Sunday, November 16, 2014

Personal Observation, Analysis and the Research Paper

When I first read the general instructions for the analysis essay I will admit that I felt a bit of trepidation. The project felt too open ended, and I really didn't have the foggiest idea of where to start. However, like watching the plot of a movie unfold, the exercises we did as we started the project made it easier to find direction.

I have loved coffee since I went to Klekolo in college during a trip to Middletown, Connecticut. I had a drink called the Mardi Gras, a gateway drug of sweetened espresso beverage. I had gone to Coffee Times in Lexington once, and my friend's drink, Campfire Cocoa, had made a bit of an impression. We were supposed to choose a relatively small space, and while Coffee Times is technically only two rooms, the place is huge. It definitely was a bigger task to observe and write about this place than I initially thought.

If you have the opportunity to go to Coffee Times, I recommend going to find a seat near the back. You might feel like you are too close to the restrooms, but you will be next to the large glass window that looks over their coffee roasting area. It is a unique view that isn't common to the rest of the coffee shops in the area.

Note: Robert and Barbara Sommer's work on social facilitation is available to read via UKY library site with a student ID. The full citation information can be found via the linked page or the Works Cited linked below.

Shelbie Phelps, a University of Kentucky student, has a prime spot in the front seating area of Coffee Times. Her seat is next to the large windows fronting the store that allow natural light to fill the space and more importantly near the outlet tower. Her laptop’s power cord snakes along the floor to a low plug. “I got here around noon,” Shelbie says as she packs up to leave around 5:00 p.m. “I was knocking out a paper.”

Coffee Times welcomes workers with hanging outlets over a long work table.
Looking around the large seating area, it is easy to see she isn’t alone. On a Sunday afternoon nearly a third of the people have laptops, notebooks or textbooks out. While it appears that most of the people working away are students at either UK or Transylvania University, there is a group of people running a board meeting or co-op at the long table near the bar. Most of the seats near the outlets don’t change hands during the afternoon. Once people are working, they often stay for hours. They are coworking, or renting a work space for the price of a cup of coffee.

Shelbie admits that five hours is long. Most of her visits vary, but tend to be an hour long (Phelps). Virginia Ryan concurs. When she was in law school, she would spend at least an hour at the shop several times a month (Ryan). At 4:20 on a Sunday afternoon, the room is packed. Many of the people are settled in with papers spread out on the eclectic tables. At 5:00, most of these people are still there, though more of them are packing up to leave.

Coworking can have a negative impact on the coffee shop business model. Coffee shops have to work to manage that impact. Megan Snedden at the BBC reports that some shops such as Cafe Grumpy in New York City have banned electronics. Other shops, such as fast-food restaurant Dunkin Donuts, have highly limited seating and a 20 minute seat limit in some of their business locations.

Research on social facilitation done by Robert and Barbara Sommer in 1989 indicates that most people going to a coffee shop and staying have only a single cup of coffee regardless of the time they spend (661). Groups and joined groupings spend significantly more time in the seating area (659). Unlike earlier research by Cutler and Storm on social facilitation in taverns where “the rate of beer drinking was relatively constant over time” (653), it appears that the duration of stay does not routinely encourage additional consumption in coffee shops.

The use of coffee shops as work spaces has altered the social facilitation dynamic, and the time spent by individuals is rising up from a median time of 16.5 minutes for an individual customer (Sommer 659). As the number of individuals camping out at coffee shops increases, coffee shops need to find ways to ameliorate the impact they have.

Closer to the bar, the seating area expands. A couch and some cushiony chairs share space with a long table with hanging outlets dangling over it. On the left side of the aisle, the space is open. The right side is more cramped as people vie for space with their laptops and books. Next to the espresso bar is a case holding local pastries and sandwiches. The bar isn’t as ostentatious as the espresso bars at other swanky coffee establishments. The seating continues further on till you are by a glass window overlooking the coffee roasting room near the restrooms.

