A Fly on the Wall: The Sociability of Coffee


by Amy Hall, Espresso Elevado

It’s a quiet afternoon in Plymouth, Michigan. A young woman strolls into the little coffee shop on the corner where I am standing behind the counter with a smile, ready to take her order.

“I’m waiting for someone,” she quickly alerts me. I nod and tell her that if she has any questions about the menu to please let me know. She smiles, and I can see by her twiddling thumbs that she is anxious.

A few moments later, a handsome young man walks through the door. He looks around the shop and sees her. He approaches her slowly and says, “Hi—Sarah?” She nods (a little too eagerly, if you ask me) and he sits down. They agree that they should order some coffee. She gets a 12-ounce cup of our juicy, berry-toned Ethiopia Sidamo. Naturally, it’s brewed to Golden Cup standard. He orders the same and just like that, this blind date—which I am now taking immense pleasure in overhearing—is under way. I feel like a fly on the wall, not meaning to eavesdrop, of course, but giggling to myself (and my coworker) as these two people stumble through the painfully awkward but hilarious first stage of dating.

Later that afternoon, three men walk in the door, their suit coats slung over their shoulders in an attempt to beat the heat outside. They all order the same drink immediately—“a nonfat, no whip, no foam chocolate.” I don’t even bother telling them that we do not carry nonfat milk, and we practice the art of luscious microfoam. Not to mention, our whipped cream is homemade, and the drink is called a Chocolatte. No, I skip over all of these minute details because they are not paying attention to me anymore. They have turned to see the nervous-looking man that has walked in the door right behind them. The suits identify him quickly as the man they are interviewing for one of the new positions in their extremely successful grocery store chain. They watch him intently while he mulls over the menu, as if the determining factor in his potential hiring is based solely upon the drink that he orders. He, too, orders a Chocolatte and the suits are thrilled. Again, with no particular intent, I am given to eavesdropping. I listen over the next few hours as the three suits interview two other men. Looking back, I think they should have hired the second guy, but hey, what do I know about the logistics of grocery store chains? In any case, I was the sole witness, the fly on the wall, in each and every interview.

Why do people feel so comfortable having such private conversations in coffee shops? Why do they trust me enough to allow me the chance to overhear their private conversations? I think it’s because coffee shops are this kind of shared third space. Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz suggested this notion when he discovered that in a coffee shop, you’re not quite at home and you’re not quite at work. Somehow, you sort of feel like you’re in the middle. There’s a warmth and a comfort in a coffee shop that leads one to feel as if it’s the perfect place to do just about anything. If the conversation ever gets terribly awkward or quiet, there is always one thing to talk about—that darn good cup of coffee. Yet, it’s more than that—another dimension presents itself when the barista steps out from behind the counter and actually gets to know her loyal, regular customers.

Aside from witnessing a slew of potentially awkward encounters, I have come to know and love many of my customers. In fact, one of my regular customers is a local chef. He single-handedly cooked all of the food for a fundraiser I organized at the coffee shop. Without his expertise and kind soul, I would have cooked all of the food for the fundraiser. Though I am confident in many areas, cooking is not one of them. Getting to know him has not only been beneficial to the mixology in our shop, but it has been life-changing for everyone on staff. This kind of relationship is something that is so integral to growing a small business. It is the key to becoming a big, noticeable dot on the map of our huge industry. Success has a lot to do with who you know or who you may get to know. I like to think of growth as a kind of flow chart. A customer comes in.  I, as the barista, am friendly and welcoming.  The customer comes back a few more times.  The customer becomes friends with cafe staff and other customers.  The customer tells even more people about our cafe. The cafe is bursting at the seams with people. In turn, many of the people within our four walls have come to know each other quite well. Several customers now do business with each other and a lot of times, they bring their business back to our shop. Of course, the end result is that our business is growing, which means that specialty coffee thrives in our little corner of the map.

The coffee industry, I think, is bigger than any of us actually realize. Yes, of course, it is very much about the beverage, but I would argue that is also very much about what the beverage represents. Coffee represents togetherness; not only between friends but between strangers who become friends. It is a bonding agent and a comfort food for the soul. As I mentioned earlier, I have had the chance to become close with many of my customers. Many of them walked through the door as strangers just checking out the new cafe in town. Now, I like to think that I do more than just work in a cafe. I am more than just someone who pours your coffee. I am someone that listens to your stories. I am a shoulder to cry on. I am a friend. Ultimately, it is that togetherness, that love, and that concern for others that keeps people coming back. It all starts with a walk through a door, a genuine smile, and a good cup of coffee.

Where there is love and good coffee, it seems that all is right with the world and I am sure glad that I get to be more than a fly on the wall. Every day, I am grateful that I get to work in the coolest industry of all time. I get the chance to change lives and in turn have my life changed. I get to work in specialty coffee. I get to be a barista.

amyAmy Hall is the staff writer and a barista at Espresso Elevado in Plymouth, Michigan. Though she writes website content, blog posts, and newsletters for the coffee shop, she advises on anything from marketing to mixology and has a true love for coffee and customers. As a literature student at Eastern Michigan University, she is thrilled to have the opportunity to blend her writing skills with her passion for specialty coffee. Contact her @aimeezy on Twitter.