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. 

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Article by Lindsey Berthoud | 3,284 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.

    • Lindsey Clarke

      The Suspended Coffees Facebook page is quite helpful – you can see how other areas got schemes going.

  • 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.

    • Lindsey Clarke

      The intention was not to be negative, just to raise some questions about the best way to help other people. If you read it again, you’ll see that I think buying a person in need a hot drink and a sandwich and interacting with them is better than sticking a coffee on the board.

      • Adam

        But let’s face it – people don’t necessarily have time to buy hot drinks and sandwiches and interact with people. Or they don’t necessarily have unlimited access to homeless people or people in need – especially when they are in a place where they can buy a drink and have the time to give it to the person and interact with that person. That’s why suspended coffees work – they allow people to do something when they are buying their morning cup of coffee on the way into work or maybe at lunch time, etc. They can buy a coffee then and someone else can benefit later. That way we don’t have to put it off until the time is “right” because we all know, the time is never right.

    • BethPH

      Actually, I think Lindsey”s post raises a valid point. There’s no suggestion that we shouldn’t help people, just questioning how we do that in the most effective way. Leaping onto a bandwagon to allow ourselves to feel good for ‘doing something’ isn’t always the best way.

    • Dave H

      “Incredibly churlish and negative”? “Profoundly awful”? Really?

      self-righteous indignation and hyperbole could solve the problems of
      the capital’s homeless, then there would be no need to discuss how
      charitable intentions might be best implemented.

      However, in reality, finding the best way to help disadvantaged people is not always that simple. Challenging an existing approach should not be seen as a threat to charity itself, as long as the debate is open and honest.

  • 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.

    • Karen Mercer

      Hello Adam, thanks for taking the time and trouble to read my blog and my thoughts about suspended coffee.

      The inspiration behind me writing the blog was that several people were posting on my timeline and tagging me in posts on Facebook, asking our shop to take part in the scheme. I couldn’t take part, as I feel it is wrong to make a profit out of people that are trying to help homeless people and that the money could be used more powerfully and directly by giving it to homeless charities, or non-profit making organisations such as Shelter from the Storm, where you can just text £2 straight to them, directly, they have 36 people using their shelter, every night of the year and rely completely on donations. I would not and could not feel good about taking the money for a ‘Suspended Coffee’, knowing that I am making a profit from it and we give coffee to our homeless regulars anyway.

      Other local coffee shop owners that I have spoken too have also said that they give their homeless visitors a drink and bite to eat too, so this is NOT an action that is not being done, local coffee shops are doing this action. If the public want to help homeless people then, really and honestly the money is far better used to help homeless people by donating the full amount to charity.

      Yes, you are correct, I cannot guarantee that all small business owners do the same, by giving a hot drink out here and there, when it’s needed but I can guarantee my own actions as a small business owner and also reassure you that the other small business owners that I have spoken to do the same.

      My objections to the scheme had to be voiced, I saw that people were liking the Facebook post and feeling sentimental about the story, I wanted there to be a transparency to the story and let people know that as a coffee shop owner, I could not do this scheme and I could not support it. I could not happily accept £2 for someone to buy a homeless person a coffee and then take the profit. If that seems strange in this society, where some people prize profit above all else then let me explain. There is more to be had in this world than riches, we have never measured the success of our company in just profits. Of course, we are not stupid, we know that to have a sustainable company and make a living, we need a profit but we also measure the success of our shop in how much it gives back to our community and if we can give, what we get at a trade price, for free, to someone who needs it, then we will do that. Of course I am not taking the high road, I am taking the honest, straight forward road. However, I have not slated other independent coffee shop owners who have decided to take part in this scheme because for their own reasons, it could work for them. As explained in the article above, my community looks to our shop to support them in these issues, since we set up our business with that ethos and heart, from the beginning. Several passionate appeals from my connections to join in the scheme, deserved a full and meaningful answer written straight from the heart.

