Mapping the Rise of Café Culture: Part 1

I know I said the next post would be about the Buffalo property auctions. But wait.

Cafe Terrace at Night, by Vincent Van Gough

Ever since coordinating a really awesome nonprofit vegan kitchen,  I have harbored half-baked and impossibly romantic notions of starting a really awesome for-profit vegan cafe. Scoffing at sage horror stories, I’ve revisited this idea as I settle into my new town, where rents are cheap and start-up opportunities abound. I scoured the library for any and every relevant book on the subject, and in one sitting devoured Cafe Life New York , which profiles successful neighborhood “cafes” (defined in the book primarily as coffeehouses, where food is not center stage and patrons are mostly local regulars) in Manhattan and Brooklyn’s residential neighborhoods. I was amazed at the similarities between such different cafes (different in the sense of image, patrons, neighborhood)– particularly in the owners’ perspectives and models of cafe operations. I’ve taken these similarities and developed the list below.

Basic elements of a successful neighborhood/indie coffeehouse (in NYC at least)

  • Baristas are chatty, good-looking actors/models/etc’s who can make flowers and leaves in the milk foam atop your beverage and are very skilled in the art/science of espresso brewing. Baristas are sent to trainings if not up to par when hired.
  • Coffee / espresso snobbism is in full throttle and drives business. Most common explanation of cafe’s success: “It’s all about the coffee”, the best of the best, taking months to select the house brew, visiting the coffee plantations in South America to meet the growers, constantly innovating their technique and espresso machines.
  • The owners want their cafe to be a community gathering space or “third place” – almost all use variations of the term and one even cites Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place as pivotal in influencing their desire to open a cafe.
  • Providing wi-fi and accommodating laptop users is considered a necessary evil for business. Per the point above, the highest good is creating a setting where people interact: they discuss politics, art, and generally feel important. Laptops pose barriers to the gregarious cafe environment ideal.
  • That being said, most depend on the business of laptop-bearing patrons who either freelance or don’t work 9-5 jobs, and in fact, primarily work out of the cafes.

In my library searches, another resource I’ve discovered is the encylopediac mammoth The Modern Cafe, which divulges mostly culinary but also a bit of business strategy for operating different cafe models: the bakery, the pastry shop, the savory kitchen, beverages, and the retail shelf. I’m not far enough along to report back insights, but the photography alone is enough to inspire anyone to keep slogging through its oversized 500+ pages.

Okay data time.

The impetus for this post. We’ve all seen a huge surge in the number of coffee shops in our towns and cities, as well as the number of people who frequent them: to grab caffeine and go, to lounge, to study, to work, to socialize, to live!  We can intellectualize the allure of the modern cafe, but I can’t think of a quicker way to kill my buzz. I first started to notice all the Starbucks sprouts in the early 2000’s, though it would be nice to have some data to back up my tweenage memories and give a clearer sense of when and how cafe culture truly rose up and burrowed its way into the mainstream.

There is no doubt that coffee is big business and a lot of people are interested in the industry’s largely proprietary information – that’s why you have to pay upwards of $400 for market research reports by the major trade associations (including Specialty Coffee Association of America, the National Coffee Association ), though the U.S Small Business Administration does publish a brief report that highlights basic stats in coffee shop sales and operations, also featuring data bites from the $495 NCA report: National Coffee Drinking Trends. We can start to wrap our heads around the magnitude of cafe culture with the following reference points from the SBA report:

  • There were 20,000 coffee shops in the U.S that collectively earned about $10 billion in revenue in 2011. That’s $500,000 per shop on average.
  • 70% of sales are generated by the top 50 coffee shop operators.
  • 58% of adults drink coffee every day according to 2012 estimates! Every-day drinkers are most likely to be middle-aged or older: 40% of adults 18-24 and 54% of adults 24-39 drink coffee every day (meaning above age 39, more than 58% drink daily).

Data from the North American Industry Classification System, used in the U.S Economic Census, can shed a bit more light on the matter. The most fitting category within sector 72 (accomodations and food service) – is “snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars“, and it is this category’s data that I use below as a proxy for tracking cafe and coffee shop activity over the past decade.

Nationwide, both the number of cafe firms (like Starbucks) and establishments (like Starbucks shops) took off in 2004, and plateaued slightly after the 2008 recession. The number of establishments (up 36% since 2003)  have grown faster than the number of firms (up 26% since 2003), meaning that while there are more cafe startups, these startups are pumping out more and more shops.

This cafe growth stands out from the broader industry category “Food Services and Drinking Places” – which has also grown, though less dramatically (9% among firms and 11% among establishments):

Cafes are different from other food service endeavors: they are doing better and becoming more common. And those other species are taking notice, take for example fast food monster McDonalds’ “McCafe” branding and new cafe store design concept, which is intended to attract posher patrons . Another stat worth mentioning but not graphing is that cafe employment has risen a whopping 55% since 2003, while the number of employees within the food/beverage service industry in general has only risen 12%. The complementary industry of coffee and tea manufacturing has seen comparably dramatic growth to meet demand of consumers both at cafes and at home: more than a 30% increase in the number of firms and establishments, and a 74% increase in employment since 2003. The U.K has seen a similar boom in coffee shops, and according to an expert coffee analyst, the ‘sophistication’ of consumers has glorified baristas and made it so that “careers in coffee are now a reality.”

So uh, I suppose I promised some mapping (or at least alluded to it in the title of this post) – and I will deliver! But for now, since this is getting long, I’m going to wrap up and cast the preceding content as background info for the cafe geography to come. Please stay tuned for Part 2!

For now, check out some local cafe mapping at Geocommons – featuring the cities of Ann Arbor, San Antonio, Minneapolis, and Halifax, as well as a U.S map of Starbucks closings in 2008. You can also see “the best coffee in the world” mapped out at the coffee enthusiast blog FRSHGRND’s Global Cafe Guide.


About katosulliv

Transportation, mapping, and cities enthusiast.
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One Response to Mapping the Rise of Café Culture: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Mapping the Rise of Café Culture: Part 2 | Hawk Eye Maps

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