A remarkable row has cropped up over the recent craze for ‘coffee in suspense’, the practice which originated in Italy and which has now been taken up by several British coffee shops after becoming widely-spread over the internet. At the same time, an imaginative variant of the idea has been created to benefit Shelter from the Storm, a charity supported by many in the coffee trade.
The ‘suspense’ practice, which was first reported in the UK by Coffee House magazine last year, is rather similar to the ‘paying it forward’ practice already familiar in the USA, but probably originates from Italy. The ‘suspense’ coffee is made available when a customer tells a café that he will buy one for himself and another to be ‘put up on the board’. It remains there ‘in suspense’ until a needy person comes into the café, and asks if there are any free items available – some coffee houses promote the fact that they offer such pre-paid items.
In recent days, there has been quite a rush of cafes taking the idea up – Suspended Coffee Sheffield has become a movement, set up on a Facebook page, and a couple of local coffee shops and tea-rooms have already become involved. The same has happened in Scotland. In Bedford, Frescoes has begun its own project, and in Coventry, a community café has taken the idea up.
And then it was reported by one of the daily papers that Starbucks had followed the trend.
However, not everyone is in favour of the idea. Doubts began to be raised when it was pointed out that the purchase price paid by a generous donor does not actually go entirely to the needy recipient – the vast majority of the price of a coffee goes to a café’s costs, and to their profit. Thus, it is argued, a café offering the ‘suspense’ facility makes a profit from any coffee put up on the board, and therefore is not being entirely charitable.
There has been a deal of support for a blog written by Karen Mercer of the My Coffee Stop café at Enfield Chase station, who has come out against the idea.
My Coffee Stop is known in its area for supporting both local community projects and local business projects, and highlighted a different aspect of the scheme. On her blog ‘My Coffee Stop Stories’, Karen wrote:
“The idea has gone viral all over Facebook and people are loving the concept, it really pulls at their heart strings and you’d think that coffee shop owners and large chains would be rushing to support, it wouldn’t you?
“They do NOT! But why not, when it seems like such a brilliant idea, an idea that pumps money into the coffee shop, makes people that pay for the coffee feel good, and gives a little help to a homeless soul?
“I am completely against it. We have spent hours discussing how our coffee shop can be of benefit to the community, but when we heard about the suspended coffee scheme, we had a bitter taste in our mouth and a sadness in our hearts… although this idea seems like a good one on the surface, we would never ever do it.
“Part of the spirit of owning a coffee shop is that you can pass support onto others when you can. I believe most people in coffee shops will give a coffee and a bite to eat to a homeless person, without such a scheme being in place. Plenty of independents and chains do the same. There doesn’t need to be a scheme, as most people running coffee shops have a really big heart and sense of community.
“Do you really think that if a homeless person walks into a coffee shop, they get turned away, if there is no ‘suspended coffee’? I see it as part of the pleasure of owning a coffee shop that if someone can’t afford a coffee, they’re homeless, destitute, depressed, we can offer them coffee, water, tea, soup and a little snack to take away.”
And then, she referred to the dangerous matter of the profit element.
“I really, really wouldn’t want my customers to pay for what I see as quite a spiritual thing. We have a responsibility to share our success with others that need help in our society. It would feel dirty to get money from someone and make a profit from someone else’s misery.
“To set up a scheme like this and get everyone to say ‘ah’ and get them to pay for coffees that they don’t know are ever going to be provided stinks of scam and it’s not necessary.
“If you truly want to support these individuals, either ask what coffee they would like, and take it to them, or make sure you visit your independent coffee store more regularly, in the knowledge that most of them would give out coffees upon request and at discretion to homeless people. Book an appointment with yourself and friends, to meet in your local independent coffee shop, buy them all coffees, introduce them to a great business, help the business to thrive, so they can keep trickling down the love and support that you have given, into their community.
Her argument drew many comments – some people argued that to be seen doing good in any way is a great thing, others argued against it, and one even said that the supermarket practice of inviting customers to donate tins of food was simply a profit-making scam. Some agreed with the concept that any decent coffee shop owner would donate a drink to a needy person, others said this would not happen in business.
(A barista from another country, writing with tongue firmly in cheek, suggested that he could make a nice profit from the extra coffees, and even more if he did not give any away at all – as the homeless are unlikely to be reading Facebook, he suggested, they will not know the scheme exists, and are therefore unlikely to come in and claim a ‘suspense’ coffee!)
One of the cafe owners working the scheme, Kevin Kavanagh of Frescoes, readily acknowledged that there are potential problems, and that he had attempted to balance the altruistic aspect with the commercial needs of a business.
“I did think of the other aspects, and it’s a tricky one,” he said. “However, we open Christmas Day morning for the homeless, and we make no charge for things like that whatsoever. So I see the ‘suspended coffee’ idea as enabling Joe Public to do something… if Joe wishes to. If you like, I’m creating the opportunity for people to help the homeless in their local area.
“The other commercial consideration is that it’s important not to harm the business by clogging up the day-to-day operation with lots of people after a free coffee… so I am doing it as a 12oz takeaway from 8-30 to noon only.”
Meanwhile, within the supply side of the coffee trade, a different version of the idea was devised.
Angus McKenzie, managing director of Kimbo Coffee, came up with the idea of a ‘suspense’ coffee which benefits Shelter from the Storm, the homeless shelter in London founded by Louie Salvoni of Espresso Service and supported by many in the trade.
McKenzie’s idea was to set up a text donation scheme – by texting a code ‘CAFÉ13£2’ to 70070, a donation of £2 would be given direct to the Shelter, and that donation would be entirely given over to supplying cups of coffee to those in need over the shelter’s counter. As the Shelter is a non-profit charity, there would be no question that any portion of the donation could be used for any profitable purpose.
The suggestion was taken up so quickly that the text line was open within hours… and one of its earliest supporters was indeed Karen Mercer from My Coffee Stop, who had raised concerns over other schemes.
“We have done away with any doubt about where the money goes,” said Louie Salvoni, of the Shelter.
Curiously, Louie Salvoni did suggest to Starbucks that they take up the idea in support of the Shelter, but the giant has taken another route.
“Coming soon, when a customer buys a suspended coffee we will provide coffee to that value to our long-standing community-charity partner Oasis, which will distribute it through community hubs across the UK,” the company announced.
The man who had the idea in support of Shelter from the Storm, Angus McKenzie of Kimbo, said he understood the concerns raised by My Coffee Stop.
“I know Karen is very central to her community and she simply grudges the notion of a genuine and existing concept becoming branded and stolen, to the delight of the big social corporate responsibility departments of chains,” he remarked. “In the high street chain model, there would be an outcry if the £2 donated by one consumer really meant that the costs of a coffee – perhaps 23p – were passed to a needy recipient and the remainder went towards operating profits of the host coffee shop!
“So, our inverse scenario promises a very simple idea – your ‘micro donation’ of £2 goes entirely to the charity and is further enhanced by charity tax relief, so the shelter can give even more in a place where the needy get shelter, warmth, nourishment plus love, compassion and TLC. We’ve taken the very best human spirit and kindness and simply channelled it directly, cleanly, transparently, to those who need it.
“How fitting that in April, as it snowed on the streets of London in the bitter, bitter cold, chunks of £2 started flying in to help. It’s heart-warming, it’s bloody great, it’s real and it’s happening!”
This story also appears on the Caffe Culture news portal