Today I’m working at a vegan café which is attached to a nutrition shop which is attached to a very oddly-zoned neighborhood that is a hybrid of L-shaped strip malls and townhomes. The cafe has a really wonderful war-what-is-it-good-for vibe that is really tranquil. All the employees have that terrific half-stoned cheerfulness about them that makes me want to curl up on a hemp bean bag and fall asleep in the corner. The place smells spicy, and not in that acid reflux way that Thai restaurants smell spicy, but more like gritty, foreign soap. It’s almost musky, the type of smell emitted from something recently crushed by mortar and pestle. Maybe it’s all the turmeric.
So many of you (2!) reacted to my last post about hip cafes that I decided to just keep writing about hip cafes. This is convenient, as I always seem to be at one.
The most frequent (2!) witticism uttered re: my last post was “hey it beats Maxwell House.” At first this made me want to open yet another café, one called “The Maxwell House,” or perhaps “The Maxwell Chalet,” to protect against copyright infringement and to make the place seem more French. The reason “Maxwell House,” appeals to me so much as a business is that it sounds like the type of place in which you could still smoke indoors, right next to a child, like my parents’ generation did back in the good old cancerous 90s. It also sounds like a halfway house, which means I could attract potential Lynchburg investors by promising to file for non-profit status (Christian tax ninjas unite!).
In all seriousness though, I’ve been thinking more about why hipster cafes, Irish pubs, yoga studios, etc. have started to irritate the absolute shit out of me, and I’ve come up with two reasons. First, I’m older, and this sort of grumpiness apparently happens to white males approaching middle age. As the grand white-privileged future that’s been promised to you both by your parents and by scores of progressive media outlets slips away, you start to see the moment of your greatness flicker and start to get angry. This, to me, explains the absolutely booming industry of boiling-white-anger media properties that are so popular these days.
Second, and more to the point of this post, I’ve noticed that we Millennials have slowly taken over large parts of the culture, which means that we’ve slowly become what we creatives have referred to as “The Man,” or “They” or “the establishment.” Meanwhile, the fact that we are fast becoming the establishment is still lost on most of us. Maybe it’s something like the Slowly Boiling a Frog effect, but I get the feeling that many Millennials can’t really tell when they’re developing their tastes by mimicking the cool-sounding purchasing habits of their friends, as opposed to just letting them develop (forgive the pun) organically.
Perhaps I’m just naturally a cynic, and therefore want to cut against peoples’ grains, but I don’t really see the proliferation of cost-prohibitively expensive boutique cafes as a positive trend.
The inverted U-Curve and the Millennial ego
My biggest reason for this is what I think the café epidemic says about the Millennial ego. “Well beats Maxwell House” is fine as an aesthetic judgment—I would add that most “Irish pubs” serve better meat than McDonald’s (at least for now. Because Millennials gots the cash now, McD’s is going fully fresh and artisanal within the next year or so). This is an obvious remark, and besides the overall point.
But pushing my point forward: there’s this concept that I’ve been thinking through that I discovered through Malcolm Gladwell, called the “inverted U-Curve.” Per Inc.’s review of Gladwell’s latest book, this curve “models the inflection point at which the addition of units–of effort, of people, of money–stops making something better; and the further point at which adding units actually makes something worse.”
Case in point, there’s a scientifically-demonstrated point at which (as P. Diddy knew long before any social science) more money = more problems. The distribution, shown below, inscribes an upside down U:
I think this is the case with boutique phenomena like cafes. Except it isn’t more money more problems—instead, it’s more coffee shops, more sticks up asses.
Imagine the first café of this sort that opened up in town. Ours was the White Hart. The White Hart was a damn oasis in a time when the only cafés in town were owned by franchises. They became the antidote to the corporate poison, and anyone who was worn out with the sameness of Big Coffee flocked to it. Well and good. Thank God for it. It settled the discomfort of the “Down with the Franchises” stick up the ass that make so many of us Millennials insufferable just a little bit.
Then the next boutique café opened. Great! More options! Plus it indicated a trend in the right direction. People cared about craftsmanship, the beauty of the experience, the drive of the human imagination!
Now the next one. And the next. Then a roaster. Each café added its own little flair to try and carve out a competitive advantage.
Suddenly, everyone had an opinion about what coffee should taste like. Suddenly, otherwise down-to-earth people were shaking their heads at the philistines that still drank Folgers out of a Mr. Coffee.
Suddenly, more coffee shops, more ass sticks.
And it doesn’t stop at coffee! It also includes the source of your meat and produce, the quality of your beer.
And at some point it stopped being about how anything tasted and more about what it made you think about yourself.
Because let’s be perfectly honest. There’s a point on the inverted U-curve where people had to start pretending that they could taste the “oak and cherry notes.” If no one had told me that a French Press released all the oils out of the bean, I would not have cared that there were oils, or beans for that matter.
My hypothesis is that we’re well past the point that opening another boutique cafe can be thought of as original, artisan, creative.
Someone pass the Maxwell House.
Mmmm. Now that’s a coffee fit for any occasion.