Not Just Coffee To-Go or To-Stay: How About Both?


Loneliness is a paper cup. [Photograph: craig Cloutier on Flickr]

Every day is full of tough choices: Go to the gym, or hit snooze? Dress, or jeans? Cook dinner, or order delivery? Wine, or cocktails? What if you could answer 'both' to all of them—wouldn't that make life grand?

Even though it might not always be feasible—dinner plus delivery is probably a bit much—I think that there should be the option sometimes, because a black-or-white answer won't always quite fit the bill. Sometimes you don't want your coffee to stay or to go: You want both.

I've heard mutters on both sides of the counter about the this-or-that state of coffee shops. Baristas get frustrated that to-go customers don't get the chance to fully enjoy their coffee in a vessel (or an environment) that can truly enhance the experience; customers who take the paper out of a feeling of need never get to fully connect with their coffee or with the people who make it, because they are almost always drinking it on the go, or at a desk, or in the car—alone.

Let me explain why I'm opposed to a coffee-shop architecture that de-facto splits customers into two opposite camps. For one thing, people are naturally creatures of habit, and habits are tremendously hard to break. As soon as you get into the routine of eating lunch at your desk hunched over your keyboard, it becomes impossible to think that there was ever a way to spend half hour outside or a sitting down in the break room, away from the glare of your screen.

Sometimes the idea of leaving your house ten minutes earlier every day so that you could sit down and have coffee in a mug seems like an impossibility. It's almost an infuriating suggestion: What, do you think time grows on trees, buddy?


[Photograph: Steve A. Johnson on Flickr]

No, but I do think that most of us aren't as busy as we think we are. Look, are you at your office right now reading this, or are you getting ready for work? Guess what—you could be at your local coffee shop, drinking out of a mug. (I'm not saying you should sacrifice your Serious Eats time: I'm saying you should, you know, reconsider your schedule just the tiniest bit. Maybe your local coffee shop has wifi, and you could be reading this post there!)

Another reason I'm opposed to saying that coffee needs to be X or Y is that it creates this isolation for people: If you take your coffee to go every day without ever once pausing to savor it in a proper cup, in front of the person who made it for you—maybe having a conversation with him or her but maybe not, just making eye contact as you accept your mug—then you are left alone to wonder whether this is as good as it gets. What is this flavor I'm tasting? Is this good? Do I like it? Where's this coffee from, anyway? Is it the same thing I drank last week?

When we order delivery and are completely closed off from those who prepare the food we eat, we are so much more likely to find fault and to criticize. But when we go to a friend's house for dinner, we will probably have a good experience and a deeper appreciation for what we're eating. The same it true for coffee: it can be a richer experience if we don't experience it in isolation. Loneliness is a paper cup. But what if baristas were able to offer a compromise?

My proposal—which I'm test-driving three days this week with the help of the baristas at Bluebird Coffee Shop in Manhattan's East Village—is to create an alternative to the stay-or-go question by making it easy, even potentially better, for customers to do both. For a few hours in the relative quiet of the afternoon, drip-coffee drinkers who visit the café will be able to split their drink into two smaller cups: one to stay, and one to go.

What's more, there's a bonus in it for them: What's normally a 10-ounce coffee will become 4 ounces in ceramic and 8 ounces in paper (and so on, up the sizes). Anybody who's sipping on their to-stay portion will be welcome to chat with each other or the baristas, flip through the newspaper, or just linger alone with their thoughts and the deliciousness in the warm mug in front of them. No pressure, no cajoling from the baristas (or me, though I'll be on hand to take highly detailed sociological notes)—just a simple offer to extend the day by a few minutes and a few sips.

If you had the chance to take your coffee both ways, would you?

(PS: I wear a dress and jeans on the regular, so maybe the truth is you really don't always have to choose.)

Coffee Both Ways is a service experiment that will be conducted at Bluebird Coffee Shop from August 12th through 14th, 2–4 p.m.. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #CoffeeBothWays.