Clash of the coffee cultures | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer on Apr 24, 2018

The Sumfood office is multicultural. A quality universally recognised as positive, if not essential, in 2018.

Sumfood multiculturalism, however, has a caveat, a schism, a big ol' crack down the middle: We have two very different belief systems when it comes to coffee.

One is perhaps more universal and in our office represented by a South Island Kiwi who believes 'coffee' should be served in individual portions and consist of espresso from freshly ground coffee beans and perfectly frothed milk. The other is from the States (aluminum-sided-diner-rich NJ) and likes it poured black from glass decanters accompanied by copious supplies of half & half.

First up ... the Kiwi delegation.

The Never-ending Cup

Sharing time over a coffee in the US can be dangerous business. In most other countries the coffee is finite. For example, when in a cafe, you order it, enjoy it, then say farewell to your drinking companion. Not so in the USA (particularly for those who don’t like to offend sincerely helpful waitstaff). Replenishing the cup is seen as a metaphorical compliment (or, to the cynical, a tip-inducing-behavior). A way of saying 'I see you' or 'don’t forget about my unfailing-and-ceaseless-service when you come to pay'. Having a mug that is constantly full of steaming brown liquid seems to be considered vital to thinking, talking, eating. (The actual composition of that brown liquid is beyond the scope of this discourse.)

The dangers are many. First, the obvious: It's a hot liquid that's never allowed to really cool -- when you think the bottom is in sight and are down to the final quarter, the cup is brought back to near thermonuclear boiling point with another ‘top up’.

Second, the dangers of over-consumption. Healthy feedback loops provide cues to keep us, well, healthy. Ordering a single cup of coffee, drinking that single cup of coffee and possibly ordering another provides us with bio knowledge about our consumption. But what about when the loop is never closed, when nothing is finished, when top up after top-up after top-up causes you to stagger from a table coffee-saturated and brain-numb? For all you know you may have consumed anything from a cup to a bucket.

Third is the psychological impact of avoiding eye contact with waitstaff in the hopes of avoiding the top-up, thereby insulting a man or woman working for tips and appearing grateful for their efforts. Plus, walking away from an unfinished cup of topped-up coffee induces the childhood guilt generated by the 'my father survived the Great Depression' phenomenon.

Finally, a cup that's never empty eliminates the natural cue for all to leave a table (except for biological functions, work or parental responsibilities, etc.), giving rise the risk of being saddled with a coffee companion for far longer than planned/desired/advisable.

Aside from these personal dangers, I can’t help but ponder the danger to society of a subconscious expectation that things will constantly be replenished, that food and resources are infinite. Of all the aspects of the bottomless cup, this is the one that troubles me most.

Now, the American side.

The Never-ending Cup

No, that's not a miscue. This ode to a cup o' American Joe is also entitled 'The Never-ending Cup'. It may be cliche, it may be a played-out Hollywood trope, it may even be sexist in its imagery of a forlorn stranger sitting alone at a diner counter along a barren roadway being asked 'Coffee, hun?' by an aproned savior holding a pot of hot coffee no matter the hour.

It's romanticised, it's wasteful, it's anachronistic ... and it's about the most American thing this side of a flag-draped Statue of Liberty sprawled on a couch, sipping a beer and yelling at a television blaring an NFL game on an autumn Sunday afternoon.

(For the purposes of this essay 'American' refers to the citizens of the United States of America. Apologies to the several million other inhabitants of North and South America.)

Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks are where Americans turn for fixed servings of coffee. Starbucks even introduced an assinine naming convention for its cup sizes that Americans over 30 still mutter with disdain. But when an American sits down at a breakfast joint or 'family restaurant' or roadside diner he/she immediately conjures the comfort of a warm cup of coffee sitting before them, a cadre of additives on offer to whiten and/or sweeten to their individual taste. No barista to instruct, no array of choices, no foamed artistry ... just a cup of coffee. Only complication? Decaf. But anyone who drinks decaf long ago forfeited the right to an opinion on anything.

America's much-maligned tipping culture lays a foundation for the perpetual refill, of course. It's a ritual that doesn't happen without immediate reward. After nearly 12 years of living in countries where tipping is scorned I can count on one hand the number of times I've experienced outstanding service from someone other than the owner of an eating establishment. Doesn't mean there aren't world-class restaurants, or giving staff, and I've been happy to discover customer service in NZ far outdistances what I experienced in Australia. But simply put: A customer's experience is irrelevant to the day-to-day mindset of a hospitality worker in Australia or New Zealand. As hospitality workers are paid a living wage the only incentive to provide outstanding service is via social media exposure, but positive write-ups only benefit the outlet, not the individual. Without immediate reward it comes down to personal motivation, and in countries where taxi drivers and shoe-shine-men are viewed with contempt for doing work perceived as unbecoming to personal pride, most are motivated to see themselves as 'above' the grubbiness of being a 'server'.

I've bartended on and off in my life and frequently rewarded good customers with a free drink, a gesture that always resulted in a good tip. Waiters and waitresses no doubt have their own reasons for refilling a customer's coffee cup and many surely don't get rewarded for their efforts, but its ubiquitousness throughout the States proves it's a money-making practice.

Everybody wins.

Can I get a top-up over here, please?

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