Monday, February 24, 2014

The Trouble with Toast: In defense of West coast coffee-shop culture

I want to talk to you about toast. Toast, and why paying $4 for a slice might not be so unreasonable after all.

Let’s back up a bit. Last week, I ran across an article on my twitter feed about San Francisco’s “artisanal toast” trend. These days, “artisanal” is often just a buzzword for food that’s trendy and expensive. According to a food blogger from, in the case of San Francisco’s toast this means thick slices of homemade bread, spread with small-batch, locally produced condiments like almond butter or cinnamon-sugar and going for upwards of $3 a slice. A little bit of digging revealed that this food fad has recently become a rallying point for those who claim that the overpaid tech-industry yuppies are sucking the soul out of San Francisco. The article I read came on the tail end of this internet frenzy, and took a distinctly different approach. Rather than bemoaning the coming hipster apocalypse, the author attempted to hunt down the origins of the West-coast toast phenomenon. Although most other articles had focused on The Mill bakery and cafe, author John Gravois claims that the real toast pioneers were at “a little spot called Trouble.”

“Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club” was founded in 2007 by a woman named Giulietta Carrelli, and it’s her story which makes the article so striking. Carrelli describes a long struggle with undiagnosed mental illness. As a result of what she now knows to be schizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia and bipolarity) she struggled to stay afloat beginning in her late teens. Episodes which could “shut her down with little warning for hours, days, or, in the worst instances, months” made it nearly impossible for her to maintain relationships, hold down a job, and find reliable housing. After finding stability and purpose in a job as a barista and a new network of friends in San Francisco, Carrelli explained that she scraped together the money to open Trouble because it was time to “build her own damn house.” The shop’s unusual four-item menu (just coffee, whole coconuts, grapefruit juice, and cinnamon-sugar toast) reflects the way certain foods have shaped Carrelli’s life, and the business is both a community fixture and a personal safety net. Having a large group of people who recognize her and rely on the space she has created helps Carrelli hang onto her sense of self. As the article describes it, Trouble is a place that fosters face-to-face connections. As the author notes, it’s hard not to strike up a conversation with someone when you’ve each just ordered toast and a coconut, and it’s impossible not to smile at the gregarious, eccentric barista who hands them to you.

Trouble makes for a great story, but it that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people still scoff at the idea of the toast fad and what it represents. One article, entitled “$4 Toast: Why the tech industry is ruining San Francisco” neatly sums up most of the reactions I ran across. That author explains the issue this way: We don’t go to the opera: we overspend on the simplest facets of life...Bake your own bread. Buy regular coffee. Save your money. Aspire to be wise rather than just knowledgeable.”

I get it. I agree that we should aspire to wisdom over knowledge, and that’s why I think all this righteous indignation at $4 toast, cupcakes, lattes, etc. belies a deep misunderstanding of the culture that created them. Knowledge is knowing that you’re paying several times the value of the ingredients for whatever artisanal snack you’re ingesting. Wisdom is understanding that that isn’t the point.



I don’t deny that food fads tend to quickly spiral out of control. However much I enjoy them, I’m not here to defend places like Georgetown cupcakes or the price of a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. I haven’t personally witnessed the toast trend, so I can’t tell you whether or not I think it’s become a trendy scam that’s pricing people out of their neighborhoods. The tech industry may well be ruining San Francisco, but the tone of this argument reminds me of another conversation I often have about my hometown of Seattle. The widespread irritation at an “overpriced” menu item echoes the derisive comments I’ve heard directed at Seattle’s latte-obsessed coffee culture. The problem, as I see it, is a misunderstanding of what $4 toast really stands for.

I don’t blink at spending $4 on a good cup of coffee in the right coffee shop. I’ve happily paid for the “artisanal” cupcakes and, yes, even toast that has so many people rolling their eyes. Although I love trading stories about obscure new places or strange new menu items, it’s not about the bragging rights, and definitely not about flaunting disposable income. If I just wanted a slice of toast, I would make my own damn toast at home. I don’t go to coffee shops because I don’t know how to make coffee (I do), and I don’t order lattes because they’re a superior caffeine delivery system to cheap drip (they’re not). When choosing between mega-corporations to hand my money to, I don’t choose Starbucks over McDonalds because the coffee is better or cheaper (hint: it’s neither.) When I spend between $4 and $9 dollars on coffee and a pastry-- or a slice of toast-- I’m paying for lot more than caffeine and calories.

