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Café Series: The Third Space


Café Series: The Third Space

Paul Haworth

We will be doing a blog series on café culture. Though our mainstay is promoting home coffee craft, your experiencing a filter and/or espresso shop is inevitable. For example, most roasteries double as coffee houses, for better or for worse. The café is a treasure trove for points of critical thinking about the state of our culture and the specialty coffee industry as a whole. Let's spend some time thinking together about what it all means.

The Third Space

The 'third space' or 'third place' is a term that was coined to refer to where life happens outside of the home (the first space) and work (the second space). Every generation within every culture has had some sort of third space. Whether a barber shop, a pool hall, an ice cream shop, an arcade, a bar, or a library, there is strong evidence for this constant need. In American culture, it generally involves a highly social dynamic and a moderate service element.

The 1990s saw a dramatic shift toward the coffee house as the default third space. As this craze took hold, we saw it caricatured in popular sit-coms and capitalized upon in burgeoning corporate entities. In some ways, this particular paradigm is still alive and well but it has taken a bit of a backseat to a new and more abstract third space known as 'social media.'

The Need For Wifi

Because of the shift toward virtual relationship, the coffee house has felt the pressure to provide free high-speed internet as a way to keep people in their chairs and maintain the appearance of a 'happening' third space. There are some examples of coffee purveyors that have declared war on this convention by providing neither wifi nor electrical outlets, but the norm is to cater to these new 'needs.'

On the surface, it may seem like a no-brainer to add these low-cost services, but the long term cost is something not often considered. Many 'customers' spend 3–5 hours at their spot in the shop, while contributing 3–5 dollars to the business. It doesn't take too big of a calculator to see the problem here.

Inherent Tension

There is tension in commerce any time the desires of the customer are different from the intentions of the craftsperson. When a customer is merely looking for a place to plug in and camp while the purveyor is passionate and unyielding with their craft, there will be tension. This tension manifests itself in several interesting ways, which can be readily experienced while visiting.

In this series, we will explore a few of these areas of tension. For example:

  • What does the condition of the restroom or the type of music played by the employees say? What does the default model of service communicate?
  • Why is there a tip jar?
  • What do the items on the menu communicate about how the purveyor feels about their customers?

Embracing The Shift

The sociological need for a third space will not go away. There is, however, no guarantee that it will continue to be associated with coffee. It would actually be a pretty welcome shift to see specialty coffee professionals less hampered by this impossible burden. In the meantime, we continue to encourage you to experience the best possible cup of coffee in your 'first space,' also known as 'your home.'