Has Consumerism Killed the Coffee Shop?

Words by Riley (she/her), 20 USA

When I say a coffee shop, what do you think of? Does your mind go to a Starbucks or the local cafe in your town?

Since the inception of coffee shops over the centuries, they have evolved from places of political talk to commercialized quick chains to study stops for students. From independent shops to chain brands and back again, local coffee shops are beginning to rise in demand after chain brands have dominated the market.

As consumers online popularize the atmosphere of coffee shops, social media apps like TikTok, Instagram, and others are at the forefront of deciding what’s trending in various industries.

The beginnings of cafes started in the late 17th century, during the Age of Enlightenment, as having places to socialize became higher in demand. Many middle-class people wanted spaces where they could discuss ideas and philosophy. In England, cafes allowed citizens to voice their opinions on bills and legislation during this period.

In the centuries since these British cafes were established, coffee shops have spread worldwide. “In the 1900s, Parisian cafes were hotbeds for thought, philosophy, and art – attracting the likes of Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In America, coffee houses were points of planning protests during the Vietnam War, a process later deemed “G.I. Cafes,” writes Brittany Ramjattan for Coffee or Die Magazine. Ramjattan graduated from Stony Brook’s Television Writing program in Manhattan and frequently writes about coffee culture.

Yet, in the modern-day presence of coffee shops, these independent places to share ideas have evolved into commercial chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’. These chains allow patrons to stop in for a quick dose of caffeine and get on with their day, a far cry from the origins. Now, this commercialized version of the coffee shop have removed the community sense that the original cafe thrived on, and have created a sense of loneliness when you entire these spaces.

Society has been slowly leaving behind the communal spaces, like coffee shops, parks and malls, in favor of private spaces. Shopping in-person has shifted to shopping online, movie theaters have been replaced with streaming and restaurants replaced with take out. While it does vary from person to person, there’s no doubt been a decline in these “third spaces,” that allow for places for people to form connections. This, in turn, has created a sense of loneliness.

For the case of coffee, in the late 90s, the desire for convenience changed the format cafes followed for a century, commercializing coffee as a beverage rather than cultivating the culture that once formed around it. This resulted in franchises and a global coffee market. Online, you can find dozens of types of merchandise making jokes about the presence of coffee in our lives, like a shirt that says “More Espresso, Less Depresso.”

This evolution to commercialized coffee is uniquely present in American culture. At the same time, in places like Europe, there is still the presence of socializing in coffee culture. “The drive-through, fast-food and highly popular style of Starbucks signifies that getting coffee to-go is the general norm in America. Even our machines, from Keurig coffee makers to the instant coffee brewers in office break rooms, are all designed for getting back to work with a coffee cup in hand,” writes Sophia Ling in an opinion piece for The Emory Wheel. Ling writes many op-eds and critiques regarding food culture.

Yet, despite the current state of the coffee house, American cafe culture is slowly seeing a return to the original world of socializing in the coffee shops. Through social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, users have created trends about studying, making friends, or even going to themed experiences at coffee shops. While any coffee shop – chain or independent – can allow a new community to grow within cafes like when they first started. Society is starting to recognize the loneliness within the modern coffee shop, and are rediscovering its original purpose.

“Coffee lovers are becoming more discerning in their preferences, seeking unique and personalized experiences. Small coffee shops excel in this aspect by focusing on perfecting a select few signature beverages and building strong connections with their customers. This personalized approach fosters loyalty and creates a unique sense of community within these establishments,” describes Grayson Wright in his assessment “The Emergence of Independent Coffee Shops” for Matthews Real Estate Investment Services.

While the changes are still being made, there’s room to reformulate the coffee shop experience in America. The main issue that small coffee shops have to deal with is the ability to remain afloat in competing markets and with rising rents. With consumers slowly transitioning back to a “normal” post-pandemic world, it’s hard to get them in the door at new locations and shops.

What this means for the future of the coffee industry is hard to say, but hopefully, it means that we get closer to the original origins of the cafe. The culture and community of coffee shops should be part of our history and future. Exploring and being introduced to new ideas were once crucial aspects of the foundation of the cafe, but it has slowly been lost to time. Maybe now is the time to reacquaint ourselves with our past.


Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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