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Zachary Sandifer

UWRT 1101-009

March 30, 2017

Coffee Shop Ethnography

The aim of this ethnography is to create a better understanding of the culture of American

coffee shops. Over the past few decades coffee shops have become increasingly popular. This

ethnography explores this phenomenon and aims to answer the question of why people go to

coffee shops. Most people can make their preferred beverage at home for a fraction of the price it

would cost them at a coffee shop, so why do they go? Is it out of laziness or convenience? This is

some of what I hope to find out, but I think there might be an underlying reason. Perhaps people

go there to experience the culture or the atmosphere there. I sampled multiple people at my local

coffee shop and conducted research to attempt to understand why coffee shops are so popular in

todays culture.

The coffee shop I studied is the Broad River Coffee Company in Boiling Springs, North

Carolina. This is a place I have spent a lot of time at in my high school years for various reasons.

However, I would have never gone to the coffee shop if it was just to get the coffee. Dont get

me wrong, the coffee there is good and I enjoy getting a drink there on occasion, but Im not a

big coffee drinker myself. My father and a few of my friends love coffee though, so it was

always a good hangout spot for us whenever we needed to get work done or if we just wanted to

hang out and talk.

While at this coffee shop I always wondered why people continued to come. There were

some people there I would see every time I went. This seemed crazy to me because I always
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thought the prices there were high. My father was always cautious to spend money, and never

wanted to spend more than he had to. I inherited this mentality from him, so I always wondered

why people were so willing to spend the extra money at a coffee shop instead of just making

their own.

The methods of research I used to answer this question were personal experience spent at

the coffee shop, short interviews conducted with other customers, and research online to see

what others had to say. I used multiple online sources to compare with the research I conducted

to help me create the most accurate answer I could.

During my personal experience as a customer I focused on a few aspects. The first was

the atmosphere of the store. I wanted to understand the feeling of the environment and culture

that was there. As I spent time in the store I began to take in the feeling that was there. The

building itself doesnt look spectacular. There arent too many things that pop out at you when

you are in there, it just looks kind of bland. What I really noticed though was the feeling I had in

there. Everyone there seemed to be doing their own thing, and a lot of people were busy working

on hard on their laptops. This really intrigued me. The atmosphere itself isnt overly loud, but it

isnt as quite as a library either. It felt busy in the store and I kept getting the feeling that I just

wanted to do something. I even wrote in my notes that I felt like it was easier for me to stay on

task with what I was doing there, and the words seemed to go from my mind onto the page

without any hesitation.

One of my other focuses for my time in the coffee shop was on the community there.

More specifically I wanted to note how my interactions with the people there went and if there

was a sense of community there. Although everyone seemed to be broken off into their own

things there was a sense of respect and friendliness. I especially noticed this with the service I
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received from the barista. Nobody questioned what you were doing there, nobody looked at you

funny, no one bothered anyone. Everyone had their own set of task to work on and everyone else

respected that. If there were interactions between people, they were all friendly and calm.

The atmosphere could be a massive draw for coffee shops. From the feel of the people, to

the culture, the atmosphere of a business is the heart of it. The atmosphere determines the type of

people who will want to come and spend money at your business. In an article by Lisa Waxham

she explored the atmosphere of coffee shops to determine what the atmosphere of the coffee

shops were like that seemed to bring in people and encourage gathering. She found that, Each

coffee shop was found to have a unique social climate and culture related to sense of belonging,

territoriality and ownership, productivity and personal growth, opportunity for socialization,

support and networking, and sense of community. This shows that coffee shops can use their

atmosphere to attract customers, and there are many factors that play a part in determining why

people enjoy those atmospheres (Waxham 1). A major part of the atmosphere at my local coffee

shop which I can relate to Waxhams findings are the sense of belonging. The coffee shop I

studied had a very welcoming atmosphere to it, and I feel that plays a part in the success of the


Just like any other business, I felt obligated to examine the service I received there too. I

know there are people out there who just go to coffee shops simply for the coffee. Even though I

am nowhere near an expert on coffee, I wanted to get the full experience. When I walked into the

door I was greeted by the barista. This is always a nice thing to have happen, and it gave me a

more welcoming feeling to the place. I carefully examined the menu before I ordered my drink,

chose one, paid for it and waited. Since I was the only person in line it did not take a very long

time to get my drink, however, I know from personal experience they only have one person
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behind the counter and where there are multiple orders there it can get backed up. Once I

received my coffee I drank it. I must say it was better than I remembered. It has been a while

since Ive drank a coffee based beverage, but Ive always thought that the coffee there was better

than the stuff my dad made at home.

One major way I researched the coffee shop was through interviews with other

customers. This helped me compare my experience I had at the coffee shop with the experiences

of others. I asked basic questions, I mainly wanted to know why they had come to the coffee

shop, and why they had gotten into coffee.

The first person I interviewed was Victoria White. Victoria went to the coffee shop often,

mainly to do work on her laptop. This intrigued me, so I asked why she chose a coffee shop to

get her work done. She responded my explaining to me that she preferred to get her work done at

the coffee shop rather than a library because she did not feel as if she was trapped inside of a

room solely there to do work (White). With the welcoming and busy feeling of a coffee shop it

was easy to see how she felt she could escape the quiet environment of a library in a coffee shop.

