Published: Wednesday, November 16, 2005
When it comes to coffee houses, Palo Alto's blend is constantly percolating
Photography by Norbert von der Groeben
text by Jocelyn Dong
Alejandro Nunez drinks his morning cup of Farmer Brothers' Coffee at the Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store
The gang outside Peet's in downtown Palo Alto stood huddling on a 55-degree morning last week, cupping their Thermos bottles in hand and shooting the breeze.
While Carissa Ashman wrapped herself in a raincoat, fellow regular Stephen Ames cheerfully bore the chill in shorts and a long-sleeved zipped jacket.
The morning ritual could be more comfortable -- if the Homer Avenue Peet's had indoor seating or more than a postage stamp of floor-space inside. Or if the group of about 30 regulars -- who swing by rain or shine -- were to frequent a different java joint.
Suggest that to any of them, though, and their expressions would turn to distaste as bitter as burnt beans.
An example of Coupa Café's "perfect" cappuccino
Why? It's a no-brainer: They're the Peet's crowd for goodness' sake.
There are more than a dozen coffee houses sprinkled throughout Palo Alto, each with an assortment of adherents all its own. Though loyalties are stereotypically framed in terms of whose cappuccinos are the foamiest or which style of java is better ("Starbucks or Peet's?") -- the beverage factor only goes so far to explain why people are fiercely devoted to their java spots. Ambiance and the company of others play a big part in the phenomenon too.
Call it "cafe persona" or "coffee-shop culture." Whatever the term, it's as habit-forming as daily doses of caffeine. Construction workers working on the 800 High Street project can be found at Peninsula Creamery Dairy Store and Grill gulping down their morning cup of joe. South Palo Alto neighbors drop by Midtown's Palo Alto Café or La Creme de Café for conversation and caffeine.
(l-r) Ted Hatrick of Mountain View, Pat Johnson of Palo Alto, Rick Hackett of Mountain View, Steve Beard of Cupertino and Bob Shanney of Palo Alto enjoy coffee at the homey environs of the Palo Alto Café Coffee House.
To say that people take their haunts personally would be an understatement.
Ashman was introduced to her husband three years ago through a friend she had met at Peet's. Their first date was at the coffee shop too.
"I don't know if I'd meet someone who liked Starbucks," Ashman said, only half-joking, as she held the leash on Kashmir, her 3-and-a-half-year-old Afghan -- also a Peet's regular.
These days the group of former strangers, which includes the likes of a Cisco Systems executive and the occasional homeless person, has formed tight bonds. They get together for happy hours and martini parties and to help one another with periodic home moves.
(l-r) Carissa Ashman, Matt Rohrback and Burt Dupree chat outside Peet's Coffe and Tea on Homer Avenue in Palo Alto.
They're part of a growing trend. The nation's retail coffee market is $9 billion strong, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and it's only getting hotter. Perhaps it's no surprise, given the popularity of chains like Starbucks, which has six locations in Palo Alto. The newest one opened on California Avenue two weeks ago.
According to The NPD Group/NPD Foodworld/ReCount, a market-research company, it's not just chains that have experienced growth but also independents. Chains expanded by 11 percent and independents by 4 percent between fall 2003 and 2004.
Hayat and Alex Saba have a morning cup of joe at the Palo Alto Café Coffee House. Their dog, "Dasha," also took in the scene.
In Palo Alto, that growth has taken place in fits and starts. Four beloved cafes have gone out of business in the past two years -- the venerable Caffe Verona and cozy Torrefazione Italia in downtown Palo Alto, the laid-back Harmony Bakery on California Avenue and home-spun Café Sophia in south Palo Alto. (Sophia is planning a comeback, though). Meanwhile, newcomers have entered the market, each hoping to become a vital "it" spot.
Paul Simon -- no relation to the musician or the senator, he jokes -- seeks refuge at Espresso Bettola on Hamilton Avenue, among the newest entries into the city's caffeine scene. A diehard Verona-ite, Simon is still mourning that café's demise two years ago.
"I really, really miss it," said the Los Altos Hills resident, who now makes a weekly pilgrimage to Bettola to read the newspaper.
Bryan Long of Palo Alto sips on a soy latte at Espresso Bettola Coffee House in Palo Alto.
Had he a million dollars when Verona was facing its final days, Simon said he would have given it to the owners, telling them to pay him back later.
