The café environment is a complicated network of sensory detail. It is generally an easy thing to identify the 'feel' of a place, but it is another thing entirely to break down what is creating that 'feel.' Of all the contributors, there are two major symbols which should not be understated.
Coffee houses have to have bathrooms. Usually, it is a legal requirement. The best indication of what a coffee company is about isn't the menu, website, or storefront—but the room with the toilet. An interesting experiment to try next time you are exploring a new coffee joint is to make a bee-line for the facilities and then let that experience frame everything else.
There are two things to consider when rating a bathroom: general upkeep and style. These are mutually exclusive and help us determine two separate categories regarding the business.
A well kept up bathroom says a lot. It is the most transparent indicator of work ethic. Keeping a bathroom sparkling and well stocked is hard work. And guess what? Hard work is what we need to be rewarding! If the bathroom is run down and filthy, don't even bother spending your money there. You are actually enabling an industrial cancer if you do.
In addition, a bathroom's overall style is important because it shows how integrated a coffee purveyor's philosophy is. If it feels mismatched from the rest of the shop, there is a problem. The bathroom is like a 'least common denominator,' so when a brand is veneered and dishonest this is where you will always see it break down.
Modern coffee spaces are known for things like architecture, color scheme, use of material, lighting, and general texture. Something that is often (and inexplicably) missed is intentionally crafted 'auditory decor' or music selection. This element, like the bathroom, is another great resource for getting down to brass tacks and understanding more about the shop's 'DNA.' Musical selections are unconscious, one-way communications to the customer that are easy to interpret.
Aggressive, vulgar or offensive songs are basically a way of giving customers the middle finger while simultaneously flaunting a total disregard for professionalism. Conversely, curated genre selections that match the time of day, complement the architecture, and establish a positive and stimulating mood reveal the very essence of hospitality.
Volume is the other factor. Whether it is Bach, the Beatles, or Black Flag—too loud is too loud and too quiet is too quiet. Understanding appropriateness of decibel level in accompaniment is very similar to understanding balance in beverage crafting. If you are having a hard time hearing yourself order your beverage at the register, don't be surprised if you have an equally difficult time drinking it.
Isn't Having Good Coffee Enough?
It might be tempting to turn a blind eye to these elements, and believe that they are disconnected from the actual product you are there for. But more often than not, these indicators provide a window into the overarching narrative. Strong work ethic and real hospitality are worth paying for. As customers, it is our responsibility to reward instances where we see these values woven into the industries we care about. If we do not, we will be stuck with fragmented, unprofessional coffee spaces that never 'feel' quite how they should.