Tagged: coffee

Can snooty waiters save independent cafes from iPads and city planners?

I went to check out the newish Dwelltime Coffeebar and Bakeshop in the newly-hopping Broadway zone of mid-Cambridge.  Whilst enjoying an americano, smooth and served with a glass of water like they do in civilized nations, and a whole wheat bacon scallion scone, not too large, crisp and savory, all for a bit more than $5, I took notice of two notices.

First, the are going to turn off their wifi during lunch hours to reduce, well, dwell time, and to avoid becoming a co-working space.  Second, they have a petition going to get the Peoples’ Republic City of Cambridge to allow them more than 20 seats, a number to which they are limited because they have no off-street parking.   Are these things related?

Item 2, crap anti-business elitist NIMBY zoning

There’s a bus stop out front and the place is 4 blocks from the red line, but somehow the city thinks that the business needs to provide parking.  And the penalty for not providing parking is to be restricted to perhaps half the seating capacity it could serve.  Certainly the last thing I want in my precious Cambridge neighborhood is a cafe full of people.  Ugh, the thought of it.  I’m sure the only reason the neighbors tolerate that school across the street, teeming with germy children and no doubt swamped with SUVs at dropoff and pickup times, is some kind of grandfathering.  Awesome pro-business stance there, Cambridge.  An empty storefront across the street from a school is a much better idea.

Item 1, people who sit in a cafe all day

Before Dwelltime opened, I remember hearing a piece on the radio in which the owner talked about reducing the number of electrical outlets to prevent people from setting up camp all day.  I laughed.  Maybe that will slow down some people with crummy computers, but you can easily go four hours on a modern laptop, all day with an iPad, and as long as your supply holds out with an actual book.  So now they’re throttling wifi to keep people moving?  Again, that’ll hold off some people, but it won’t hold off technological progress.  Tablets, phones and hotspot devices let you skip the cafe’s wifi, as I am doing right now with a personal hotspot from my phone connecting me to a 4G data network.

It’s a social, behavioral problem, and restricting the tech, even if it could really work, won’t do the job.  High unemployment, scads of students, cheap technology, and a sense of entitlement will keep people camping out all day at cafes.

So, what to do?

Obviously the need to turn over the tables faster is exacerbated by having fewer tables than you might “naturally” have in the space.  At the same time, having people move through quicker would mean parking spaces would also turn over faster. Most of the parking nearby is resident or metered with a two hour limit.  If metered parking really worked, it would probably cut back a little on the all-day cafe types, but I’m guessing many of them are walking or taking transit.  I’ll leave the zoning thing alone for now except to say that the city needs to price street parking appropriately and let the cafe live or die on its own merits. For the all-day cafe dwellers, I suggest…

A modest proposal: waiters

People sit in cafes all day because they can.  Passive-aggressive moves like restricting power outlets and internet won’t cut it.  You need to make those people pay up or move on, and I think table service is the way to do it.  If I get a single coffee at the counter and hunker down for six hours, nobody’s coming over and asking me to buy more stuff to earn the right to stay or telling me that another party is coming in and they need the table.  But that’s exactly what waiters do in restaurants.  The better ones are less obviously obnoxious about it, but they all do it. “Anything else for you sir?”  Subtly-yet-pointedly leaving the bill.  You know the drill.

They way I see it, a skilled waiter or two could increase the average revenue per seat per hour and keep the malingerers moving along.  Plus, despite the best efforts of city planners, it would create another job, and it would make the cafe a bit safer by having another set of eyes on the floor.

Your mileage may vary, but if you’re car-free in the area, you should drop by Dwelltime and sign their petition.

Caffeine Nation

Last week I attended a discussion and book signing for Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America by historian Benjamin Carp.  History might not run as deep here in Massachusetts as it does in Sicily, but it’s pretty thick in Boston and the event was held at the Old South Meeting House, a site of major interest to the topic of the 1773 Tea Party.

I will not attempt to summarize the book, largely since I have not read it, but I do have to highlight something Carp mentioned in his talk: tea, coffee, and chocolate – all hot, bitter, caffeinated beverages – all hit the European scene around the same time (the 1580s) and some say they they fueled the enlightenment in Europe and then the revolution in America.

That’s a big claim, but I’m not one to underestimate the power of coffee, tea and chocolate.  Europeans gradually figured out that they liked their chocolate, coffee and tea with both milk and sugar, the latter another product of the transoceanic trade that somehow made these goods widely if not cheaply available hundreds of years before GPS.