Simon looked around for a new home-away-from-home. He tried University Coffee CafÈ, but since he requires hearing aids, Simon needed a quieter place like Bettola. There, table space is usually available and the pace is unhurried.
Simon also likes Bettola's two proprietors, one of whom chatted him up the minute he walked through the door last week, as though they had already been in the middle of a conversation. Talk turned to Leopard orchids and eye surgery, the kind of easy banter spawned by frequent visits.
Stanford graduate student Peijin Chen sips a latte and surfs the Net at the Coupa Café
Two tables away, Ludwig Fries, a manager with the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, finished up some work. His office is located across the street.
"It's a nice place to retreat. It's not 'get coffee and go,' " Fries said as he drank a double caffe latte. He compared Bettola to European cafes, where people go to converse.
"You walk out the door with a shot in your blood and inspiration in your thoughts," Fries said.
It's not quietness but "buzz" that draws doctoral student Alexandra Haugh to Coupa Café to work on her dissertation about the 17th century Russian colonialization of Siberia. A connoisseur of both coffee and ambiance, she reflected on what makes Coupa one of only three shops in town where she can work.
Baristas Diego Rodriguez and Ramon Guillen work at the Coupa Café
"Here there's just the right amount of background noise," she said, as classic rock played somewhat indistinguishably over the speakers and a trio of men talked business at a nearby table. "That's one of my criteria. I need to have it busy. It can be annoying if there's no music."
Labeling herself a "picky" coffee drinker, she detailed her requirements for the proper cappuccino, which she finds at Coupa.
"It's not milky. There's coffee under here," she said, pushing back the blanket of white foam with a silver teaspoon.
Shawn Standefer and Megan Bela drink and surf the Internet at the Coupa.
She wrapped her fingers around the ceramic cup, cradling the perfect cappuccino in her hands. "This is sacred to me," she smiled.
Thanks to its downtown locale, and free wi-fi access Mondays through Fridays, Coupa boasts a variety of crowds that ebb and flow in the dimly lit space. Business people on their way to work, moms at mid-morning, the lunch groups, the afternoon tea set and students late at night all find their way to Coupa, manager Brady Barksdale said.
Owner Jean Paul Coupal proudly boasts of being another Verona, the place where venture capitalists and start-up executives come to clinch their deals. Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen has been known to pop by, as well as Steve Jobs.
(L-r) Robert Synnestvedt, Kimberly Paul, "Dakota" the dog, Robbi Forsythe and Jeff Preston enjoy a friendly moment outside of Peet's.
"They're talking money again," Coupal said of the business clientele.
Coupa's also where W. Scott Haine, a local history professor and scholar on Parisian cafes, practices French with his friends. He said coffee houses are an example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called "the third place" -- public spaces where people gather, form community and unwind.
They ease the transitions between work and home, the first two "places," Haine said.
"The café is a space where anything can happen," he said. "A café is a place of freedom, where you have options: to brood, mope or be sociable. All can be done in a café."
Mady Vargas, 2, waits as her mother orders coffee at Peet's Coffee and Tea on Homer Avenue
He feels one reason coffee shops have enjoyed a new lease on life has to do with the prominence of computers in people's day-to-day existence. Craving companionship, employees and students come to cafes either to work or to be around people after spending the day immersed in technology.
Some coffee-shop patrons, despite their loyalties, acknowledge their favorite places have drawbacks. At least a few people interviewed confided under their breaths that the coffee is not so good at their café -- but the company is.
Back at Peet's, shorts-wearing Ames, a massage therapist, considered Peet's lack of seating a strength. Having nowhere to sit, save a few benches out front, strangers have been forced to mingle. This morning, at least two new people introduced themselves to the group.
Ames looked at his watch.
"The Reach (Fitness Club) crowd should be here at 9:15 a.m.," he said, sounding like a commuter at a train station.
After standing around for an hour talking about life and politics, the morning regulars started drifting off to work. Kashmir the Afghan watched a bicyclist ride off.
"It's amoeba-like," Carissa Ashman said of the morning coffee klatch. "It's constantly..."
Her voice drifted off as she gestured in an egg-beater-like fashion.
She glanced around. "There'll be more people coming."
Chief Photographer Norbert von der Groeben can be reached at [email protected] Associate Editor Jocelyn Dong can be reached at [email protected]