celebrating Here and Now

Coffeeshop Confidential

Recently, a local cafe announced that it would be closing within weeks.  This was reported by the local food critic in the local newspaper along with the news that the shop’s space would soon be occupied by a new location of a local bagel chain.

Local social media pricked up its ears.  After reading the posted opinions of friends, acquaintances, friends of acquaintances and acquaintances of friends, as well as a few complete strangers (if any such people exist in Greater Pittsburgh’s socially inbred local landscape) it seemed to me that the local consensus was Starbucks had done them in.  This idea was offset somewhat by underlying smack talk.

In Pittsburgh we like to support the little guy.  But while we were busy blaming Starbucks for driving the little guy out of business, we were also acknowledging that we as consumers who prefer a local product were dissatisfied by the product being served by the little guy.  People were saying that it made them sad to see the local spot closing due to Starbucks market encroachment, but in the same breath that they had been unable to stomach the local cafe’s caffeinated and culinary offerings, dirty bathrooms and rude baristas.

Forgive me but Starbucks, I think, was being scapegoated.  Because sometimes it is easier to blame a large, faceless, globally despised corporation than to hold your friends and neighbors accountable for their incompetence and sloppiness.

The intersection of Forbes Avenue and South Craig Street is one of the liveliest in Pittsburgh.  Two universities, their associated medical, cultural, and technological facilities, the Diocesan cathedral, the main branch of the citywide library system, and the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History are all within a stone’s throw.  There is substantial foot traffic and the neighboring businesses provide the essential amenities of coffee, lunch, snack, and happy hour options for the masses who pass through daily.

About a decade ago, I was working in the service sector at Forbes and Craig, serving Pittsburgh-portioned lunches to hefty office workers every day, earning tips by breaking my back under the weight of so much meat and potatoes on my tray.  I had worked in this industry almost all my adult life and I was finally at a point where it was really just impossible to put plates in front of people with a clear conscience.

When I lost my job it seemed to me almost a blessing.  I thought I might try to start my own catering business instead, making an opportunity for myself to finally make and sell food I could really believe in.  I mentioned this to my usual barista at the coffee place across the street when I stopped by for a post-getting-fired soy latte, a splurge since I had no idea when I’d be able to afford another one.  The barista, a familiar guy from years of frequenting the Pittsburgh music scene, suggested that I talk to the shop’s new owners, who were getting ready to expand both their space and food menu.

It seemed a serendipitously perfect turn of events.  I was eager to get started making food, and the idea of going from a job I would never love to one that I maybe could without a lapse in paychecks was immensely appealing.  The new owners told me that shortly after they bought the business, they had the opportunity to expand into the adjacent corner storefront.  Their new rent on the enlarged space had been increased to nearly double what they had agreed to.  And the rumors that a Starbucks was going into the vacant storefront on the opposite corner were true.  Times were tough for them, undergoing an expansion to a recently acquired business amid unanticipated adversity, but they were hoping that adding a fuller food menu to their coffee bar would help them carve out a niche in the crowded service economy of the intersection and set them apart from the impending Starbucks.

I was game.  I took the job they offered me at a fraction of the salary appropriate to my task, willingly, because their plight was compelling.  I wanted to help them.  I liked them.  Besides, I was ready to stick it to the man after so many years of selling products I would never eat and explaining to coworkers each and every Friday that vegans don’t eat fish sandwiches, even during Lent.

The kitchen was simply equipped with refrigeration, a commercial-grade hotplate and panini press, and a tiny convection oven.  I made assurances that I could cook anything in there, and in return I was assured that when the new menu took off they would be able to afford for me to cook with gas.  I took care with the menu I created and executed.  I worked in the kitchen with one of the owners.  His schedule was heavy with scoop and bake muffins, filling a merchandising cooler with pastas dressed in commercially prepared sauces, crazy one-man offsite catering gigs which may have been the company’s bread and butter, and the occasional tennis match (highly anticipated and stressful due to ex-girlfriend opponent).

The other owner was driving himself crazy executing the store’s expansion into the neighboring space.  He wasn’t sleeping much, but he was using power tools often.  Despite his background as a statistician, his decisions were frequently based more on emotion than analysis.  He relied on the goodwill and help of friends and employees to achieve the renovation, assuring us all that our labor was for the greater good.  Some of the staff who had stayed on from the previous ownership were asked to take pay cuts in order for the new guys to afford them in the transition.  At one point I was offered a share in the company in exchange for my extravagant $160 per week salary.  I declined to be paid in liability and our relationship went downhill from there.  To their credit, my back wages were dutifully brought up to date throughout the following year.

Lo these many years in the service industry, I regard my experience there as seminal.  I met some of my most treasured coworkers ever at that job, a testament both to their benevolence and the charisma of their employers.  I made a menu that could be prepared on limited equipment at any hour by anyone working.  I am proud of my work, but I can’t be proud of working there.  Staff meetings were characterized by accusations, denial, and blame-placing.  Tears were common, as were cockroaches.  I was mad, sad, and glad all at once on the day I was told that my ingredients and manpower were no longer an expense they could bear.  I packed up my bourgeois Cuisinart and baking pans and cried all the way home.  Years later, I simultaneously felt vindicated and like kicking myself in the head each time I observed any of my underfunded suggestions being implemented there.

So like everyone else in town, my mood went all bittersweet upon hearing the news that the joint would soon close.  But I also felt slightly indignant.  What the hell took so long, I wondered.  Those guys made their own bed before Starbucks had poured a single cup of coffee on their corner.  Their sob story never changed.  They always felt entitled to succeed despite the odds, not because their business model made any sense or their coffee was so much better but just because the community should support its local, independent, non-corporate shop.

There will always be folks who just prefer Starbucks and would never cross the street to check out a local spot.  Those people can’t really be courted by an independent shop and can’t be blamed for its success or failure.  They will always think that a macchiato is caramel latte.  Nobody can do anything to change that.

Then there are those who will try the local shop, but if there is nothing particularly compelling or delicious about it for them, or if they have an experience there that is annoying on any level, they may not bother to cross the street the next time.  This group of consumers is probably the most important because they represent the unrealized potential and unmet expectations that can drive a small business out of business.

There are also people who will always seek the local cafe, who will treasure its humanity and appreciate its struggles, and who are proud to feel a personal connection through their cup-by-cup contribution to its place in the culture and economy.  It is when such patrons become so frustrated by poor service, crappy products, or general filth in a place they care about that they end up crossing the street even though it breaks their hearts to do it, that we can see who is really to blame.  It’s not Starbucks.

Small business is hard, there’s no denying that.  In my current situation my attention is all over the map, spread too thin over too many skill sets.  My creativity and my efficiency both suffer as a result.  My thoughts drift back to Forbes and Craig.  I know I can do better.

Small business, this I say to you and me:  It’s not enough just to be your lovable self.  No one loves text-messaging baristas or running out of toilet paper.  Don’t give people stupid reasons to leave, craving the bland comforts of corporate consistency.  Give them instead great reasons to stay.  That’s how you got here in the first place, right?  Because you wanted to provide something really special in your community, something a corporation never could.  You put your heart and soul, your career and life savings on the line to do this.  It is your responsibility to give your community something they can believe in.

Or at least a decent cup of coffee.


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