Atmosphere and Other Uses of the Built Environment

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By Sam Lewontin, Cafe Manager, Everyman Espresso, New York, NY

During the last decade, the preparation and service elements of specialty coffee in the United States have developed at a dizzying rate. Thanks to the care and intentionality of professionals at all stages of the game, the coffee that we’re drinking and serving now is leaps and bounds better than it’s ever been. Cafes continue to be at the forefront of this work. They are the end of the chain— the link with which coffee drinkers most directly interact. Through them, we have the opportunity to show coffee drinkers, our customers, just how great coffee can be, and why great coffee is worth pursuing and celebrating.

Our understanding of how to create great gustatory experiences has, however, drastically outstripped our understanding of how to create services and spaces that support those experiences. For all their increasingly well-heeled window dressing, most specialty cafes in the U.S. occupy approximately the same sorts of spaces that they did ten or even twenty years ago. The message that we send by serving coffee that reflects our values is undeniably vital. So, though, are the messages that we send with the spaces in which we serve it, and with how people are allowed and encouraged to use those spaces.

I should start this discussion with a few disclaimers. First, I’m by no means an architect or an interior designer. All of the thoughts collected here come from my experiences working behind espresso bars, and from the process of designing and opening Everyman Espresso’s two cafes in lower Manhattan. Second, big chunks of this topic have been discussed elsewhere, at greater length and in greater depth, by folks with bigger brains than mine. Of particular note are James Hoffmann’s speech to the SCAA Symposium in 2011, discussing the need for different models of service in specialty coffee, and Alex Bernson’s talk at the 2013 Nordic Barista Cup, placing contemporary coffee service in its social and historical context. Third, my intent here is not to lay down ground rules, or to tell anyone how to design a cafe or implement a service model. I’d like, rather, to start building a framework in which to consider how to address these questions.

IMG_5403-loLet’s begin by imagining a cafe from a customer’s perspective. Start on the sidewalk: what do we see when we peer in through the windows? Is it folks sitting and working at their laptops? Is it the espresso machine? Is it a retail display? Once inside, where is our gaze drawn? Where and when do we order? Where, when and how do we pay? Is the space bright or dim? Warm-toned, or cold? Where do we sit, and with whom? All of these factors—and many more besides— combine to communicate to us what sort of experience to expect, and what we should and shouldn’t do while we’re in the cafe. Each should be considered with the same intentionality that we usually reserve for which grinder to use, or which coffee best reflects what we believe coffee should be, or what actually constitutes a cappuccino.

Rather than minutely pick apart every detail of the cafe space—there are a ton of them, and they’re all important—let’s look at a couple of ways that the built environment can broadly affect people’s impressions and uses of it. The most immediate and obvious of these is constraint. The placement of all of the necessities of service can either enforce or deny certain behaviors on the part of both baristas and customers. The position and format of the menu, for instance, forces customers to interact with it in certain ways. Watch, the next time someone orders from an overhead menu hung behind the barista; odds are they won’t make eye contact until well after they’ve finished their order. On the other side of the counter, the arrangement of a barista’s tools constrains their workflow, which at least partially defines how they interact with the folks for whom they’re making coffee. More drastically, the height, orientation, and placement of the espresso machine might either enable conversation between people on opposite sides of it—or render that conversation impossible.

Details of the built environment can also suggest or enable behaviors without enforcing them. Open sightlines between disparate parts of a room might make possible conversations between far-flung groups, or contribute to the visibility and sense of inclusion in the barista’s craft. More comfortable or insular seating might encourage people to stay longer, while harder, more open seating could do just the opposite. These subtler cues define an atmosphere, which can either reinforce or undermine a cafe’s mission and intentions.

Verve - Niall Kennedy - FlickrFinally come those details, which we traditionally think of as constituting the atmosphere of a space: lighting, color, building and finishing materials, music choices, sound level, and the like. These underlie and tie together the more overt constraints and encouragements, creating (or confusing) the overall personality of the cafe.

These are by no means all of the considerations that go into creating a cafe space. The underlying thread is the need to examine every detail—no matter how small—in light of how it constrains, enables, suggests or sets a tone, and then to ask how to put that in service of the cafe’s mission. It’s also vital to remember that none of these choices or details operate in a vacuum. All of them interact both with each other and with the expectations and needs of the people using the space. There’s no substitute for knowing your neighborhood and your clientele, or for hiring and training an awesome team to fly your flag.

Samuel Lewontin lives in New York City, where he manages the Soho location of Everyman Espresso. He got his start as a barista in Seattle, Washington in 2001, but didn’t get his first taste of really good coffee until 2007. He fell in love with it immediately, and never looked back. Sam took the top spot at the 2013 Northeast Regional Barista Competition, and placed 4th at the 2013 United States Barista Championships. 

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