The colonists dressed as Indians who dumped tons of tea into the harbor in 1773 had autonomy and self-determination on their minds more than a particular choice of beverage, but it would be as interesting to hear their take on 21st century Americans arguing about patronage of small independent coffee shops or multinational megacoffeechains as it would to know what they think of today’s tea party movement.

Word of the day: Affogato

Today’s word of the day is affogato.  The literal definition from Italian is “drowned” but affogato also describes and names a dessert composed of espresso poured over a scoop of vanilla ice cream or gelato.  Usually, you’re served a shot or two of espresso in a little pitcher alongside a more traditional dish of ice cream and allowed to pour it yourself.  I prefer to pour a little at a time so the coffee doesn’t all go cold at once.  Here’s an example from Nebo in the North End (where, by the way, I recently had an excellent gluten-free meal with not one but two professors M)

Quite the striking black and white in color composition, don’t you think?  Anyway, if you’ve read the above and looked at the photo you probably don’t need a recipe, but here’s Giada De Laurentiis’ version which uses chocolate ice cream and a lot of whipped cream for a slightly different black and white balance.

If you’re into ghoulishly-named Italian food (and who isn’t?) you should also look up strozzapreti, a pasta dish variously translated as “strangled priest” and “priest choker.” Yum.

Neighborhood patrol

La Chic BoutiqueNot that long ago, I used to travel a lot for work, it seemed I was never home.  Occasionally I would join newoligarch for “neighborhood patrol” wherein we would walk around our neighborhoods, taking conscious note of stores opening and closing, construction, homes for sale, and other changes that can pass you by when you’re out of town.

In that spirit, I present some local square updates:

1. Davis Square

The shell of CD Spins didn’t have much time to get cold before a hermit crab of a new business moved in.  They don’t quite have all the signage yet, but La Chic Boutique is definitely open for business at 235 Elm Street.  It’s a fashion consignment shop that also carries (or aspires to carry) according to their literature (abridged), “Hummels, Swarovski Crystal, Frankoma, Hobnail, Lunchboxes, Weathervanes, Transformers, Acoustic Research, Duck Decoys, Doorstops, Microscopes, Old Tube Radios, Ambrotypes, Tiffany Lamps, Folk Art” and more.

Maple board by Spencer Peterman2. Harvard and Davis

I had blogged briefly on Bowl & Board earlier.  This bit from NPR makes it sound like things are even worse, and the Globe also mentions their exodus from Harvard Square.  I went back and bought that cutting board like I was talking about.  I hope that little bit helps them some. It’s a nice foil to the granite counters in limeduck kitchen stadium.


3. Harvard Square

Crema cafe was mentioned in the Globe piece above as a sign of life and business in the square, and I’ve been tardy in visiting.  Professor M lured me there yesterday and I had a double espresso while she enjoyed mint tea and an eggplant sandwich.  The place was packed but still relatively calm.  My espresso was good but not outstanding, having a bit of a sour tang.  The eggplant was crisp, with entertainingly stretchy cheese and excellent (house made?) bread.

There’s still life in these old squares yet.

Fluid dynamics and coffee shop aesthetics

The air at street level was crisp but still.  At higher altitudes, something was definitely happening.

It looks almost calligraphic, and reminds me a bit of the yud-shaped building at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

It also reminds me that there’s abundant beauty in natural, random phenomena.  Who needs fancy latte art when you can search for meaning in the flow of foam?  What do you see here?

While you ponder the abstract expressionism of this, also ponder if you should really be getting coffee in a paper or plastic cup (and plastic lid and paper sleeve) if you’re going to drink it in the shop?

Not for everybody

Don’t you love it when over-caffeinated people get into screaming matches over how they think coffee should be served? As long as its not happening in front of me in line, I consider it a form of reality TV – it just serves to reaffirm that whatever my faults, at least I’m not those people.

Maybe you heard how a week or two ago, a guy tried to order espresso over ice at a coffee shop where such a drink was “really not ok” and this turned into a minor media flurry (I saw it when it first hit boingboing) and eventually degenerated into bilateral threats of arson and assault. See the original rant here, and a rantbuttal from the coffeeshop guy here.

