American Coffee Culture

Post-communism. China, 2014.

I have two preferred cafés. The first, near our home in Phoenix, is independently owned, with a wide porch looking out over an artificial lake. The owners are a Greek family and they make sure that there is baklava available. 

The place stays open until late and attracts a mixture of students and local Arabic-speaking families.  Here I bring a book and read for a couple evening hours. 

The second is a small café in the Sonoran desert prison-town of Florence, home to a half-dozen jails and prisons.  A hand-painted sign outside advertises coffee and donuts. 

I tried a sandwich once and that was a sad occasion.  A quiet married couple runs the place, which has slow traffic and likely low income.  The sparse clientele leans heavily towards old white retirees, the sort who have spent their lives in the rural periphery on modest incomes, and a few county employees from offices across the road. 

I sip a small coffee, helpful after an hour’s drive, and sometimes treat myself to a homemade plain donut.  Their apple fritters are tempting but much too calorie-rich.  After 10-15 minutes I leave to do my regular Friday morning prison teaching. 

The local miasma of prisons might have infected the Florence shop owner, a dour man with the Yelp! reviews to confirm his grouchiness.  He does not have to ask to figure out that I am a foreign breed.  It does not matter that I do not belong, though: my money is just as good and welcome.  There is a certain honesty in a man who does not feel called upon to flash a false smile at customers. 

Each of these cafés is intensely culture-bound, in ways entirely different from the cultural homogenisation that characterises Starbucks.  One hosts a cosmopolitan ethnic mix that lounges for hours in conversation or working on their laptop computers.  The other is a largely white-bread establishment that serves many people who have been putting other people in cages, not work that pays well.  These are cases where local cultures separate cafés, where an urban-rural distinction defines transnational coffee culture as it grapples with modernisation and changing self-definition.

In much of rural Arizona, cafés are down-home: go elsewhere for cappuccino.  Small family-owned restaurants, like the Beeline Café in Payson, provide seats, large platters of food, and drinks.  The culture of ‘independent’ shifts with the geography.  The conscious globalism of Starbucks disappears in the hinterlands.  A cuppa is just a cuppa. 

It is too simple to value independent coffee places and show contempt towards Starbucks culture.  For the years I lived in north Berkeley, Starbucks was the anti-Christ for believers in the Church of True Caffeine.  This neighbourhood was home to the original Peet’s Coffee & Tea.  Independent coffee places surrounded the university campus, in a ring of caffeine.

When Starbucks did manage to open its first shop in the area, it was through a stealth Starbucks.  They obtained a business license for a coffee house under another corporate name, did the renovations, and only put up Starbucks signage the afternoon before the shop opened.  It was too late for neighbours to do more than write upset letters to the editor. 

When I first arrived in Arizona in 2002, matters were different. There were relatively few independent cafés. Starbucks shops proliferated, and corporate coffee ruled.  Phoenix, which preferred chain store shopping, took its coffee, tea and cold drinks the same way. We spent weekends that first year searching out independent coffee houses, too often finding them as sterile as the suburbs surrounding them. In Tucson, with establishments such as Raging Sage, we found a deeper indie coffee scene.    

Within a couple years, when Arizona’s summer temperatures were over 40C and good air-conditioning became an existential need, Starbucks began to look much better.  A cultural fatalism took hold. We no longer disdained what we once held in contempt.  We relinquished our bourgeois intellectual pretensions, joined the sunburned masses, and drank the Teavana iced tea.  I still draw the line at the Ultra Caramel Frappuccinos. My honour is at stake. 

Starbucks has even served me when I left Arizona for China for extended periods.  I would sit working on a laptop computer in a Beijing branch sipping coffee, tasting red bean pastries, and listening to 1930s and 1940s American jazz that flooded the premises. In China, a thirdspace is a luxury and the westernised clientele of the Dongzhimen or Haidian districts could afford the expense.

Coffee still meets much resistance in China from tea culture.  When I brew a French press full of dark, strong coffee at home my wonderful tea-loving Chinese mother-in-law wrinkles her nose and has told me the smell reminds her of cigarettes and gangsters.

Today it is oddly ironic that although I try to avoid Starbucks except when on campus, I have made my living in recent years by teaching Starbucks employees in their online college degree program.  Over 7,000 Starbucks students are in degree programs at our university and they constitute the overwhelming majority of students in my current noir literature class.  Within 5-6 years the university plans to enrol more than 20,000 Starbucks students.  Primarily low-wage contingent faculty will teach low-wage baristas, creating a cycle of reinforcement between labour forces in academia and the food-service industry.

Often we forget that cafés are not only sites of consumption but of production and labour exploitation.  A line barista at Starbucks makes $18-22,000, including bonuses and tips.  That places a single barista above the far too low federal poverty level, but below the Arizona living wage of $23,300 pre-tax. For a barista with a child, it is less than half the $50,800 living wage.  It is clear that providing a college education benefit costs the company less than would raising employee incomes to a living wage level. 

With its health insurance coverage, less-than-adequate 401K pension contributions, and other benefits, Starbucks remains one of the best food service industry employers.  Prospective employees flock to them and Starbucks hires only about one percent of applicants.  The company has successfully resisted unionisation using a nominally inclusive language of ‘partnership.’ Indie cafés cannot match even the sub-living wage salaries Starbucks pays and none can offer employees a college tuition plan financed through corporate purchasing power.  Coffee culture in the United States is a full participant in service-sector labour exploitation. 

Arizona cafés model a narrow range of capitalist options, from smallholder family establishments to local chains with a couple sites, to the Starbucks multinational enterprise.  Yet, when reading Shachar Pinsker’s new, brilliantly researched book A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture and its descriptions of vibrant political life in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Odessa and Warsaw cafés, one recognises the possibilities of Arizona’s café thirdspaces.  Opposition to capitalism and xenophobic racism needs a place to grow. 

Photograph courtesy of Felix Wong. Published under a Creative Commons license.