In Praise of Indie Coffee Shops

Corporate cafés don’t need your cash, and you don’t need their bland uniformity.


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Unless you live in Death Valley, chances are you can score a latte, a flat white, or an Americano within minutes of your home. We are a land of more than 65,000 coffee shops. And while there’s been a small post-pandemic uptick among those who prefer to brew beans in the kitchen, most of us still satisfy our caffeine craving by ordering from a barista.

You’ll not be shocked to learn that more than two-thirds of America’s coffee shops are affiliated with a national or regional chain. You know the guys. Starbucks. Dunkin’. A few others. In addition to their standard offerings, they feature a selection of expensive, artery-clogging “signature” beverages (think frappés) that include quality coffee as an afterthought.

Look, it’s not for me to say, but I’m saying it: Avoid those ubiquitous corporate cafés when you can. They don’t need your cash and you don’t need their bland uniformity. Basically, what they lack is “soul,” writes Robert Schneider, author of Café Culture, which is, appropriately, a coffee-table book. Those places may boast of $30,000 Italian espresso makers, but there’s scarcely any connection to local culture and character — your community’s distinctive vibe. Where’s that soul?

There are good reasons why many of us are devoted to indie coffee shops, where we can sit and sip and absorb the unique ambience. It is, after all, far more than the aroma of specialty roasts that beckons us. It’s the appreciation that someone designed this particular space for this particular location, carefully planned this particular experience, and did it all with the expectation that we’d hang a while.

The underlying message at any artfully conceived indie café is Stay, have another cup of our unique brews, and engage with our baristas. Does the recent proliferation of these little shops represent a backlash against the onslaught of Starbucks and company? Ha! Will a tall cup of ristretto pop your eyeballs wide through a weekend?

Joel Carney, a not-atypical coffee-shop owner, got into the business six years ago. A one-time division manager at Canon, the Japanese electronics giant, Carney opened a tiny joint in Juno Beach, Florida, thinking it would allow him to express his “creative side.” He named it Papa Kwan’s. There are now two of them, both featuring a funky island theme and rum-flavored coffees. Both are always busy. The key to their success? “To take it down to its simplest form,” Carney told me, “a coffee shop should be a perfect place for you and your neighbors to get together.”

He’s got it right. That’s the ideal vibe. When I phoned Nick Brown, editor of Daily Coffee News, an industry newsletter, he said the indies’ advantage is that “they’re not beholden to copy and paste. They’re a true reflection of who they are. Ten years ago the emphasis was on stark white, clean design, lots of brightwork.” Today, Brown said, many owners are leaning toward the look of an “old-fashioned café.” (Among my nearby favorites: a shop that honors the steampunk style, and another that’s designed as a tribute to vinyl records. Cool.)

When I first began visiting mom-and-pop coffee shops, many years ago, there was an expectation that you’d find live music there, at least at night. Ballads and protest songs -mostly. Nowadays, some host hard rock and hip-hop, against which I silently rage as I walk in. But that’s the nature of change. Fine. I’ve just got to relax and remind myself to (as they say) wake up and smell the coffee.

In the January/February issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about Americans’ love for their pets.

This article appears in the March/April 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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