I am really, really passionate about coffee shops. I was born in Seattle just around the time that Starbucks was becoming a national phenomenon. I don’t hate Starbucks, but to me it’s just a watered-down, corporate version of one of the most important parts of the lifestyle I grew up with. Starbucks has made billions of dollars off of the “third place” concept. Briefly, that’s the idea that most people spend most of their time at home or at work. That company wanted to create a “third place” where people could come and just be. You can sit and read, do work, have a conversation, in a space that combines features of public and private.

I grew up surrounded by an infinite variety of “third places.” In Seattle, coffee shop culture is about a lot more than finding a place to grab a drink or hide out from the rain. Coffee shops are communities, places that combine familiarity and anonymity. I have my favorites in each neighborhood I frequent, places where I’ll go if I have a few minutes or a few hours to kill. Then there are the new faces, shops opening up every few months which I’ll trek across town to visit. Picolino’s is my home base, an Italian-run cafe around the corner from my house with excellent homemade pastries and espresso that varies in quality from barista to barista. The folks behind the counter are a friendly, odd group, and I’m there enough that I can order “the usual.” It’s a long, bright room with plenty of natural light, closely-set tables that seat one or two, and walls that are decorated with old maps. Anchored Ship Coffee, another favorite close to home, is wedged into an oddly-shaped space on a hip block. They serve stellar pour-over coffee ($5), there are plenty of seats at the window counters, and the decor is all repurposed building materials and vintage kitchen cabinets. The Muddy Cup, near a bus stop on my way home from school, is in the living room of a tiny repurposed house, with a full menu of exotic latte flavors (i.e. “fruit loop,”) giant comfy chairs, and battered board games. Herkimer has perfect espresso and wide, laptop-friendly tables. Cherry Street coffee is downtown, with cozy window seats full of vintage rugs and an impressive tea menu. Slate only serves a single, rotating menu item and doesn’t stock sugar or to-go cups, but rumor has it that they have some of the friendliest baristas in the city. My favorites are the places that have perfected some aspect of the experience to the point where I want to tell everyone I know to give it a try. Even more important than finding a single perfect coffee shop, though, is knowing that I can always find one when I need it.

To me, coffee shops mean safety. I can walk into one, buy a drink, and know that no one is going to bother me or expect anything of me as long as I’m there. One of my favorite shops growing up (now, sadly, closed) had a large, unpretentious space and a handful of tables outside on the sidewalk. A handful of local homeless people, some with dogs, would regularly spend days there. The staff left them alone as long as they bought something when they walked in, and in turn they had a warm place to read the paper and sit unmolested. When I was in my early teens and riding the bus alone through downtown Seattle, I always kept a few dollars in my bag so if I ever had time to kill or needed to sit somewhere safe for a while, I could buy a cup of coffee and sit at Cherry St Coffee or Seattle Coffee Works. Later, when a close friend of mine was dealing with a bad home situation, she would often slip out to sit at Richmond Beach Coffee Co. until they closed, a two minutes walk that meant hours of peace.

I’m sure that there are other places which fulfill this same function in cities with a less-established coffee culture than Seattle or San Francisco. But honestly, I’ve never found a substitute. When I first came to Wellesley, I was shocked to find that Boston doesn’t have the kind of coffee shops I grew up with. I’ve found a handful of places in the Boston area which achieve the basics of what I look for in a coffee shop, but the culture isn’t there. I don’t feel that sense of safety and welcome as I walk down the streets that coffee culture brings. Trouble and Giullietta Carrelli’s story are perfect examples of what coffee shop culture can be at its best. Baristas and the people who own coffee shops are some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. A city with a lot of unusual, independent coffee shops is also going to be full of people with non-traditional visions of success. Sure, some of them will be Portlandia-style hipster cliches, young tattooed white people who are “in a band” or “working on a screenplay” and seem to have a suspicious amount of their parents money at their disposal. But a lot of them will be people with “useful skills in tangible situations” (Carrelli’s phrase describing her and her employees) who are invested in community spaces.

Of course, sometimes the coffee is overpriced, and there is a limit to how much I’ll pay for the perfect slice of toast, no matter how beautiful the coffee shop or how friendly the barista. But I’m tired of hearing people scoff at the culture that created things like hipster toast and artisanal cupcakes. Coffee shop culture is about community, dialogue, and finding a way for anyone to feel safe and at home, no matter where they are or what their actual home looks like. I’ll pay $4 for that.

1 comment:

  1. Emma, A really strong and surprising piece that manages to make the case for much more than 4$ toast. It made me think about so many categories we casually, too casually, swim inside: cities, hipsterism, artisinal ______, the sub-economies and counter-economies of communities...Really fine work.