Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Coming attraction

Yesterday, while out for my afternoon walk, I spotted a "coming soon" sign on one of our town's many (unfortunately) empty storefronts. It announced the pending arrival of a coffeehouse called OQ Coffee, accompanied by the phrase "start a conversation" and a Web address. After checking out the latter, I found that this local company is in the business of roasting and distributing sustainably sourced specialty coffees. Its coffee is sold online and at local farmers' markets and is served at several local eateries, including our community cafe, A Better World (which I've previously blogged about here). Yep, it's pretty much the definition of a bobo business.

Now, on the one hand, I'm very happy about this, because a proper coffeehouse is something our town sorely needs. Right now, what we have is a choice of two chain establishments. PJ's Coffee serves up a variety of pricey coffee drinks, smoothies, and sandwiches in a cozy, den-like setting—but it closes at 8pm (except on Fridays and Sundays, when it closes at 6pm). Also every Sunday afternoon, it has live jazz played at a volume that makes conversation—which is more or less what coffeehouses are for—impossible. The local Dunkin' Donuts, by contrast, offers assorted coffees, doughnuts, ice cream, and a limited selection of sandwiches at much lower cost—even though, unlike the PJ's, it actually uses Fair Trade-certified beans in all its espresso drinks. It's also open all night. However, as far as atmosphere goes, it doesn't feel like a coffeehouse at all: the lighting is glaring, the furniture plastic, and the music "easy listening" (which I find harder to listen to than just about anything else).

Eager as I am to see this business succeed, however, I can't help wondering just how often I'll actually go there. The problem is the prices. Sustainably sourced coffee doesn't come cheap; a quick comparison of the price of whole-bean coffee at Starbucks and at OQ Coffee's online store reveals that prices are about 33 percent higher at the latter. If this price differential translates to all the coffee drinks served up in the cafe, then the equivalent of a tall Frappuccino that costs $3.30 at Starbucks would come to about $4.40 at OQ. At those prices, I don't think it's ever likely to be more than a monthly splurge for me. And if the coffee itself is out of my usual price range, then it's not much good as a hangout, either. (In the three years since I posted on the old blog about my lack of a "third place," I still haven't found one that meets my needs: a place to spend time without spending a lot of money.)

Maybe it's premature to be worrying about this before the coffeehouse has even opened, but I can't help wondering: just how much should I be prepared to spend to support a local business I like? Maybe Brian and I need to go ahead and give ourselves a local shopping budget, as we've discussed from time to time—say, $25 a month that we can spend supporting any of our local businesses. Then we could spend, say, $15 extra buying a game from our local store rather than Amazon.com, and still have $10 left over to blow on a coupla cups o' joe.
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