The dish

Why Is It So Hard to Give Away Coffee for Free?

Luca Demarzio signed up to the Suspended Coffee Ireland movement about two years ago.

It seemed like a good idea and the group had a bunch of social-media followers, says Demarzio, who runs Caffe Italiano on Crow Street in Temple Bar.

But, for him, it hasn’t really worked out. In fact, his estimate for how many people have donated or asked for a suspended coffee is close to the bottom end of single figures. “Maybe once,” he says. “But I think it was his friend.”

Follow food trends and you might have heard about the suspended coffee movement.

If you haven’t, the idea goes something like this: a customer walks into a cafe and buys two coffees. They take one and leave the other to be claimed by the first homeless or hard-up stranger who asks for it.

When the idea of suspended coffees first floated over to Ireland, it was picked up with understandable enthusiasm in the media. It’s a cockle-warming idea, after all. Feel-good gesture plus coffee. Made for Instagram and Twitter. Destined to spread.

Or was it? The last two years have brought mixed results. While there are examples of success with the scheme, they are few. Why?

The Origins of Suspended Coffee

There’s no definitive origin story for the idea of suspended coffee. The golden age was the first half of the twentieth century, in Italy. But did it grow from a desire to give to the less well-off? Or, was it more about showing off in front of friends?

Italian writer Riccardo Pazzaglia has suggested that the tradition grew out of the way that groups of friends would meet for coffee in Naples, but then lose count of how many coffees they’d had. If extra coffees had been paid for, the person paying the bill would tell the barman to leave them for future, needy customers. In this view, it was more about the giver than the taker, and it grew on that basis.

Francesco Buscemi, a lecturer in Creative Communications at Bournemouth University, who has written about the spread of the suspended coffee idea, takes a similar view. “It’s probably giving a coffee was really a good strategy for giving a good impression with your friends in the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

And, as he sees it, that’s changed today. “My impression is that today it is not working,” he says

“Each historical age has its specific way of giving and receiving,” Buscemi says. “Translating the old practices into modern ways – it doesn’t make sense.”

People give differently now. For a start, they’re more aware that homeless people might need something other than a cup of coffee (hence the “suspended bread” movement). And there’s generally more structured giving through charities.

Great Expectations, Mixed Reality

But it’s not like the experiences of all of Dublin’s cafes have been disheartening.

There are eight cafes in Dublin listed on the website of Suspended Coffee Ireland. Of those, I spoke to five. Three said they’d pretty much stopped offering suspended coffees. Two were enthusiastic.

For those three deserters, why didn’t it work? Location, said Stephen Deasy, owner of Bear Market Coffee in Blackrock.

At first, a couple of men would come in often to pick up the free coffees. But they seem to have moved on. “Nobody comes in anymore and asks if we do it. Absolutely none,” he said.  A few months back, they stopped taking the donations.

Cathal Keogh, owner of Mocha Beans, also said he thought it was a question of location, and suggested that homeless people don’t feel comfortable coming in to cafes.

The suspended coffee idea originally blossomed in a very mixed society. “In Naples in the 1950s, there were many poor people, so probably the poor were much more mixed with the other people,” Buscemi said. “But today, we tend to separate ourselves.”

Where is a good location, though? Temple Bar is central, with different folks passing through, but Caffe Italiano there hasn’t had that much luck.

That could be because it’s close to the Focus Ireland cafe and other homeless services. People might be more likely to go to these familiar haunts when they need a hot drink, suggests Francis Doherty, of Peter McVerry Trust.

Signs of Success

What’s striking about places where it has worked? They’ve really pushed it.

On the edge of Smithfield Square, at Third Space cafe, they’ve adapted the scheme. In one way, it’s the same: somebody comes in, grabs a coffee and pays it forward by covering the cost of another hot drink. But, in another way, it’s different.

Third Space hands out loyalty cards for these hot drinks to charities and a probation officer around the corner, and they hand them on to people in need. “It’s good because then the person doesn’t feel embarrassed,” said Lesley Dodrill, the manager of Third Space.

At the coffee shop in the Malahide Parish Pastoral Centre, they’ve also had some success. In the beginning, they’d sometimes run out of donations, said Sharon O’Sullivan who manages the pastoral centre. “Now, we never have a problem with money for it,” she said.

There’s a notice where people queue, which tells them about the scheme. And, as a nod to an understanding of the needs of the homeless people who come in to make use of the scheme, they sometimes include sandwiches or food with their “suspended coffees”.

O’Sullivan tells people on the street who she comes across about the suspended coffees, so they know that they can just pop in if they want one. If you’re in the shop, you can’t always tell who’s asking for a suspended coffee. With the regulars, it’s just: “Are you looking for your usual?”

There are four people who come in regularly to claim the suspended hot drinks, she says. And by regularly, she means multiple times a day. (And there are others who are less frequent visitors.)

Although suspended coffee hasn’t worked out for some of the people who originally signed up to Suspended Coffee Ireland, they’re the kind of folks who want to help.

Caffe Italiano has pretty much abandoned its suspended coffee programme. But Demarzio says that if he sees somebody struggling, he’ll bring them a drink. Like he always has done.

Lois Kapila portrait
Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

 

Comments

  1. Log in to leave a comment.

Advertisements

Dublin Inquirer is an independent reader-supported newspaper serving Ireland's capital.

Support our work by becoming a subscriber.

We use cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles. We don't use any third-party cookies. By clicking 'I accept' or continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies.

I accept