Anyway, this got me thinking. The fancy coffee shop here thinks they’re enforcing their brand, a “coffee without compromise” brand, rather than a “have it your way” brand, which is what the customer thought was in force. (I’m at a Starbucks now, I wonder if there’s any permutation of the stuff behind they counter they won’t serve?) A basic failure to communicate, perhaps? Hardly an excuse for the level of verbal violence on both sides.

Elite, even prickly or hostile brands do exist and can succeed. Hardly anything is truly for everyone, and smart brands have to find ways to appeal to the people they want and to ignore or even drive away the people they don’t want. “Everybody” is just not an actionable target market. High prices and high pricing signals (like no price tags) are the most obvious way that brands drive off undesirable customers, but sometimes you want to segment on something other than price.

I met up with an old friend and colleague at podcamp last weekend, and he expressed some concern that he had developed a negative brand as “not for everybody” for being aggressive and opinionated. I agree. He’s not for everybody. Neither am I and neither are you. But if you’ve got a particular kind of problem, you need a particular kind of solution. This guy shouldn’t try to broaden his appeal, he should accentuate his specialization. Look at Listerine, Altoids and Moxie – they are strong and aggressive and not for everybody, and proud of it.

I think there’s room (maybe even a need) for a Murky Coffee in every industry – a strong and bitter dose of exactly what you need, whether you’re man enough to admit it or not, served up the right way, no substitutions – and that comes with the need to clearly communicate how and why your brand is so tough. And finally, there’s an obligation to be respectful of people as you steer them away to other, less demanding vendors.

Extraordinary hummus at Andala coffee house

I’ve mentioned this place in passing before, but after spending a couple of hours there the other night, I felt I really needed to write about it in detail, and declare my belief (and this is bound to generate controversy) that Andala serves up the best hummus in town.

Andala coffee house is at 286 Franklin Street in Central Square, Cambridge, just a block from scenic Cronin Park and within view of limeduck world headquarters. They offer the usual cafe stuff, some fresh-squeezed juices and some Arabic-accented specials such as msabaha and zeit u zaatar. They have no website that I can find, and are generally open until 11pm, which is pretty late for this town. Plus, you can suck on a shisha pipe (outside only) while your laptop sucks down free wifi. Service? Not so hot. But I keep coming back for the hummus plate.

About 20% of the 80+ yelpers who reviewed Andala mentioned the hummus, almost all positively.

It’s $7.95 and comes with a highly random selection of vegetables (I’ve had carrots and cucumbers most of the time, red and green bell peppers often, celery and onions on occasion, almost always olives, and this time, a big fat chili pepper) and some warm pita.

The hummus itself is always a little different, which makes me sure its house-made. Some days its very green, some days less so, but there’s always plenty of olive oil and paprika on it. The texture is not so smooth to as to remind you of store-extruded versions, but not too gritty or chunky either. I have to carefully monitor my pita usage so there’s enough left to mop up the dregs, but none left over. The portion is satisfying and you feel reasonably virtuous for having a vegetarian meal.

I usually get an espresso or some sparkling water, sometimes both. This time, instead of the usual Perrier or Pellegrino, I got a can of Market Basket Seltzer which says on the can, “made with sparkling water.” For some odd reason, that made me smile.

So go to Andala for the hummus and stay for the wifi, or vice versa. You won’t regret it.

Apple Time Capsule Keeps My Coffee Warm

Well, that’s only part of a long techno-story developing on my desk. But it’s true. I raved about the Time Capsule in one of my last Ipswitch blog posts, and now I actually own one. It delivers on all its cool features, at least the ones I’ve tried (haven’t upgraded to Leopard yet) but it also runs disturbingly hot. I could have bought a USB coffee warmer for about $5 but instead I got an excellent access point and print sharing thingy. That also keeps my coffee warm. Viva Magnifica!

What’s more interesting, at least to the techie in me, is that I had a near-total hard drive failure on my iMac, and despite some inconvenience and expense, I lost very little data. And that was before I bought the Time Capsule.

Emails? Stored online with my email provider. Music? Stored on the ipod. Pictures? Well, that’s the weak link – some on flickr, some on CD, many on this blog, but a lot were on the drive. Documents? Those I actually backed up to a separate computer. So why buy a backup device like the Time Capsule? Because the drives used by those online providers are no better than the one I just bought, that’s why. Online backup is attractive too, since theft or disaster could wipe out both computer and backup, but the magnitude of media – photos and music (I don’t have many videos) – seems to make that impractical.