Back in 2002 or 2003, I had this routine that would instinctively play out as soon as I hit the hotel in a new city or town I was in. No matter why I was there, I had to jump in the yellow pages on the side table at the Hotel or in the info provided to see what coffee was close and which places I needed to visit.
(Yes, it was the Yellow Pages. Do you even remember those??)
I would make a list of places that I need to go have a sip at and see in person and then I’d hit all of them. I was so focused on the DNA of coffee spots – what made them what they were – and I just needed to experience as many as possible in as many different places as I could.
I was in the throws of dreaming up Cafe EVOKE and I knew I wanted to learn more about what made coffee shops special to the people that choose to go there day after day. I knew that was going to be a big thing when we opened EVOKE and that we had to find a way to harness and create a place that could best serve the community in which it came alive.
I carried around small Moleskin soft back notebooks – those brown paperback ones – and would get it out as soon as I sat down in a new place and begin writing.
Where was I?
What is today, anyway?
What time of day?
What was the temperature outside?
What did this shop specialize in?
What was the decor?
What equipment did they use?
What does this place smell like?
How does it sound?
Who was working and how many people were behind the bar?
How was my interaction?
Was the coffee good?
How did people get to this spot? Walk? Ride? Car?
Did they have food and was it a focus?
How was the music? Loud? Soft? Fast? Chill?
What was the coffee served in?
What is my favorite thing about this place? What makes it special?
What would I do differently if I was given a chance?
What is one word to describe this place?
I would sit back and just take it all in. What was the place telling me about coffee, people, and the experience? I knew that what made coffee special was what it could stand for at all stages in the process and that every shop I went to served as a special place for the regulars that called it home.
I had this drive to learn more about that “unseen” aspect of each of these places and I had pages and pages of notes from all over the country on different shops. It wasn’t a hot list of places not to miss or places to never step foot in again. To me, those pages represented what coffee was for people.
As coffee began to really take off across the country, it was a race in coffee tech and process, design and brand. The search for the “corner cafe” became easier as the internet and coffee apps began to pop up. I could even see it in my notes – I was tangled in what coffee looked like and less on what it sounded like, felt like, how the shop moved and how its heart beat.
The truth is – even as things began to change in coffee and this “third wave” was overtaking the industry – one things always remained: the people.
Coffee was getting better and better.
Design was getting better and better.
Function and flow behind the bar was getting better and better.
(at least that is what my notes were telling me)
But I can see now that the people and the place that coffee shops were and are to them has held steady. That is what is beautiful about taking a minute to sit there and look around.
At EVOKE, we used to always ask folks to “sip slowly.. sip often”. It was all about unplugging for a minute. Taking in all the sensory delights that coffee and the place you were drinking were trying to provide. To let the rhythm guide you for just a minute. To drink it “here” and slow down for just a second.
It was the first thing I’d do when I traveled… to meet the community in the best place possible: over coffee.
I think nearly 20 years behind the bar created a callus on that sense of experience that is finally softening. What are shops trying to tell us these days? I think I’m ready to find out.
Man, when I get back, I just want to sip some coffee with you again.
I remember all those brown moleskins lining the office shelves. The mysterious EVOKE lore that began to blend into the cafe background day by day. I always wanted to read them, but they felt strangely sacred. Glad you kept them.