For centuries, the smell of strong coffee and the warm allure of fresh pastries fostered a robust camaraderie in iconic French cafes. People would come for the strong coffee, maybe grab a pastry, and stay for the lively conversation. These melting pots of French society brought together people from all walks of life; cafe proprietors thrust stiff coffee into the hands of the people, sat them down next to one another, and looked on as the traditional French fraternité breathed new life into the walls of their establishments. However, as single tables replace the communal ones, and as computer screens replace friends, it is evident that the computerized march towards social isolation has eaten away at cafe culture as humans are forced to live in an increasingly digital space by necessity.
In the last half century, the number of cafes in France dropped from nearly 200,000 to 40,000, according to France’s largest hospitality union, UMIH. This shocking decrease can be attributed to the “Brooklynization” of traditional French cafes, or the shift towards cyber-friendly cafes and cardboard to-go cups. As the lines between work and personal life grow more and more blurred, people feel there is less time to stop and smell the coffee, much less sit down and have a good time with friends. Antoine Palerme, a patron of the popular Cafe Parisien, voices the importance of having a community cafe.
“[Cafe Parisien] isn’t just a cafe. It’s the life of the neighborhood. If the doors are closed, it means someone has died,” said Palerme.
As many cafe patrons begin to take less humanity with their coffee, the community suffers. Chains such as Starbucks are very computer-friendly and allow cafe-goers to camp out for the afternoon next to an outlet. These corporate chains take money out of the pockets of the owners of more traditional cafe owners, who choose to hold on to the vanishing ideal of French camaraderie. While corporate and traditional cafes both offer the same products, it is important to consider whether or not coffee and work are mutually inclusive in creating the ideal cafe environment.
All cafes at their most basic levels seek to maximize profits and make money off of their patrons. They do this by offering up a plethora of food and drink for a reasonable price. But what distinguishes a good cafe from a great cafe? The answer lies in the cafe’s collective environment. Frank Oteri, a New York-based composer and music journalist, explains the importance of cultivating character in a cafe.
“I like places with character, a history… places that contain the energy of all the people in them,” said Oteri.
When contemplating that next cup of coffee, one should always decide what experience they want to go with it. Outlet hogs and patrons of traditional cafes alike should attempt to buy their daily cup of coffee in a way that doesn’t detract from beloved facets of the community. Whether that coffee craving takes them to Starbucks or to an iconic French cafe like Cafe Parisien, both cafes deserve to make money off of patrons who contribute to the environment they’ve chosen to cultivate.