There’s some really interesting conversations happening at… a group blog that’s powered by some of the best young guns in the coffee retailer & espresso bar trade. Topics run along the lines of, espresso consistency: good or bad? and whatever happened to cafe culture?

It’s this latter article that’s really piqued my interest, as I’ve been studying the qualities of cafes and coffee houses for quite a while now; in part because it’s what a fuzzy-faced sociologist does (and that’s what I went to school to learn to do once upon a time) and in part because some day — some day in the very distant future — I expect I’ll start a little place of my own. Through the years I’ve noted a number of attributes that appear to impact the experience of a given coffee space. Here’s some:

The current trend (a la Starbucks, et al.) is to snake a line through the center of the shop, run it past the pastry counter, and the pay station, and finally to the order “pick-up zone”.

The intent? Pack as many human feet into as few square feet as possible while encouraging a natural queue and lots of upsells as folks drool over the pastry case en route.

The consequence? Extensive disruption to customers in seating areas. Who wants to carry on a conversation that will be listened to in part by every patron in line? For that matter, who wants to sit with a never-ending line-up of butts at eye-level? (Okay, so *some* might jockey for just this vantage point. Sheesh!)

Instead, why not route around? Use the periphery of your space for lines. Sure, run folks past the pastry case, but run ’em by a gallery of local artists, too. Better still: install a walk-up window *outside* your shop for the folks who want theirs in a to-go cup — never let them invade the space of those folks who want to soak up your atmosphere.

Most places you go offer a ratio skewed towards itsy-bitsy one- or two-person tables (not that *any* place has an overabundance of tables in my experience.)

The intent? These tables are generally intended to reflect “typical store demographics” (i.e. we anticipate 50% of our patrons to be in groups of two people, and 25% of our patrons to be solo, therefore 75% of our table-tops should be intended to serve this 75% of our customers.)

The consequence? Such arrangement tend to encourage “solitary space” in a public setting… a trait exacerbated by the introduction of wireless services… It’s likely not long before the 25% of solo patrons with laptops have taken up 75% of a coffee house’s tabletops. Good intentions… ugly results.

Instead why not offer a smaller number of large, or even very large tables? If you drop a table for 12 in the center of your shop, not only can you serve really large groups, but a single table can also serve a number of solo patrons, a number of groups of two, as well as groups of 3 or four or more. Not only that, but folks who sit together ’round a table suddenly adopt different behaviours; they share, pass things down the table, talk to each other — individually or in groups. Singles and doubles become threes and fours…

Among the best furniture arrangements I’ve ever seen are, curiously enough, almost never seen in a coffee house; but instead in restaurants and pubs that live in shotgun-style spaces. They leverage the long and narrow seating areas by placing long, uninterrupted benches along the walls, fronting them with tables that seat two to four and chairs opposite.

There’s no privacy whatsoever in this setup… and that’s the point, really. Any conversation is more than likely going to end up a shared conversation. It’s not that you’re eavesdropping, it’s simply that you’re *right there* and you’re likely a part of the conversation whether you intended to be or not.

So, when’s the last time you were in a coffee house that was something more than a place to grab a cup and go? When was the last time you stayed a while, soaking in the place? When was the last time you had an impromptu conversation with somebody you didn’t know in such a place?

Inquiring minds want to know. It’s for the sake of preserving coffee house culture, after all…

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