Why you should care
Because we’re tired of waiting.
“I’ll have a caramelized honey latte, and my friend wants something cold with soy. What do you do in soy?” the woman three people in front of me says. The last guy ordered three cappuccinos, and the kid in front of me has a list. I’m here at 8 a.m. for filter coffee, but I’m already wide awake … and thinking “get the fuck outta my way.”
My love affair with coffee began in Paris, where a friend insisted I try a “noisette.” This clove cigarette of coffees, called “hazelnut” — for the color, not the taste — is a delicious shot of espresso mixed with hot milk, and just as Djarums draw teens to smoking, le café noisette lured me to endless cafe pitstops. My needs have simplified to quick hits of filtered brew or, occasionally, an Americano, and yet I’m finding it takes longer to queue and get a cuppa at most chains than it does to sit, order and people watch in Paris. So here’s my plea to cafés: Give me a “plain old coffee” express line please! It’ll reform coffee chain culture, enabling everyone to get their morning jolts faster … without contemplating violence.
Folks come in, put money in a jar, fill their cup and get on their way.
The fact that we’re tired of waiting isn’t news to chains, which is why we’re starting to see solutions to ease our pain. Starbucks, for example, now offers Mobile Order & Pay, enabling the caffeine-starved to place orders before heading out and pick them up at their preferred location without waiting. Apps like Order, by Square, also offer this kind of new-age access from certain chains. Mobile ordering, a Starbucks spokesperson says, aims “to design an experience that is reflective of customers moving throughout their day.”
But what is the spontaneous coffee drinker to do? Some chains offer express formats, where small, sleek stores cater to morning commuters with a limited menu. Starbucks, for example, opened its first one in the Big Apple last April and has added a few more locations, plus one in Canada. Caffè Nero, in the U.K., similarly offers smaller kiosks at transport hubs. “They’re set up to whip through the line quicker,” according to a London spokeswoman. Tim Hortons experiments with them in some locations during peak hours — a service “determined by the independent restaurant owner based on specific peak periods,” their spokesperson says. Some independents have gone this route too. La Stazione, located near a transport link in San Francisco, goes a step further for quick-drip brew drinkers: “Folks come in, put money in a jar, fill their cup and get on their way,” says owner Alex Goretsky. (Quick, but maybe not feasible for big corporations.)
My local chain baristas tell me it’s roughly 60/40 in favor of the fancier stuff versus filter coffee. But they also point out that only one barista can run a machine at a time, that a filter-brew self-service machine would be expensive and that their aim is to serve customers quickly anyway. Nero’s spokesperson agrees, noting that an express line “goes against our values,” because it would undermine the company’s mission to make every line quick.
I still say express beverage lines are better. What the best cafés have in common is the acknowledgment that folks want their morning brew, quick and easy, and without waiting for 20 minutes behind a lady who’s now asking about caramel, ice and soy. I take one last glance at the kid’s list in front of me, turn and leave.