Cafe Culture in America & Accuracy of Portrayal in Media

Monday, March 3, 2014

Since it's midterms week, my two main activities consist of studying at the library and chugging coffee. Going to Starbucks to buy coffee and seeing people studying got me thinking about the cafe culture in America and how realistic it's portrayed in books.

Growing up, I had a romanticized view of cafes where people sit in coffee shops, sipping lattes in white ceramic cups, while working. While I do think this is does happen and I've seen it happen, I definitely don't think it happens to the degree that movies and books make it out to be.

Cafe Culture

Media Portrayals
The most immediate portrayal of cafe culture that comes to mind is Taylor Swift's "Begin Again" music video, where she muses over the memories of Paris and cafes.

I tend to connect cafe culture with Europe more than I do with America. For me, Europe has more of a laid-back feel to it, where cafe culture is possible, whereas I tend to connect America with grab-and-go, where people grab their coffee and go elsewhere.

Yet interestingly enough, coffee culture has it's roots in America. A short Smithsonian video describes the history of coffee culture. On Twitter, author Nova Ren Suma often tweets about her writing activities and a lot of her tweets are about how she's writing in a cafe. She's American (New York, to be exact), so there are definitely people here who do write and do their work in cafes.

Statistically, the Seattle area has the most amount of coffee shops in America and Discover America even suggests visiting coffee shops as a trip idea if you want to go to Seattle. An excerpt from the article reads:

With 2.5 coffee shops for every 1,000 citizens, Seattle has the greatest concentration of coffee houses in the country, which underscores a key element of Seattle’s reputation: the city is awash in caffeine.

In a remarkably short time—the world’s first Starbucks opened here in 1971—coffee houses have become the social and community centres of the Emerald City, where you go on dates, take the kids, listen to music, sit with your laptop, finish your great American novel or meet your friends. In Seattle, you’ll find coffee shops attached to everything from launderettes to barbershops, cinemas to strip clubs.

America is the number one market for coffee, followed by Germany and Japan. While America does consume a lot of coffee, I don't see a cafe culture where people linger after buying their coffee, despite media portrayal. Esme Voz from MuniWireless analyzed Starbucks and coffee culture and wrote this:
 There is no cafe culture in the United States. Americans are all about speed and efficiency. “Time is money” is the motto of this country. Nothing bad about that, but it does not give rise to a cafe culture where people linger for hours discussing Kierkegaard.

My thoughts on cafe culture in the US are similar. America, especially in the Northeast, has a "go, go, go" motto where nothing stops and efficiency is key. Hustle is the keyword here.  I might be wrong about the lack of a cafe culture in the US though, since I've lived in the East Coast for most of my life and mostly non-urban areas.

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the ambient noise of a cafe is the most conducive to creativity, so the people at Buffer suggest that people should move to a cafe in the afternoon for increased productivity

Personal Experience
For me, I can't do work in a coffee shop just because I like the smell of coffee and the smells of the pastries so I would probably end up people-watching while eating or drinking rather than working. Also, I work best in relative silence and the bustle of a coffee shop is just too much for me.

That said however, I do have friends who like to study in Starbucks. I think a huge part of it is the proximity of Starbucks to dorms compared to the library but maybe a part of it is also the ease of accessibility to coffee. Yet, the people who do their work in cafes is only a small handful compared to the bigger number of people who I know who like to do their work either in dorm or at the library.

What are your thoughts on cafe culture in America? What about elsewhere? Do you do your work in a cafe? 

P.S Kelly from The Well-Read Redhead just wrote a post about spending a day at Starbucks


  1. Loving your blog! I have to say that cafe culture varies so much city to city in the US. In San Francisco, it's alive and well. People use cafes as co-working spaces and spend hours and hours there. Heck, I used to work all day at Four Barrel Coffee in the Mission District when I was working freelance. It's not a wonderful place to get stuff done (headphones help), but it's a perfect place to people-watch and network. You'd be surprised how many people you can strike up a conversation with in a cafe in startup-central. But I've lived in Los Angeles as well, and it's less of a "thing" there.

  2. I would agree with Carrie that it differs in every city. Where I live, cafe's are HUGE when it comes to working outside of the home. We have many Starbucks locations as well as local coffee shops, and everybody seems to have a place they're partial to. You'll see the same people working there day after day, and it's really neat. I'm a regular at a particular location and I'm friendly with many of the others who are regulars as well. It's the total opposite where I grew up, though. There aren't a whole lot of coffee shops around and most people would find it strange to go to one just to work.

  3. I think cafe culture is incredibly romantic -- but definitely relate to the "time is money" aspect discussed here. I rarely linger in coffee shops, mostly because I'm typically running out on a lunch break and need to get back to the office. I love grabbing a latte for the road, though, and find the idea of hanging out sipping mochas with a friend to be very relaxing! Sometimes I will take a book and read for a bit, but I'm generally too distracted to stay for too long.

  4. I love cafes! But the thing here in Toronto is that every single cafe is either a Starbucks or a Tim Hortons - like one of those big chain franchises. And it's just SO busy in each of them that it's impossible to do work. But I think in Europe, there are more independent cafes so there isn't that whole idea of commercialism. I don't know, I feel like I'm just talking randomly but that's kind of the vibe I get? I haven't actually been to any cafes in Europe so I can't say for sure...

  5. I hate working, reading, or just lingering in caf├ęs. I always get my drink to go, but that doesn't make me feel like I'm "on the go". When I get a drink, I take it straight home, and that's where I sit back and relax with it. I just don't like doing that publicly. If I bring my laptop I feel like people will look at it over my shoulder, etc, and that makes me a bit uncomfortable. I just prefer to be at home!

