. However, we also have to remember that the “third space” (that term many café owners abhor and yet need to confront as being a reality of their business) that cafes, coffee shops and roasteries encompass are, at their core, also modes of terroir, each shop imparting its own flavor, building a community around its products and within its physical space. It is a commitment many shops have abandonded in recent years, with a focus on either strict numbers games or design elements that are either uninspired or stylized in ways both abstract and cumbersome to the social role they play. And in a world of increasing coffee prices, more expensive startup and operating costs, as well as increased consumer savvy and awareness, it is particularly sensitive for shop owners and operators to wake up and smell the coffee – proverbially, of course – and begin to consider the place of personality in their shop identity.

This cuts to the core of the issue surrounding the definition of terroir -- a concept often misunderstood, misrepresnted, or largely ignored. Terroir is, largely, a recent term -- while the first sensations of the term begin as far back as Apicious and various Classical & Renaissance scholars and epicures, the word itself does not arrive until the late 1800's by the work of geographer Maurice Edmond Sailland, nee Curonsky, who utilized the notion of various regionalized culinary traditions in his magnum opus Le tresor gastronomique du France. In the book, Curonsky lionizes the various foodways of Frances regions, and in conjunction with the nascent French auto industry (for its Bibendum publication, precursor to the Michelin guides) of its time, began to develop and promote day trips for Parisian and other urban middle classes to explore the culinary diversity of France, digging into the nostalgia of places from which those middle classes may have originated. Over time, this concept evolved as an economic development tool, leading to the creation of the Institute National des Appelations d'Origine in 1905, the organization that even today manages the regulation of the AOC system in France. 

From this place, we get the start of what defined official designations of terroir; soil, ecology, environment, and process. By wine standards, and even as far as food from the regions, the Appelation system concerns itself largely from the environmental & biological, looking at longstanding traditions (do communities have a history of making this wine or cheese), generally widespread utility of crop or foodstuff (is it grown widely or consumed widely by the community), shared process (are wines or cheeses made the same way using the same name). The matrix is quite simple: the minerals and content of the soil, going back millenia, interact with the rootstock of particular varieties of wine grapes, or grow the grass that become the fodder for cattle. The weather of a specific year the general ecology of these places interplay, and the handling of the products in processing, along with those two variables, produce the vintage. This collection -- soil, plant varietal, weather, ecology, and processing -- forms the basis of what the INAO would call "terroir".

In some regions, communities will oftentimes define terroir by an additional aspect, the social character of the geography. This has been best characterized by l'affair Mondavi, where the California winemaker Robert Mondavi was prevented from setting up a winery in Southern France, mostly on the contention by the local community that the property he was seeking to develop was essential to the "terroir" of the village itself. The property Mondavi was seeking to purchase was used as hiking, hunting, and foraging preserve as well as a waterway & a windbreak for the village for many generations, and was held in trust by the city. Many in the village made the case that development of the land would remove an essential character of the region, its people, and indeed its ecology & environment – and therefore, its terroir. 

While not commonly held, this last note of the social nature of terroir perhaps best captures what many organizations determine as "the taste of place". Outside of the wine world, especially where groups like Tierra Madre or The Ark of Taste are concerned, "cultural appropriateness" plays a part in what constitutes the terroir of a product. Simply because McDonald's has become traditional in certain environments does not make it part of what is culturally, ecologically, or otherwise attuned to a space; there's a context to be considered. To groups like this, which also have a strong connectivity to locavores, bioregionalists, and foodshed developers, talk about the ecological knowledge, the know-how to grow, prepare, and execute certain dishes, and styles of eating. These types of assessments of terroir come from the same people who'll tell you why you can't find Pekin-style duck in Sichuan, or why most Scandiavian breads are ryes instead of white flour (or perhaps, why it's inappropriate to think of making Italian-style loaves in Scandinavia). 

This brings us back to the issue of shop personality, or precisely what has become the lack thereof in many coffee houses in what we can generously call “the third wave”.  I say lack because, in the decade or so I have frequented or been involved with the coffee industry, there has been a move away from the assertion of personality in café environments; instead of looking at core features, conversations veer primarily and prevalence of retail marketing and branding; guest/customer flow through the café environment, or the near-homicide worthy conversation about how many electrical outlets to provide or eschew, lest the café floor become nothing more than a laptop palace and an electrical bill vampire. All of these are important, but done in ways that ignore some critical distinctions in form and function.

In Viennese coffee houses, for example, much of the seating in set upon the banquettes and walls adjacent to the windows; very few chairs or tables exist in the middle of the floor; if they are, they are usually rounded and given wide berth. Compare with to French cafes of tight square tables, closely drawn peg-legged stools at the zinc bar. Both reflect specific ideas of what the café is – in the Viennese space, a somewhat rarified, aristocratic intellectual space, of quiet corners – a place for people who need company to be alone as Alfred Polgar said. The French spaces had both bourgeoise and proletarian sensibilities about the equality of access to a space, connectivity to the street, an extension of the home brought into the public-private space (and a way of maximizing profit in an allotted space).

These two design considerations speak to notions of what “the café society” can be defined as, another statement inferring a terroirists mindset as it speaks to the social community that forms around café spaces. In the cases above, one could identify a Viennese café and a Parisian one based purely on aesthetic and organizational principles; like the hundreds of hippie groups back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, these environments can be highly distinguishable from one another. Yet ask what distinguishes the “third wave” shop, and all one can really find is conversation about the coffee. The machines. The glasswares. But what social hubs do cafes of the “third wave” tend to have? What social capital do they hold? The answer, I fear, is surprisingly little.

