Daniel Landau and caffé sospeso

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | June 2013

In Naples, by long tradition, someone who has had some luck will order a cup of coffee and then a second, caffe sospeso, to be served to someone going through hard times.

The first time I saw "suspended coffee" in action was in New York City, oddly enough. I had stopped somewhere along Broadway to get myself a cup, and standing in line, I noticed a thread bare man standing just in front of me.  He was an unusual customer, scruffy and unshaven in his baggy clothes, with a bandana holding down unruly tufts of grey hair.

In just that short distance from the street to the counter, he had gone over an invisible line.  Inside were people with cell phones and laptops, nice clothes and good haircuts; outside was the full range of human fortunes in which he was somewhere near the bottom end.

I guess I assumed he would be thrown out.  But instead, a manager appeared from the shadows and greeted him by name, and asked him what he would like to drink.

The old guy beamed and ordered a large Latte, and then stepped aside to wait. When it was ready, he collected his cup at the pick-up counter and took it over to a standing table, where he stood adjusting his shoulders – was he preening? – and stirring the coffee with a stick.  No money had changed hands.

The manager – a big-boned Hispanic woman in her 50s – told me she had a dozen street people who were regulars at the coffee shop.  Originally on the house, the one-a-day free coffee was now sponsored largely by customers.

"It’s such a small thing," she said, "and they become our friends – and our protectors." If they bother the other customers, they’re off the list.

So is this a trend? Yes and no: In Italy, where caffé sospeso it began a century ago, it definitely is, but also in Poland and Bulgaria.  But not in New York.

A Starbucks spokeswoman told The New York Times that the company was aware of the trend, but that so far it seemed mostly confined to Europe. In any event, she said, they had no formal policy "about this sort of thing."

On-line discussions in the Big Apple range from, "It’s too complicated for the cashier" to, "You can’t solve poverty with a cup of coffee."

In Vienna, Daniel Landau thinks it's worth a try, and since the beginning of April he and his partners have made Kulturcafé Tachles on Karmeliterplatz the first locale in Austria to offer caffé sospeso. I know this café well, a favourite of musicians, writers, theatre people and the usual assortment of neighbourhood originals, with just the right combination of mood, menu and modest prices, to draw a comfortable cross-section of the community.

And because they are not primarily a Kaffeehaus, Tachles has also decided to offer small meals, all sponsored by their regular customers, in advance. There’s no complicated accounting, it turns out; next to the cash register is a black board where the contributions are recorded by category – how many coffees and what kind, how many teas, soups or grilled sandwiches. The money stays in a tin box until the caffé sospeso, or "Suppe" or "Toast", gets consumed, when it gets transferred to the till, and booked in the usual way.

In the early weeks, far more people gave than received.  "It’s difficult for a lot of people to accept help," Landau told the Austrian daily Kurier in early May.  Most of those who did were students, single parents, the unemployed, and just generally needy.  Those who were doing the giving seemed to like the anonymity and the low threshold, and the chance to do something real.

Since then, word has gotten out, and staff report more takers for "suspended coffee." Days are fair, and there's plenty of space outside.

And while this won’t perhaps solve the big, systemic problems – it won’t replace a job, a scholarship or an errant ex-spouse – a meal is a meal, and a coffee is a coffee.

As New Dealer Harry Hopkins once said, "People don’t eat in the long run."

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