The Confused Independent Coffee Shop

Politically speaking, what do you think of when I say “independent coffee shop”?

Maybe one could imagine a Rod Dreher crunchy con hang out, but more stereotypically you would think of a progressive place that’s all rah-rah fair trade and New Deals. All stereotypes, including this one, are limited and can be easily contradicted. But they exist because they are often valid. Seriously, how many people were surprised when the National Journal broke the news that “Walmart Moms Favor the GOP” two months ago?

Nevertheless, in theory it should be strange that conservative free marketers don’t talk about independent coffee shops as often as other iconic examples of small business (think plumbers). This thought occurred to me after a recent experience with one local Arlington coffee shop that was clearly struggling with its identity. Despite its best intentions to be stereotypical – it was failing.

The Washington DC area supports an incredible array of local businesses and one of my favorite ways of learning about new spots is via Groupon (read that link if you don’t know what it is). My coffee shop story begins with a simple $10 for $25 deal.

One Saturday, my wife and I decide to cash in our deal for some caffeinated sustenance. Upon arriving I noticed all the trappings of the classic stereotypical coffee shop: placards boasting locally sourced products, everything possible is fair trade and organic and prominent counter space is given to tips on going green via the Arlington Car Free Diet. Lest you doubt my coffee shop stereotyping credentials, I should mention that I grew up going to Macy’s – an independent coffee shop in Flagstaff, Arizona whose t-shirts proclaimed “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Starbucks.”

As I ordered my iced coffee and my wife ordered her soy latte, everything seemed normal. But as the bearded hipster bartender finished grinding the espresso, he reached into the refrigerator and pulled out what should have been an abomination – Kirkland Signature Organic Soymillk. Now I assume that the reason most small businesses use Costco products (not incidentally they are that establishment’s primary customer base) is because it helps them reduce their costs. Most small businesses aren’t making profits like The Goldman Sachs and I would bet that for many the meager cost savings they receive from Costco is probably a critical survival tool in their competition with larger business. So I don’t hold it against the coffee shop that it bought from Costco, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of its more liberal patrons would be troubled by it. Perhaps the owner begrudgingly bought soymilk at Costco. Regardless I think it is a subtle example of the possibility of symbiotic relationship between big and small business.

To conclude, after Bearded Hipster finished making our drinks, he rang up our total and I pulled out my Groupon. But I might as well have pulled out a machete. His eyes widened and his heretofore perma-grin turned sour. “Oh no! Not a Groupon,” he moaned. That’s literally what he said. My wife and I exchanged awkward and confused glances. I asked him what the problem was and he shook his head. He explained, “Groupons are a bad deal for us. People can get more drinks than they actually pay for!” I told him I thought that was the point of a Groupon – offer a discount as a way to entice new potential repeat customers to your shop. Sure businesses lose some money upfront, but they do so intentionally as a marketing expense. While this logic seemed lost on the man, as we were wrapping up he did add a more understandable complaint – Groupon users tipped less often. Faced with confirming his gripes, I guiltily dropped a few bucks in the tip jar.

Protesting Groupons may not rise to the level of political ideology, but it seems to indicate that this particular coffee shop is struggling to understand how to both meet its self-imposed identity as a local progressive watering hole while also competing in the free market for the discretionary income of Arlington’s professional class.


  • December 1, 2010

    Bryan Wandel

    I very much agree with this, though I still prefer to feel some moral tension rather than symbiosis.

    In defense of the coffeeshop, we should probably note that it was the Bearded Hipster who was confused, and not necessarily the coffeeshop (whose proprietor may share your thoughts). As a further clarification, let not this Bearded Hipster speak for all Bearded Hipsters – your ironic facial hair conceals a fervent mind, I am sure!

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