The Cafe

How do you value coffee in your life? It is a frivolous question to ask but as you are reading this - you are probably up to the task. Since starting Iconoclast Coffee over eight years ago, I have thought a lot about the value of coffee. And as the years go by, I find myself falling harder on the idea that coffees greatest value lies at the intersection of social, political, cultural, artistic and intellectual life. And one of the few remaining brick and mortar institutions that embody that intersection is the cafe.  

The cafe lies at the heart of a community, it is a public commons always at the ready for members of a city or town or village.  This idea features prominently in Ray Oldenburg's work The Great Good Place.  His idea is simple; people need access to "third" places in society in order to fulfill the more intangible aspects of civil society. Such places are outside the home and outside the workplace where folks can gather and commiserate. Access to third places encourages social life that is artistic, political, intellectual, entertaining and cultural.  This in turn makes communities stronger, richer and more fulfilling.

A cafe is but one of many aspects to the coffee business. It is a huge industry, a heavily traded commodity and provides jobs to millions of people around the world. It is also a daily ritual for many people at home and at work. So I argue that today in Alberta, fostering community within public spaces that encourage us to relax, and share time with others is the most important role for coffee. Especially at a time when we have been trained to act and think as individuals and to obsess over private matters on a daily basis.

Today in North America the coffee business is defined by the most prominent roasters.  You can name a dozen or so off the top of your head, and they tend to set the bar in terms of business model and execution for the rest of us. They are the third wave of the coffee business, and began popping up in 90's.  The movement has revolutionized the industry, particularly at the farm level.  But what has happened at the cafe level is less than revolutionary.  

Cafes have become less of a public space, and more of a consumer experience.  The third wave brings with it a type of group think that has pushed the culture towards an exclusive, technocratic interpretation of coffee.  This tendency justifies a narrower business approach in general, one based on higher quality products and services at a higher price. Twenty years on we find the most prominent roasters in the industry creating retail outlets for overpriced lattes and coffee beans.  And we find that cafe culture is being abandoned for what I call lifestyle affirming consumer experiences for a select group of individually minded people in society.  

Catering to narrow market segments, and providing an exclusive range of products at high prices cannot be done in a cafe. That is if we hold cafes to be public spaces which allow for social, political, artistic and intellectual expression.

ryan arcand