April 10, 2013
A wail of disbelief rippled through Chicago this week with the news that Caribou Coffee is leaving town.
What would happen to the employees? Where would the regulars go now?
Caribou customers have been in mourning, as if for a pet or a friend, grief that has been met with some mutters of, "It's only coffee."
What the mutterers don't understand is that a good coffeehouse is never only coffee. It's community.
I'm not a member of the Caribou community, though I've occasionally been to their stores and they've always seemed pleasant, despite the North Woods-lodge decor that in Chicago (the chain's hometown is Minneapolis) feels about as convincing as the palm trees on Oak Street Beach.
But you don't have to be among the Caribou loyalists to relate to their loss. Anyone who's a regular at any coffeehouse can imagine the jolt of having the habit yanked away.
A good coffeehouse is what sociologists call "a third place." It's not home (your first place). It's not work (your second place). It's the place where you escape the first two.
A third place is generally an unpretentious spot filled with regulars but open to anyone, where people of all kinds and social ranks mix, for little or no money.
My third place is Peet's Coffee & Tea, which, coincidentally, is part of the chain that will take over whichever local Caribous don't nail their doors shut. There are currently only two Peet's in the Chicago area, one on the North Side, the other in Evanston.
"P-e-t-e-s?" friends ask when I mention it.
I usually have to explain that no, it's two e's, like "tweets" and that even though it's based in Berkeley, Calif., it somehow manages to feel local.
Hard-core Peet's fans swear by the coffee. What I swear by (the brew's too strong for me, though the beans are good) are the people.
"How long have you been here?" I asked Laura, the barista, on Tuesday as customers floated in asking about the Caribou takeover.
"Thirteen years," said Laura, with the accent Chicago made famous.
Laura seems to know every customer's name and drink preference, and many of us have known her through all of her Peet's years. She and the other workers are a big part of what turns customers into fans.
In a perfect world, I'd frequent a local coffeehouse, something with more charm and deeper roots, but until that arrives in my neighborhood, I'm sticking with Peet's. It's proof that you can make a chain coffeehouse almost as appealing as something local.
Here's what makes a good coffeehouse work, in addition to the coffee and tea:
Employees who are well-trained but not corporate drones.
Employees who seem happy to see you and who remember you.
Permission to linger but enough turnover that the place doesn't feel monopolized by the same table hogs all day every day.
Customers who come for more than the Wi-Fi; a coffeehouse where no one reads a book or has a conversation may be a good study hall but it's not a good coffeehouse.
A reasonable level of cleanliness. It's one thing to bus your own dirty table; you shouldn't have to bus someone else's.
A convenient location. When parking is involved, it doesn't cost as much as half a tank of gas.
The right music. For me, that means music that allows for quiet conversation and thought. Peet's has the guts to play classical.
Pastries that don't taste like the paper cups.
Peet's likes to tout its true local origins, telling the tale of its founder, Alfred Peet, a Dutch immigrant who opened his first coffee store in Berkeley in 1966. So renowned was his expertise that in the early 1970s, he was asked to supply beans and his roasting skills to a new enterprise in Seattle. That enterprise was named Starbucks.
The truth is that Peet's is now owned by the same German conglomerate that owns Caribou. As its name spreads around Chicago and the suburbs, I hope the distant bosses keep finding the kind of employees who know how to make something corporate feel local and communal.
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