Roger Hitman is tired of drunken strangers, loud music and alcohol. Looking for a friendlier and more sophisticated scene, Mr. Hitman -- like many other area young people -- now frequents Howard County's coffeehouse scene.
"This beats a bar. I don't do the bar thing at all any more," says Mr. Hitman, 24, of Columbia's Kings Contrivance village, while sitting outside historic Ellicott City's Riverside Roastery and Espresso, his hangout for the past year.
Following a national trend that began in the Pacific Northwest, coffeehouses are flowering in Howard. The county now has a half-dozen, with most opening in the past three years.
With their dimmed lights, low jazz or rhythm and blues music, fresh flowers on the tables, and wafting smell of roasting gourmet coffee beans, the cafes have established themselves as cozy and somewhat intellectual environments for an eclectic mix -- students, senior citizens, young mothers and business professionals.
But after school and after dinner, young people are often the largest portion of their business, cafe owners say.
"This is part of the trend toward less alcohol. Gourmet coffee is cheap and a whole heck of a lot better for you," says Jack Colantino, owner of Cappuccino Books and Cafe in the Normandy Shopping Center in Ellicott City.
In the next two months, he plans to expand the cafe portion of his coffeehouse and bookstore to meet rising demand for tables from his patrons of all ages, he said.
The youth appeal of coffeehouses nationwide has been fueled by the success of "Friends," NBC's hot television series about young attractive singles who spend much of their time in a New York coffeehouse called "Central Perk" -- thereby bestowing a certain hipness on coffeehouses in general.
It doesn't work for some. "It seems a little fake to me," says Kristie Atkins, 17, of Laurel. "It's really scary that drinking coffee is a trend, and I have to hang out in a coffeehouse to be trendy."
She says she recently stopped by the Riverside with a friend for a quick bite to eat because the place "looked cute, not because it's the place to be."
Elsewhere in the cafe, Conwell Smith, 23, of Elkridge, entertained her friend Sharon Russ, from Washington D.C. "It's a nice place to sit and chat," Ms. Smith says, to which Ms. Russ adds with a laugh: "We're just feeding into the stereotype of twentysomethings."
But many other coffeehouse hoppers say they can't imagine a better place to spend their time and money. They include Ellicott City residents Dana Gilchrist and Hanna Reid who have built up to a combined $12 a day coffee habit.
The pair visits the Riverside before and after they work out at a nearby gym for $2.75 cups of cafe latte -- coffee made by forcing steam through dark-roasted coffee grounds and adding steamed milk and froth.
"If you want to be somewhere," Ms. Reid, 20, says, "this is the place to be."
The coffeehouse scene may lure young people into cafes for the first time, but it's the coffee that brings them back, says Ted Lingle, executive director of the California-based Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade association for the coffee industry.
"There has been a rapid growth in coffee cafes because young people want a fun and interesting place to enjoy high-quality coffee," Mr. Lingle said. Cafes -- expected to top 2,500 by 1999 -- contribute about $1.5 billion nationally to the gourmet coffee retail business.
Coffee cafes have broad appeal because coffee is relatively cheap. "Specialty coffees cost more than a soda, but less than a glass of wine," Mr. Lingle said.
Prices at county coffeehouses range from $1.25 to $2.50 for espresso, $2 to $3 for cappuccino and $2.25 to $3.50 for cafe latte.
The upscale coffeehouse trend began in the late 1970s in the Seattle area with simple shops that sold regular ground coffee, then added more gourmet lines and began attracting young people. The trend hadn't made its way to the East Coast until about five years ago, Mr. Lingle says.
One reason that county youth are hanging out in coffeehouses is because they don't have many other low-cost, relaxing places to go, says Cyrus Raafat, 24, a part-time employee at Young's Gourmet Coffee and Confectionary in Columbia's Hickory Ridge Village Center.
"Students are discovering coffeehouses in college towns and when they come home for the weekends or holidays, they flock to local ones," he says.
Adds Young Kim, the coffeehouse's owner: "They love the smell of coffee. They love to settle in for hours with their friends to gossip and talk about politics."