If Starbucks gives you lemon lattes, go co-work at McDonalds

29 May 2024

Craig Meerkamper, writing at Spacing, laments the apparent demise of the once omnipresent commercial third place, a kind of neutral zone between home and work, such as a cafe, where people gather. Or where remote workers can set up shop for the day.

Coffee houses are one of the earliest examples of ‘Third Places,’ a term popularized by urban sociologist Raymond Oldenberg, who described them as “public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact. In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), Third Places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them.” More than that, Third Places are essential to community-building because they bring people together within a shared space who may otherwise remain in more disparate social circles.

Meerkamper cites the recent renovation of a large-chain coffee shop, where he used to work remotely, as an example. The once numerous tables where people could sit are gone, and the shop has been transformed into what he describes as “a one-room mobile pickup lane”.

Yecch. As if there were little enough incentive to visit the large-chain coffee shop in question. From the photos posted by Meerkamper, the renovation — to be blunt — looks hideous. The operators said one goal of the revamp was to improve accessibility for people with mobility constraints, which appears to be the case, but that seems to be the only plus.

But a whole bunch of matters are raised here. Do coffee shop operators have an obligation to provide office space for remote workers? Ditto, other organisations, such as large shopping centres, from where — as chance would have it — I wrote this post. Libraries even.

Further, what does the revamped setting say about us as a society? Meerkamper writes that tables have been replaced by a narrow bench running along a windowless wall. Patrons can choose to sit down. And face a blank wall. But they won’t be doing that. They’ll be looking at their phones. In fact, the new seating arrangement seems perfect for that purpose.

Does this mean people no longer want to gather at coffee shops to socialise? Would they rather sit there and stare at their smartphones instead? Is that what the new look caters for? Is a coffee shop, of all places, encouraging this behaviour? Structures on which people can lean have also appeared. They’re something to rest against, while waiting, presumably, for takeaway orders.

That definitely doesn’t make for a place where you can hang out for any length of time. Is this, I wonder, something the pandemic has occasioned? Now that more people are working from home, and have become accustomed to it, is there a need for somewhere else to go, a third place? We order our coffee online, race out to collect it, then return home.

No sitting down at the cafe to read, or chat with a friend, anymore. Are these the types of changes places like Starbucks are allowing for, when they remodel their shops?

Starbucks operates a store in a shopping centre I regularly visit. The last time I went passed, it seemed to be business as usual. No renovation work appeared to be in progress. I noticed, through the picture windows adorning the front of the shop, that tables along the back wall were occupied, as usual, mostly by people with laptops.

Meerkamper’s article makes me wonder if the same thing will happen in Australia. It might, but there may be a contingency option for people seeking a commercial third place to work from.

We recently had to make an “emergency” food stop at a large-chain hamburger restaurant, in the west of Sydney. A niece desperately needed a chocolate sundae. We decided to go inside and sit down for a while. As we did, I couldn’t help noticing all the tables along the walls had power points, along with USB charger slots.

Looking around the room, just about every wall table sported a laptop. And none of these people appeared to be in any hurry to leave. A group of people at a nearby table had bought in a scanner, which they’d plugged into a power point, together with several photo albums.

It was clear they intended to stay several hours, as they digitised their photos. McDonalds as a co-working space, or what? Could this be a case of a door closing, and a window opening?


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