Coffee Shop Capitalism, or, Overthinking Your Drinking

Election’s over, my little ponies, and that means it’s time to get back to the real bread and butter of MA101 — overthinking the minutia of This Writing Life (TM).

Take, for instance, coffee.

I am (as this blog may have occasionally mentioned) a writer by trade, ergo, I consume both coffee and alcohol in staggering quantities, occasionally mixed together, so that I ping-pong violently back and forth between two altered states, escaping only in my dreams, which are horrific.

(Note: the above paragraph may or may not have been exaggerated for romantic effect, which should only be expected; “writer” is just another word for “liar.”)

So recently, as I sat sipping my coffee, it occurred to me that the “special order” of comedic fame — you know, the “half-whip no-caff dry latte with a shot of macadamia nut” sort of thing that no one admits to ordering, but someone must, because we have jokes about them — is really a sort of microcosm of capitalism at its purest and most direct.

I mean, think about it. Say you really do want a latte or whatever made a very specific way. You basically have two options:

  • The Invisible Hand: Find a coffee shop that makes it just the way you like it without being asked. Everyone’s beans, milk, froth, etc. is a little different — there’s one out there that’ll work for you. You silently punish the coffee shops that got it wrong, and reward the one that gets it right. Market forces in action!
  • The Squeaky Wheel: Alternatively, you memorize your very specific order and demand it of every barista. In theory, this teaches owners over time what their customer wants, leading to better-made drinks and an improved product for everyone. Everybody wins!

Of course, not everyone’s a specialty-drink customer. Most of us are happy to shove any brown sludge in our face as long as it keeps the wakey-juice flowing. There’s a reason the half-whatever no-whatever something-chino is a comic strip gag.

Comic from PVP.

But for those of us that spend (I don’t even want to think about this) maybe a thousand bucks a year or something absurd like that on daily cups of coffee, there’s enough of an investment that it’s maybe worth getting exactly what you want.

I’m an Invisible Hander, myself, probably out of the same latent Iowan politeness that resists asking for holds or substitutions when I order at restaurants. If I don’t like the menu items I can just eat somewhere else, you know? Don’t have to be rude about it.

But it’s nice to know that either way we’re doing our part to move those market forces around. Isn’t it?

  1. “…“writer” is just another word for “liar.” *snork!* You nailed it.

    I’m too intimidated by the jargon in coffee shops to order anything except a medium green tea. Then the barista looks at me all sympathetic-like and says “Grande?” (or venti or peasant’s-bathtub-size or whatever bizarre designation they use at that particular shop). I just smile, nod, and push money at them before backing away slowly, clutching whatever they give me.

    • Could be worse. I’ve settled at an aggressively non-conformist coffee shop, where “medium green tea” will get you a merry chirp of “would you like the Snow Buds, the Laoshan Dragonwell, or the new sencha we just got in from the spring harvest?”

      Or words to that effect. Which is lovely, since I do like good tea, but probably not a solution to the intimidation problem.

      • No, it’s okay, I speak that language. Dragonwell happens to be one of my faves, particularly if it’s loose tea. :-)

        Most coffee shops around here, though, your only choice is “green tea”… whatever they’ve swept up off the floor and crammed into a tea bag.

        • Ahhhh, I’m spoiled, then. We have two actual tea houses, as opposed to coffee shops, along with all our obnoxiously hip coffee joints. And, to be fair, our share of soulless corporate ones too, for them as likes ’em.

          Madison is a pretty all right town!

        • Katelin
        • November 9th, 2012

        I envy you both! We’ve neither tea houses nor coffee shops here; the best you can hope for is to snatch up a can of Folger’s when the stores have it and make it yourself in your french press if you want coffee, since the only other option is instant. As for tea, Lipton is the gold standard. You’d think an Asian country would be swimming in tea, but the only kind they have in quantity here is milk tea.

  2. I have another proposal: Does ping-ponging violently back and forth between two altered states count as exercise? I think it should count as cardio or something.

    The lifting the liter of liquor or 2 pound coffee bag could be weight training. And scavenging for the “just right” coffee house would be, I dunno, a cross country workout?

    • Stephen Sponsler
    • April 15th, 2014

    Is it okay if I get my coffee at McDonald’s served by a clown?

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