The growing buzz about coffeehouses

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the diners of yesteryear, the first decision made in the morning was between pancakes and bacon and eggs. But times change, and for many Americans these days, the big decision is between Sumatra and hazelnut.

Welcome to the public well of the 1990s -- the gourmet coffee shop. More and more people are starting the day, ending the evening or just passing the time socializing over a steaming cup of cappuccino.

Once a craze identified with San Francisco and Seattle, the new coffee culture has come east. Starbucks, the sleek Seattle coffee company that has come to symbolize the trend, already is flourishing in the Washington area and has its sights set on Baltimore.

Since last spring, Starbucks has opened 14 stores in greater Washington, one in Annapolis and a kiosk in the main terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. At last count, there were more than 300 Starbucks stores coast to coast.

Boston, New York and Minneapolis are next on the list, and Baltimore will not be far behind. Starbucks plans to move into Baltimore late this year or early in 1995, a company spokeswoman said.

Starbucks, named for the coffee-drinking character in "Moby Dick," may be the McDonald's of the '90s. While Starbucks is the leading player in the $1.5 billion specialty coffee market, it is far from the only business riding the coffee wave.

When Starbucks comes to Baltimore, it will face tough competition from such established coffeehouses as Louie's, Java Joe's and Donna's on Charles Street, the Daily Grind in Fells Point, the Coffee Cafe in Towson and the Coffee Mill in Belvedere Square.

Not that Starbucks has shown any qualms before about opening stores right next door to neighborhood coffee shops.

In one block of Connecticut Avenue storefronts in Cleveland Park, a Washington neighborhood near the National Zoo, there are four places to drink espresso and watch the world go by. First, there was the Uptown Bakers, opened in 1991. Then there were Starbucks, Quartermaine and Palais du Chocolate, all of which arrived late last year.

The range of people at places devoted to preparing the perfect cup of coffee suggests that this love affair is more than a passing fad. The 1990s seem to have given birth to the coffeehouse renaissance.

"It's the Information Age pub," says Dennis Wielech, a multimedia technologies expert, over his habitual morning mug of Sumatra at Donna's. "In the Industrial Age, people drank to drown their sorrows after a 12- to 14-hour day in the mines. Today, he says, regulars at a coffeehouse "share a lot of different information," under the influence of a caffeine buzz.

'More upbeat'

Jimmy Rouse, a Baltimore native who owns Louie's Book Store (( Cafe, concurs that coffee is "more upbeat" than liquor as a social beverage. Louie's caters to the late-night crowd, people who come in after movies or the theater.

Still, it is open all afternoon to those who want to sit down with a book and a cup of coffee. "That's been an object since I opened, that people would feel comfortable doing that."

Mr. Rouse believes the rising popularity of coffee shops shows "the sophistication of American culture," gradually evolving into something like the European cafe tradition. Americans, he says, "don't socialize enough. We see people, we watch people, but we don't talk to people."

The coffeehouse culture in the '90s seems to quench a thirst for community as much as for coffee. When customers come in, many are buying more than a cup of coffee. They are buying a pleasant place to watch others, to read the newspaper, to feel like a part of the life around them. Another advantage coffeehouses have over bars is that people of all ages can drift in at all times of day.

The retreat away from alcohol during the '80s also helps to explain why coffee is so popular in the '90s. Rosemary Thompson, the co-owner of the Coffee Mill, observes that business booms every Sunday afternoon after the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the nearby Presbyterian Church.

"In the '80s, drinking was more of a deal," agrees Rich Meyer, the manager of Uptown Bakers in Washington. "People are watching their money in the '90s, so coffee shops are becoming meeting places."

Mothers come in with their babies, he explains, to see other mothers with babies. Mr. Meyer adds: "One customer said it was a great place to meet girls. Can you imagine a guy saying that five years ago?"

For the twentysomething set,though, coffeehouses are not just places to meet members of the opposite sex. For the members of Generation X, it's nice to know they can count on a few luxuries in life.

As art student Linda Owen, 23, of Washington, observes at Uptown Bakers, "We're more spoiled, but because of our lower income overall, we have to settle for lesser pleasures, like a good cup of coffee."

Part of the lure of coffeehouses also is the chance of seeing otherswho are somewhere between strangers and friends, people who recognize each other and share an interest in common.

Tom Everhart, a painter who works at a downtown Baltimore studio, says that he and other painters and photographers often gather at a local coffeehouse for a "word-of-mouth mid-afternoon tea." These teas are never formally planned but somehow

happen anyway. The arrival of downtown coffee bars since 1992, he says, fills a need in the neighborhood.

Coffeehouses are not a new concept, of course, dating back to London in the 17th century, when they were the place where English gentlemen gathered to discuss politics and business. Lloyds of London, the world-famous insurer, began in 1688 under the roof of a coffeehouse.

'60s coffeehouses

Those who went to college in the 1960s remember coffeehouses fondly as part of the scene. "You went in, they played folk music and had poetry readings," recalls Dr. Don Strauss, a psychotherapist who frequents Donna's. "This is the second coming of them."

The second coming comes with a difference, though, and the difference is that Americans are much more particular about coffee than they used to be. Coffee consumption is actually lower than it was in the 1960s, down from an average of 3.2 cups a day then to 1.8 now. But still half of American adults drink about three cups a day.

Whether they have the cups at home or in a coffee shop, however, more and more drinkers can distinguish between Mocha Java and Maxwell House. This education of the American coffee palate is partly due to the zealous efforts of the 40-year-old chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz.

Mr. Schultz is a formidable force, leading the aggressive expansion of Starbucks since 1987, when the company owned only 11 stores. After posting sales of $163 million in 1993, Starbucks shows no sign of slowing down.

Mail-order beginnings

Starbucks built its reputation through its mail-order business, beginning in 1988, and quickly gained a national customer base. In 1993, Fortune magazine profiled Starbucks as one of America's 100 fastest-growing companies and remarked on its "cult-like customer loyalty."

There is indeed something like a religious streak in Mr. Shultz and Starbucks. He told the Wall Street Journal the story of visiting Milan's cafes in 1983 like a modern Paul. "It was like this vision came to me. It said: coffee."

What will happen when Starbucks comes to Baltimore? Can a national chain of coffee shops authentically create a sense of community? Local coffee house owners don't seem too concerned about Starbucks snatching their customers away.

Take Michael Ditter, who co-owns Java Joe's with his wife, Lisa. They opened in late 1992 to serve the early morning business crowd on its way to work. "We're here for the suits," says Mr. Ditter. But already they feel they have bonds with their customers that Starbucks can't break.

Baltimoreans, says Mr. Ditter, "like to go to mom-and-pop places. Baltimore's a small town. They like underdogs."

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