      The encouragement I give to people to support their local coffee shops is not said in an angry or complaining way but in a cheeky and honest way! We are lucky, very lucky indeed, our community loves what we do and we love helping our community, there’s a real good buzz about the stuff we do and a very, very positive vibe. I think that Starbucks has acted in a very responsible way, they haven’t taken on the scheme, they too, as I have, have seen the inherent flaws and have come up with their own answer to the ‘Suspended Coffee’. An article in The Independent says that they have joined the scheme, however, that same article quotes Starbucks as saying that they ‘Embrace the spirit’ of the scheme, which I’m sure you understand as meaning, they aren’t actually doing it but have been inspired to do something that helps!

      Yes, you are correct to question how many people I could give coffee out to, if we were located in inner London. It would be very difficult indeed. I was thinking about this myself. I am not in that situation and if I was and I needed help, with the help that we love to give, I’m sure I’d come up with some brilliant way to help the best that we can.

      So Adam, do you know what the great and really positive thing is that has come out of all this? I’m sure you do know but I’m going to say it anyway, I said it in my blog and I’ll say it again. The great thing is that whether any of us agree or disagree about Suspended Coffee, we are all talking about the best way that we can possibly help homeless people. And if you think that is a different way to me and if I think that is a different way to you, it doesn’t really matter as long as each of us takes some positive action that helps in some way. Although there are many differing opinions about the Suspended Coffee scheme, the good thing is that homelessness is in our minds and on the agenda.

      I wish you well and thank you for joining the debate and making me think once again about the whole subject.

      Karen. xxxx

      • Adam

        Thanks for your reply, Karen. I guess we agree on one thing – which was kind of my point (in a roundabout way): maybe suspended coffees aren’t the greatest thing or the perfect solution, but by creating a buzz and by starting a bandwagon that people are jumping on (and ‘making a lot of noise about’), it’s allowing far more poor and homeless people to be helped right now, today, than were previously being helped. And people are talking about the issues. So that’s a good thing.

        Sometimes the perfect solution to a problem isn’t always the best one.

        • Karen Mercer

          Phew, I feel like we’ve just made up after an argument. Yes you are right and just to make things topsy turvy again…..Sometimes the best solution to the problem isn’t always the perfect one! Hee hee. xx

          Creating the buzz about the homeless situation, that any one of us could find ourselves in, is the great positive about Suspended Coffee.

          It certainly made us think and actually take an action towards helping in our way.

          Thanks for your answer. xx

          • Jackson Allan

            Adam, your stance depends on the idea that this movement will do ‘more good’. Unfortunately the suspended coffee movement doesn’t exist within a vaccuum and has the potential to divert donations away from more efficient means of providing for those in need. Donations are finite, and as people donate more money they get donor fatigue and are less likely to donate funds. Charities compete for funds, so the suspended coffee movement equally competes for the finite annual donor spend as much as any other charity. That’s why it matters that people are making a big deal about it. It has the potential to effect the good work that other charities are doing by taking a proportion of the annual donor spend and funnelling it into the pockets of cafe owners. On a macro level it has a zero net positive social effect, potentially a negative net social effect, another way of putting this is that it does ‘less good’, rather than, ‘more good’. I have gone further into this concept at my blog

      • Ajinta

        How about cafe owners using the profit from the suspended coffee to donate a nutritious snack to go with the coffee – for example an egg on toast?
        I feel coffee is a luxury item and offering a coffee to a homeless person offers them dignity and equality with everyone else, but offering food to go with it would be the really generous act!

  • 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.

    • Ellie

      Big love for Paper and Cup – wish they’d wade in on this

  • silbey

    Good lord, are we overthinking this much?

    • Ellie

      I’m afraid I agree. I’d love to buy someone homeless a coffee and have a quick chat but for the moments I only have time to buy one for myself, I think the scheme is better than nothing.

  • 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

    • BethPH

      It rather seems as though some commenters are missing the point.

  • 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. for more