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07 April 2013 | Food & Drink | By: Lindsey

Suspended Coffees: Caffeinated Kindness Proves Controversial

Suspended Coffees: Caffeinated Kindness Proves Controversial

As unseasonable cold weather set in and 'Please do not give to the beggars' pavement notices appeared around Old Street, it's no surprise that an idea allowing disadvantaged people to get a free coffee courtesy of anonymous, generous, paying customers went viral in London.

The idea started in the working class cafes of Naples. A customer would buy a cafe sospeso in addition to their own order. The 'suspended coffee' was paid for in advance and listed on a board so that a less fortunate person might later take advantage of the free hot drink.

The Suspended Coffees Facebook page was set up in January this year and already has 35k likes. On Wednesday, #suspendedcoffees started to trend on Twitter. People across the world are speaking to their local cafes and asking them to introduce the concept.

Starbucks UK had so many people leaving messages on their page encouraging them to introduce suspended coffees that they have put out a message saying:

When you pay for a suspended coffee, we’ll give coffee to that value to our longstanding charity partner, Oasis, which will then distribute the coffee to its community hubs across the UK, and we’ll match the value of each suspended coffee in a cash donation to Oasis. This will help provide warmth and comfort for those in need.

But is it really such a good and pure of heart idea? Karen Mercer of Enfield Chase station's My Coffee Stop thinks absolutely not. In this blog post she explains her reasons. Her coffee shop was established with community spirit and soulful ethics at its heart and wouldn't refuse a homeless person a hot drink, soup or snack if they couldn't afford it. Indeed, the shops has regulars that it helps out. There's no need for a scheme, people should do the right thing and not shout about it. If more customers supported their local businesses, those businesses would be able to do more good in the community.

In addition, as this article points out, the retail price of a cup of coffee isn't the price it costs to make. So well-meaning customers are inadvertently increasing the profits of the vendor. And are they sure their suspended coffee will get claimed and appreciated? If everyone did it, there would be surplus. Will cafe owners ensure the donated coffee money gets to a good cause?

You can see how this scheme could work in a small Neapolitan village, where coffee is cheap and good and the community knows who's in need. But will this really work in London?

Think about how much you might spend on a luxury coffee in Pret or your local deli. Wouldn't you be better using your extra Skinny Soy Latte money on a hot drink and toasted sandwich for an individual from a less expensive cafe, and make them feel human again through face to face contact?

It seems this could be more about making coffee drinkers feel good about themselves than really helping other people. And for Starbucks and other chains that follow suit, it's a handy way to boost their Corporate Social Responsibility credibility and get some good PR.

If you really want to help London's homeless with the value of your daily joe, charity, Shelter from the Storm — founded by coffee industry entrepreneur, Louie Salvoni — has boarded the suspended coffee bandwagon in a practical way. Don't put a coffee on the board, text a £2 cafe sospeso to them and they will spend the money on food and drink for their homeless users. Sounds like an excellent idea to us.

Just text CAFE13£2 to 70070.

What do you think? Have you asked your local cafe to get involved?

Photo by lazy_lazy_dog via Londonist Flickrpool. 

Lindsey

Article by Lindsey | 3,291 articles | View Profile

Dorien Irving

we did wonder too- even thought whether it orin came from Starbucks... thanks. Any suggestions how to go about this in Newcastle u Tyne, Berwick u Tweed? I don't mean going face to face offering a coffee n sandwich.

Milly

@Londonist I find this incredibly churlish and negative. Anyone who thinks buying someone a coffee cures problems is an idiot. Buying someone a coffee is a nice community gesture towards another human being. In an age when people are trying to scrape by on £53 per week, buying them a coffee says 'I think you're human, unlike the Daily Mail'. This type of negative article arms the ungenerous with excuses where they weren't going to anyway, reinforces all their negative beliefs about the pointlessness of charity. Shame on you, Londonist, for the most profoundly awful article I've ever seen on your pages.

Adam

Suspended coffees may not be the solution and the concept may have its flaws, but Karen Mercer's blog reads as self-serving and insulting. No one is asking her to take part or insisting that she does. Or maybe people have asked her to - but she's within her rights not to. But her "reasoning" is flawed. Yes, it would be ideal if we all just bought homeless people coffee. But that just hasn't been happening. Suspended coffee is a movement or a trend that is gaining momentum and allowing people to do something - something that wasn't being done. So who cares if people are making a big deal about it? If it's actually doing some good - more good - then is it really that bad? I think not. And Starbucks (for all its flaws) is even making additional contributions (apparently) which might address the profit concerns.

And Mercer's other complaints - about people supporting their local coffee shops - just seem like the complaints of an angry local business owner (in opposition to big bad Starbucks, et al) and have nothing at all to do with suspended coffees. Yes, maybe she does give free product to homeless people. But she can hardly guarantee that all small business owners do the same. She is within her rights to opt out of the programme, but attempting to paint her objections as some sort of case of her "taking the high road" or whatever is fooling no one.

I wonder how many homeless people Mercer really deals with in Enfield Chase and whether she would still give out free products to all who showed up without the ability to pay if her shop was located in, say, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, or somewhere else in a more deprived area of inner London.

April

IMO you should definitely try to see things the way they were originally. Here, the problem is you are trying to import a habit that was the product of another culture, and kind of 'localise' it--which is never easy. But. The tradition is Italian, and in Italy you don't need find a meaning for it, or make sure that coffee you've bought will be enjoyed by someone: you simply do it if you feel like, and it's cool and heartwarming exactly for this reason. It's a matter of great sense of community with little effort from all parts involved: the buyer just has to pay for as many coffees he/she wants to offer; the retailer just has to make a note and actually offer those coffees to those who ask for them; the person who wants a free coffee just has to ask for it. But here it's all about figures, and "involuntarily increasing the vendor's profit". It doesn't work this way. People in London don't need another scheme or method to help disadvantaged people: there are loads of ways already, every corner. What people here need, it's to feel closer to others, smile and be joyous and don't worry about profitability once in a while. This is the great chance, hope it won't be missed.

Shi

You could have a win win with new schemes like Paper and Cup in Shoreditch. Great coffee and it is helping with a long term solution, getting people in recovery back into employment. www.paperandcup.co.uk/

silbey

Good lord, are we overthinking this much?

Happy coffee drinker

The author of the article clearly misses the point and an opportunity to support a kind, simple initiative like suspended coffee. Suspended coffee will clearly not resolve the world homeless' problems but instead is just a human being's nice gesture worth noticing and talking about. Too bad for this grumpy article

Fuckedupigkeit Blog

Adam I agree with your point about how it is so great that it's getting a lot of attention so the cause is getting people talking and thinking about those less fortunate, however from my years working in various coffee shops, both small independents and big bad chains and hearing the bajillions of complaints from customers about homeless people in, outside, nearby the coffee shop I cannot quite understand why they are getting behind this, in one store I worked in we actually had a customer who worked all night collecting bottles for their few cents deposits and spent €1.50 of his earnings on a coffee so he could spend the day in a comfy warm chair napping on and off, other people complained about him all the time wanting him kicked out and now they want to give guys like him suspended coffee and welcome him with open arms.

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