The Politics of the Coffee Shop

By Phineas J. Stone

Nothing these days in Boston speaks as to who we are, what circles we run within and what class of person we are than where we choose to get coffee.

In Boston, the simplicity of getting some caffeine in the morning, or just choosing the place that’s convenient isn’t enough. One has to analyze the political statement it will make to carry the cup with such and such a name on it.

This isn’t just for the upwardly mobile either; it goes as much for the blue collar guy as it does for the female CEO or the president of your local non-profit.

Heaven forbid a steelworker shows up to the job site with a Starbuck’s cup. He or she would hear no end to it and quickly become an outcast.

That’s because blue collar folks either have to get coffee off of the Roach Coach or from Dunks. The social pressure of not having a high-quality coffee from some “yuppie joint” is very strong.

I have a friend who works as a carpenter.

He told me in confidence the other day that he actually buys coffee from an Au Bon Pain near his job site and pours it into a Dunkin Donuts cup before he gets to work. He carries a stack of Dunks cups with him in his work truck.

“I like good coffee,” he told me, “but if I show up with a cup from one of those fancy places, no one would ever talk to me. They’d think I’m some sort of undercover fed.”

Just the other day, I was with a friend and we were going to go get some coffee as we walked. She is a pretty powerful person in the business world around Boston and meets with all kinds of people – from CEOs of other companies to union agents to low-income tenants.

I brought the subject up to her and she laughed.

“I actually have to look at my calendar before I can get coffee,” she said.

She explained that if she was meeting with a community group in the South End and wanted to grab a coffee, she would have to make sure to take a detour past Starbucks and to Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, Wholly Grain or Mike’s City Diner. Showing up with a Starbuck’s cup of coffee to a neighborhood meeting would be a non-starter in any negotiation. She said it conveyed a message that, “Hey, I’m with you. I know this neighborhood and respect it.”

On the same token, when in the Back Bay, she said she always makes sure to have cup from Trident with her.

Conversely, if she were to go to a big meeting downtown with business leaders, a Starbuck’s cup might be the right choice. Showing up with a Dunks in hand, she said, would make them assume she was not on the same level with them. They want to see the corporate logo, whatever it might be, she said.

I asked her what kind of coffee she actually liked.

“I don’t know anymore,” she said, puzzled. “I think I like the coffee I make at home the best.”

And what kind of fancy beans are those?

“Market Basket brand; that’s all,” she said with a laugh.

Nowhere is this trend more in place than over in Charlestown, though, where the neighborhood divide is expressed completely in the choice one makes for their morning coffee. On one side of the street is a trendy, locally owned cafe – a place for transplants and the upwardly mobile in the neighborhood, so it goes.

Exactly on the other side of the street lies a hard-scrabble Dunkin Donuts, where the generational residents and blue-collar retirees gather.

There is no in between.

You’re either someone who gets coffee at the Dunks, or someone who gets coffee at the cafe. And that simple choice defines how you’re seen in the neighborhood.

In fact, not long ago I was witness to a meeting where a neighborhood leader was imploring everyone to come together, “No matter which side of the street you get coffee, we can all work together.”

But the ‘takes the cake award’ goes to JP, where trends such as this were born long ago.

I stopped at an old convenience store that had been transformed into a socially-conscious and highly trendy grocery/coffee shop. On the side of the coffee cup, it was explained to me that I had not simply bought a cup of coffee.

“You have signed on to a movement,” read the label.

It seems the beans were farmed by a socially acceptable cooperative, the methods used to grow and roast the beans were certified organic, the cup had been recycled five times over and 10 percent of the purchase price was donated to animals that were missing legs.

“In buying this coffee, you have chosen to be a responsible world citizen,” read the rest of the label.

And all that before 9 a.m.


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