Bygone are the days when cafes reveled in the role of third spaces – a term many seem to associate with grungy couches with sad musicians on Monday night. Occasionally, shops will host cuppings, or nighttime events, and maybe put up art (sometimes awesome, other times irreparably banal). But the thought of community – of a community of people attached to a particular place and time – is noticeably absent, replaced somewhat by a notion of “regulars”, or more amusingly, “guests”. (The notion, from Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table”, is a noble one, using the term guests as a way to signify that you are bringing someone into your home – i.e. your shop – an ontological way of changing the customer relationship through the strength of a term. While many shops and coffee professionals have stepped up the use of the concept, few, if any, are executing it well, or in the way the Union Square Hospitality Group utilizes it.) There is a certain reason for this – it is hard for shops to justify people sitting for hours at a time on drinks with a very minor markup, and turnover in seating is but one consideration for shop owners (and one of the privileges that some customers believe an inalienable right of their purchase(s)). This in turn, however, is but one of many considerations of what makes the community of people that make a shop, and in turn contribute to its overall social values.

This focus on customer numbers is paired with another consideration: cafes are concerned about their identity insofar as the consideration of brand goes – the types of values and things people associate with them and their product. This has led to shops that are both overdesigned and thoughtful, as well as being underdesigned in the way of turning a shop into a modified Skinner box, where the owners “know” exactly how guests will interact with the space and flow through the café space. We see this all the time: cafes with “stations” providing “individualized attention” but still have you sit in endless lines; “bar service” coffee bars that have you start with the barista at a machine, even if there is no legibility of sign or spatial layout that declares it so, leading to guests wandering in a daze like free radicals on the floor; bars with high stools and tables with no consideration either to the physically handicapped nor those with a desire to linger. The spaces and layout are overwrought, oftentimes presuming much of “guests” and their knowledge of how to operate, and more often than not, detrimental to things like retail sales or efficiency (to get back in line to grab a bag of coffee I could only see available after I paid for and ordered coffee? Noch besser).

Aesthetically, shops will alter in one of two ways – the hypermodern sleek, clean Scandinavian and Dutch Modern lines of steel & glass, or the modern cabin of wood, poured concrete, and taxidermy. (Do I exaggerate? Only slightly. Such is the beauty of polemic.) Both have their issues, as slavish adherence to design without foundations in a cultural legacy are a black hole (thank you, Maholy-Nagy). Filling walls with bric-a-brac found at estate sales in Pennsylvania sends no more message than an episode of Hoarders; the stark white walls and couches set to angles as to place you seated at 45 degrees is to feel at a therapists office. Shops that adhere to either without some sort of connectivity represent the design equivalent of a white person wearing kente-cloth to declare their African-ness; it is merely posturing. And posturing does not make a place pleasant, or tell you much about it, other than its pretentions.

On the notion of space, this too is a consideration for appropriateness; size matters insofar as how it fits in with a given neighborhood, a community, its purpose. Placing a large, warehouse-sized shop adjacent a community of small shops is not only callous, but is largely indicative of shops not truly independent or built from within the community (nor, no matter how you define your aesthetic as being that of a living room, does anyone have a 30ft ceiling filled to the gills with estate sale finds in their living room). Fitting shops into seemingly inappropriate or strange places – like strip malls in suburban spaces – tends to lend itself more to the creation of character because what is inside must stand out in order to be differentiated from the sameness of all the other things it is situated around. The spatial and geographic considerations of a shop inform its identity, its clientele, and parts of its form and function.

Which leads to the question we began with: just what defines the social function, the drink-nature, the taste of place of a coffee house, coffee shop, café? This goes far beyond the question of what a café is – it is a business, a place to obtain coffee, perhaps a pastry, and a catch-up. But this is a lowest-common denominator definition of the thing; it tells us nothing about what function it performs or what it represents. In Mandarin foodways, there is the notion that what defines being Mandarin (as compared to Cantonese or other “foreign” peoples) is to be a “rice eater” or “person made of rice”. The concept exists elsewhere in Asia, but it informs thusly: one feels incomplete if a meal does not feature rice. It is this sort of “completeness” that should define a shop, not necessarily if it has the latest equipment or mustachioed baristas.

So what are some of these considerations?

Firstly, the spatial “legibility” of the space – can you “read” the layout of a shop? Understand its rules and systems? And is it done intuitively, not requiring laborious and often condescending treatment by staffers?

Secondly, does the space make a coherent statement of character? Do the furniture, aesthetic choices for décor and other treatments match up, and not in that horribly institutional Restaurant Supply kind of way? Or is it completely unmatched in a wabi-sabi kind of way? How goes it “fit” into the surrounding neighborhood?

Thirdly, the Danish have a concept called hygge, interpreted as “closeness” both physical and emotional. Over time, does one develop a sense of closeness with a shop? And is it reciprocal? (In addition, does the shop team seem to have closeness, in that they stick around and have the time to develop that kind of rapport with both each other and customers?)

Lastly, do all of these things come together in a way that develops an identity in parallel with the services being provided? In the way that the layout of Viennese cafes precipitated a style of table-service still around today, do all the elements combine to a point where this shop, this space, this service are interconnected and one? And does it feel connected to its surrounding geography? It should feel so.

In the development of Roy St. Coffee & Tea and 15th Avenue Coffee & Tea, Schultz had it right; shops require things to stand out, to give a persona, to have a character. It is not enough to simply be about the coffee and forgo the elements that draw people in besides the coffee; brand is a poor stand in for personality. As specialty grade coffee prepares to break beyond the 8% of the coffee drinking market that has been its threshold for nearly a decade, it is imperative that the people who sell it look beyond the terroir of the coffees they promote but the terroir of the places they live and the people they are. And customers should seek those spaces that do present a coherent statement of self, not out of principle, but because the affinities those spaces represent are the best kind of hospitality one can ask for.