It is striking how many people are sitting in the shop on a Sunday afternoon. More than half of the seats are full, and all of the seats near the outlets. The seats not being used are out of the way, crammed into the corner of the room past the pastry case or far from any source of electricity. The shop is full of the sounds of people writing or having conversations. Outside of those working alone, most of the customers are grouped into clusters and chatting away. It is apparent that coffee shop seating is an integral part of the Coffee Times experience. They are offering their customers not a single style of seating, but a seat for each reason they might come to the shop.

John Barnett and Anna Burles design coffee shops worldwide as principals of JB|AB Design. They talk about coffee house design as an exercise in creating an environment that notes the needs of the customer and answers them, “offering different reasons to visit whatever the occasion, time pressure or mood.” A quick glance in the seating area at Coffee Times shows how the shop exemplifies this ideal. There are seats and tables for solitary workers, people conducting group meetings, and individuals lounging, reading, and chatting away with friends.

The effect when the place is empty is a bit of a hodge podge, but the place is rarely empty. Even 30 minutes before they close on a weeknight there are a steady stream of customers. Most of the people are picking up their coffee and maybe a snack to go, but there are still a few groups of people working in the seating area and a couple cuddling on a couch.

The varied seating encourages the majority of the coworkers to use the area closest to the windows, while leaving a large space open for other types of customers. Sunday afternoons are not filled with just students. The open area away from the outlets is full of families sharing some pastries and drinking a variety of hot beverages from the coffee bar.

According to Snedden, coworkers can “occupy tables for several hours and spend very little.” In a shop with only isolated coworkers this may not have a huge impact on the business bottom line. However, a place like Coffee Times where nearly half of the people on a Sunday afternoon have textbooks, notebooks or laptops out has to manage this impact or suffer a drop in revenue.

Coffee shoppers rejoice! All of this shopping is right as you enter the door.
Coffee Times does this in a number of ways. First, they offer a number of different product lines. The gift items, whole beans and tea, and brewing paraphernalia encourage larger purchases. Instead of selling just coffee and pastries, they offer soup and sandwiches as well, encouraging both people who are using the space and workers in the neighborhood to stop there for lunch.

Virginia likes that Coffee Times has breakfast and lunch options. “They have good sandwiches and quiche, good pastries from bakeries in town. I also like their frequent buyer punch card.” (Ryan)

The menu options encourage coworkers like Shelbie to buy more than a single cup of coffee. Shelbie drinks more than a cup of coffee during her paper marathon, “I got up and bought a sandwich and later got a dessert.” It is clear from Shelbie that the option to get up from studying, get a snack and browse is a clear winner. “I like to study in coffee shops. There are built in breaks.” (Phelps)

More important than the menu, only about half of the seating at Coffee Times is well situated for coworking. The remaining seating is primarily designed for individuals or small groups, helping to maintain the quick turnover that is common to a successful coffee shop.

Baristas and coffee shop managers at many coffee shops can discourage coworking by creating an unfriendly atmosphere. Despite the length of time many of the customers stay, this is not the case at Coffee Times. Both Virginia and Shelbie indicate that they have never been made to feel uncomfortable by anyone on the staff. This friendliness has encouraged both of them to be repeat customers.

Among upscale coffee shops Coffee Times is in a unique position. Their business model does not rely on point of purchase sales from the coffee bar for the bulk of their revenue. They also roast their own beans on the premises and sell them both in their shop and wholesale to restaurants and other shops in the area. This additional income stream has mitigated the impact that coworking has had on their bottom line. The seating at Coffee Times, however, creates an environment where coworking is welcomed and used to enhance the lively and friendly aspect of the shop without impacting the rest of their customers. Without the large and varied seating area, however, Coffee Times would not be able to accommodate both groups of customers and their business would most likely suffer. Coworking at its heart is detrimental to businesses without a plan to keep its impact in check.

Go to the Works Cited

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