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.