I work in my home office making maps all day, so when evening comes, and I’m in the mood, I’ll go write at the nearest Panera. Panera, in terms of ambiance, is somewhere between little French bakery and contemporary coffee shop. Their main sell is baked items and lunch, but they also have signature coffee drinks and free Wi-Fi. And smooth jazz. Always with the smooth jazz at Panera. My guess is that it’s a device to keep people moving along- feel free to come and sit, have lunch, but don’t get too comfortable or we’ll smooth jazz you to death.
I really wish Panera would just fully commit and become the coffee-house café they are meant to be. Add more booths. And electrical outlets. Stay open later. Drop the smooth jazz and go the Starbucks route with music, if music is a must. Keep the food the way it is, and wham! A real community hangout.
I miss the coffee spots of my youth. I miss when Denny’s was still a place to bring your notepad and books; or hang with your friends for hours, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee like fiends. When the server started giving you the eye, the good Samaritan of the group would order a plate of seasoned fries with a gravy bowl of ranch dressing in order to secure the booth for a few more hours. Five dollars back then was enough for a pack of cigarettes and a bottomless cup of coffee with enough left over for a decent tip. Five dollars now will only get you one or the other; you gotta choose your poison.
Denny’s has edged away from diner and scooted closer to cheap cafeteria. They’re not even a CoCo’s or Marie Callender’s anymore. It’s like somewhere in the last decade Denny’s decided that their main competitors were fast food joints, so they downgraded their service and food to do so. At the same time, fast food joints began to compete with places like Starbucks and started offering premium coffee, healthier food and even Wi-Fi. Denny’s wanted to be McDonald’s, McDonald’s wanted to be Starbucks, and Starbucks wanted nothing more than to be our overlords.
Starbucks revolutionized the coffee-house scene and by doing so altered it forever. When they started popping up everywhere, coffee-hole denizens weren’t sure what to make of it. Should it be embraced, or shunned? Coffee or corporate? It was confusing times. Now, gen X may still shake their fists at a Starbucks, but hipster millennials shrug. It’s like being angry at Seven Eleven or Walgreens. There’s no such thing as ‘sell-out’ anymore.
Starbucks may have propagated to convenience store levels, but they didn’t kill non-corporate coffee houses. They’re still out there, happily dispensing caffeine and hosting poetry nights. But there is a chasm. Starbucks brought the coffee-house mainstream, thereby making all non-chain coffee houses more niche. Meaning a cool quotient has been introduced to the scene; they are more tightly branded and defined, and have a much less inclusive air about them. Long ago coffee houses were for the people, now they are for a demographic.
I always preferred writing in diners more than those other places. Mostly because they had free coffee refills. There were long tables to spread out your essentials: backpack, newspaper, Bukowski Anthology, art pad, spiral notebook, ashtray and coffee pot. On your left a pack of Marlboro with that Zippo you borrowed from some Metalhead and forgot to give back. On your right a pyramid of unopened creamers and a caddy of sugars: white, then pink, then blue. And comfy booths to stretch out in or prop your feet up on the other side; room to spare for whomever else might show up that night, because someone always would.