  6. I spent the last year of my PhD writing my dissertation in a coffee shop. I went there 3-5 days a week for hours on end. I absolutely loved it. I loved them, and there were other regulars like me. Even now, I get away to a comfie Barnes & Noble coffee shop that's not too far from where I live. I take my laptop, blog & chat with a few of the other regulars there.

    Tanya Patrice

  7. *drools* Would love a cup of coffee and a few macarons... Okay back to the topic haha.

    I think cafe culture also stems from coffee businesses such as Starbucks who encourage it. They seem to emulate that atmosphere and encourage people to go to their stores and study, do work and so on. In fact when I worked there as a barista during a short time, one of their goals was to get customers to consider SB their 'third home'.

    I get distracted very easily but I study better when outside because without my laptop to distract me I can concentrate a bit better but I don't study much in cafes because everything is so expensive here, a tall latte is around $4 USD.

    Fantastic post! And good luck for your midterms :D

  8. Oh what a fascinating post. I love coffee, but like you, its never been conducive for me to get work done in a cafe. I go more for the coffee and social aspect (if I'm with someone). However, I'd like to mention I think it also depends on the area where these cafes are. Here in my city, we don't use public transportation, so everyone drives on freeways, commuting to work or school. Its easier for us to grab and go (even better when there's a drive thru!). I think in cities in the northeast where public transit is a popular means of transportation, you see more people going into cafes and actually "working" there. I have a friend in Chicago who goes to her Starbucks frequently to work. I wish that type of culture was more dominant here in the south.

    I definitely think of Europe when I think of cafe culture. Also, I wish I would have known about all the coffee houses in Seattle two years ago when I visited. Yes, I wandered into a few (even the original Starbucks), but I didn't do my research ahead of time to find more to visit. That would have been really cool.

  9. For the first time last weekend I was in a cafe which had a sign that said, "no wi-fi, no working". However, you could stay and watch soccer for as long as you wanted. It was at a place called Cavalli Cafe in the Italian district in San Francisco.

    The cafe "scene" is definitely alive and well in SF. With places like Sightglass and Workshop Cafe popping up, it's becoming engrained into the culture.

    However, several of the most popular cafes provide no power outlets or wi-fi, as if to say "stay for a while but don't camp out". Heaven forbid we go to to enjoy the coffee. :P

  10. That's funny. I thought LA's stereotype was that everyone was working on a screenplay or talking about auditions. :P I definitely overheard some audition talk at Lamill Coffee the last time I was in town.

  11. I think it's definitely interesting how a distance of a couple hours changes the cafe scene. I definitely feel that cafes are great for people-watching and I haven't thought about networking at cafes.

    Regarding LA, I thought it was a "thing" for all the screenplay writers to work in cafes? Haha.

  12. It's definitely interesting to see how cafe culture differs based on location and I wonder how it differs based on country. The views on cafe culture and the prevalence of it differs too, which I find interesting.

  13. Right? I walk into cafes and walk straight out with my cup of coffee, most of the time. When I do have free time though, I love lounging in a coffee shop, talking to friends, but it's rare.

  14. I know what you mean about big-chain coffee shops being busy! I think that's why I'm nervous to take the plunge into doing work at cafes. I think there are independent cafes in the US and Canada, but it definitely requires some research beforehand.

  15. I know what you mean about feeling like people are watching what you're working on! I don't really like to blog in public, but I'm okay with working on non-blogging stuff. I've never gotten coffee to drink at home, but I think it's a cozy way to relax! I should try it sometime.

  16. Hahaha, me, too! Those macarons looks so good.

    Starbucks definitely encourages it because that's how they get traffic flow. It's interesting to note how they transformed the coffee business, too. Coffee now based on flavored drinks with a hint of coffee instead of the flavor of the coffee itself.

    I definitely know what you mean about laptops being distracting! It's like an abyss, haha. Also, a tall latte (I think that's the small size at Starbucks, right? I never know what they call the small) is around $4 in the US as well so we're paying the around same price. Definitely pricey.

    And thanks for the well wishes! Two tests more to go.

  17. I agree with you that cafe culture depends on transportation and location. Urban areas that depend on public transportation instead of cars have more foot traffic and lingerers.

  18. Oh, wow. I think I would've found a lack of wi-fi uncomfortable but it definitely would make me relax and appreciate the social aspect of cafe culture.

    Oh, no! Enjoying coffee? Blasphemous, haha. ;)

  19. Definitely! Cafes are popping up all over the place and I actually want to have a tea shop. I love tea!

    Reading in cafes? Yes, please! But I'd be scared if I accidentally spilled coffee on my book, though.

  20. I love this topic! One year in college, I had a certain day and time of the week where I'd go to a coffee shop to get some work done. It didn't exactly have the best atmosphere, but there was something I loved about it. Now that I'm in grad school and living on the other side of the country, I'd love to revive that old habit just to get myself out of the apartment when I'm doing homework. I've never been to Europe, so I wouldn't know about the coffee culture there (except how it's portrayed in movies!), but I'm pretty sure I'd love it. I like to sit and work and people-watch while I sip my coffee.

  21. Interesting post. I too always think about all these people sitting in cafes ... but I can't even find a cafe. I don't drink coffee so I don't go to Starbucks. I do think Panera Bread has a cafe feel. The internet is free there and I do see people just sitting around on their computers. So I do like to meet up there with people. This has me wanting to go and hang out there tomorrow for lunch. Though I think at lunch time your computer gets 1/2 hour limit on the internet.


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