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The Quad: Why specialty coffee shops have bean on the rise, culture surrounding them

With the rise of the craft coffee movement in Los Angeles, students are turning to specialty cafes like the new Upside Down shop in Westwood, an art, community and coffee space. (Kanishka Mehra/Daily Bruin)

By Kayleigh Ruller

May 21, 2019 4:59 p.m.

When I envision the perfect homework setup for a Sunday morning, I expect the typical lecture notes and essay outlines.

But more than anything, I look forward to my oat milk latte at one of the many craft coffee spots in Los Angeles.

As craft coffee’s popularity has risen sharply in recent years, the options for where to find that perfect pick-me-up are endless – especially in Los Angeles. With the arrival of new coffee shops in the Westwood area like Upside Down and Metro Cafe where quality sourcing is key to customer satisfaction, it’s clear that independent coffee shops are on the up and up and here to stay.

In 2018 alone, specialty coffee shops increased in magnitude by 3.8%, with a market value of $45.4 billion paving way for great predicted growth in the coffee sector.

All of that technical jargon basically means this: Craft coffee shops are on the rise, and are only going up. But why now?

In a study by the Specialty Coffee Association, craft coffee goes beyond its caffeine effects; sipping it is an experience that creates emotional value and tells a story. While the studies here prove valid, it’s important to consider the bias that may permeate the study given it was conducted by the SCA on a sample of individuals who already enjoyed the craft coffee experience.

The study found when customers are deciding where to grab their next cup o’ joe, only 18% took taste or other physical qualities of the coffee into account, whereas sourcing and sustainability were the most important factors in contributing emotional value to their experience.

[RELATED: Exploring the rise of California’s multibillion-dollar craft beer industry]

A lot of this emotional value is linked with a focus on sustainability and direct sourcing of the shop’s coffee practices. For example, when coffee shops advertise sustainable sourcing, the consumers often experienced a “halo effect” meaning they saw the quality of coffee as better and the price per cup as justified.

While modern coffee consumers may crave direct trade and sustainable sourcing, they ultimately crave authenticity in experience, production and communication within the walls of a craft coffee shop.

When asking people why they chose to spend time at a coffee shop, which may add an extra half-mile to their commute or cost a dollar more, there was a common theme – the desire for a calming, yet communal space that felt like a home of sorts.

What these people are describing is a “third place” – a snapshot of a local community and a setting outside the home or workplace that feels like a comfortable, informal and inviting space of social belonging.

The third place, like a welcoming coffee shop, may be essential for college students away from home for the first time, and might point to the rise of craft coffee shops in college towns.

Denisa Tudorache, a first-year psychobiology student, spends her time between classes drinking almond milk lattes with a notebook in hand and laptop in view at local coffee spots.

“I like working in an environment that’s not stressful,” Tudorache said. “The atmosphere is steady with people smiling, enjoying each other’s company and a good latte.”

[ICYMI: Coffee Cultured: A taste of the LA coffee scene]

One of her favorite specialty shops is just down the street from campus – an art, community and coffee space called Upside Down.

In opening the coffee shop, Isaac Brickner, the director of this coffee-fueled space said he and other members of his team at Jews for Jesus wanted to create a space that connects Westwood through both coffee and art. Brickner said he sees the combination of coffee and art in an inviting space as fuel for conversation and a common denominator among people in Westwood.

“Lacking in this community was a point of connection that coffee and art offer. What people have found in coffee shops is an area that throws you into a common space with people,” Brickner said. “Having this space enables you to meaningfully interact with people and ideas – a shop that feels like home.”

Clearly, specialty shops like Upside Down aim to foster a connection between the citizens and visitors of the area as a whole. One way shops like Upside Down or Metro Cafe in Santa Monica do this is by increasing accessibility and affordability by way of adopting a donation-based pay protocol.

Brickner said although it seems like a risky endeavor, for the most part, the earnings really even out.

“Some people come in and believe in the mission of our shop so much, and give us 20 bucks. Donation based pay gives any individual freedom to contribute what they can,” Brickner said.

Although donation-based pay may point to a new wave of coffee culture emphasizing hospitable service and community, many craft shops focus more on the art and production of coffee itself, branding it with a steep price when shots of vanilla syrup and oat milk substitutions are added.

“When coming into a craft coffee shop, alongside a pleasant experience, people are expecting an expertly crafted, artisanal product,” Brickner said.

This expectation requires significant time, training and of course, money.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, coffee prices were 26.95% higher in 2018 than 2000 – a little over a $5 difference in value, even though the price of wholesale coffee for big purchases is cheaper than its been in years, costing less than $1 per pound.

First-year nursing student Clarissa Cabil justifies spending $3 to $5 on average, because, while admittedly the drinks taste better to her, the purchase of a drink comes with a space for motivation and increased creativity.

“A coffee shop is a chill environment to do work, and honestly, my creative work turns out much better. I’d pay any amount of money to be in a space where I can be creative and be present with my thoughts,” Cabil said.

According to research published in Journal of Consumer Research, a moderate level of ambient noise like the cling of cups and the hiss of the steamer can boost performance on creative tasks.

Furthermore, even being present in an environment filled with others, especially others working on projects, has a contagious effect on the output of work and productivity, as demonstrated by a study conducted by The Free University of Brussels.

This makes Westwood, with its UCLA students, freelance artists and 9-to-5 businessmen, the prime place for cultivating both this third place and workplace.

The doors of a coffee shop are opened to all walks of life. Clearly, consumers are craving a feeling that lasts much longer than the few-hour buzz and crash of caffeine; they are a craving a human connection, or at the least, human presence, which can be lost with the growth of social media, the stress of schoolwork, and the expectations of career-life.

“We have been in a culture wired for success for too long. We are in the new wave of coffee where we really become wired for connection,” Brickner said.

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Kayleigh Ruller
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