I also wanted to find out the reason she began to drink coffee. Like every other person I

interview at the coffee shop, Victoria was a fan of coffee. Victoria first began drinking coffee

with her dad. She told me that her father used to take her deer hunting and they would drink

coffee on these trips with her dad. Victoria told me this is what first got her into coffee, but then

she really started drinking coffee in high school, when she had early classes to wake up for and

needed to be alert (White).

I also interviewed a man by the name of Christopher Ashworth. Christopher also came to

the coffee shop to get work done. When I asked why he replied that the coffee shop had an
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atmosphere that was relaxing to him while not being distracting from his work (Ashworth).

During my time at the coffee shop I also noticed that it was quite a relaxing place to do work. I

had many stressful assignments coming up, and although I would normally be stressed, I was

calm and productive during my time there.

Christopher told me that he got into coffee by drinking McDonalds Frappes. As a young

child, Christopher was exposed to coffee by his grandmother, but he said during that time in his

life he hated the coffee because she drank it black. As time went on though Christopher started

drinking McDonalds Frappes and they got him hooked (Ashworth).

I also conducted a short interview with a man by the name of Daniel Johnson. Daniel was

someone who did not come to the coffee shop as often as the others I interviewed. Daniel

explained to me that he only came about once a week. He told me that it was just somewhere

different to do his work. Daniel also expressed to me that he liking for coffee wasnt due to an

influence from another family member or friend, in fact Daniel said that he had just gotten into

coffee one day (Johnson).

During my research, I learned that people generally prefer to do their work in a busy

place like a coffee shop instead of a local library. According to Simeon Oxenham, most people

prefer the welcoming environment of a coffee shop over a library because it is noisy, and noisy

environments enhance creativity and concentration (Oxenham 1). I certainly found this to be true

during my own time spent in the coffee shop. As previously mentioned, I found it easier to focus

on the task at hand at my local coffee shop than normal. This was also found to be true during

my interviews. Most participants said they preferred to work in a coffee shop instead of a library

or somewhere else.
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Perhaps the environment and noise has nothing to do with an increase in productivity.

Oxenham goes on to mention that it might not be the noise at all, instead it could just be the

people who are around you. Oxenham mentions that the people around you, who are responsible

for their work could encourage you to be more productive. Perhaps the people in life who are

driven to work hard and complete their task encourage you to do the same through their actions. I

have never been a person who has worked well with noise. A coffee shop has never been my first

choice as a location to complete my work, just due to the noise that comes with it. So maybe

noise has nothing to do with an increase in productivity, maybe an increase in productivity is

connected to you trying to emulate others who are working hard.

Heather McPherson wrote an article on why she thinks people go to coffee shops to

study. McPherson interviewed multiple students at a coffee shop on a college campus why they

went there to study. McPherson explains that she has trouble studying and doing work in a noisy

environment. She found the opposite of what Simeon Oxenham suggested. McPherson found

that the reason students went to coffee shops was for more of a social aspect rather than for

productivity. She found that students admitted their productivity dropped when they studied at a

coffee shop. Whenever students were trying to get a lot of work done and seriously study, they

went to the library instead. Somewhere they could concentrate and not have to worry about being

bothered by others. She found that students generally go to coffee shops for the interactions they

have with others. She says, The main reason why people study in coffee shops, however, is that

they enjoy running into people they know. Students see their friends coming by, and they can

chat with them for a nice study break (McPherson 1). This is very different from my findings

and the findings of Oxenham, though it is a very real possibility. We are social creatures and we

like to have the company of others. This can become more apparent when we are slaving over
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papers and schoolwork for hours without any interaction with others. Studying at a coffee shop

can help to remedy that.

During the time I have spent at the coffee shop I also noticed that they have live music

every week there. This could also be a contributing factor as to why people like to go there. The

artist or the music in general could be bringing a small crowd for the entertainment as well as

helping to increase customer satisfaction. According to a study conducted by Adrien North,

David Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick, there is a positive correlation between music being

played in a business verses no music. These researchers spent nine days examining this theory in

a bar and in a bank. What they found was that the customers at each location responded well to

having live music at the location. They found that having music in a commercial environment

can help to boost the atmosphere and mood in the business (North Hargreaves McKendrick 1).

There are many other theories as to why coffee shops attract so much attention. Kashmir

Gander has an interesting one, that people are trying to emulate lifestyles they see on television.

Gander says, Drinking coffee was also seen to emulate the cosmopolitan New York lifestyles

showcased in hugely popular sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld (Gander 1). I particularly like this

idea because it is apparent in our culture. As Americans, we constantly see our celebrities in TV

shows and movies wearing the latest fashion trend and accessories. When we see, celebrities

doing certain things, a lot of the population is bound to do the same. I particularly recall when

the movie Blind Side came out my family and I watched it. In the movie, Sandra Bullock wore a

specific watch, the same watch my mother wanted my father to buy her shortly after we watched

the movie. Whether we accept it or not the celebrities in our society have an influence on us, and

they could very well have a large influence on our interest in coffee.
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Nick Brown has another reason of why coffee shops are becoming such a large staple in

our culture. After reading a report from the National Coffee Association Brown quoted from the

NCA, However, more Millennials are drinking coffee out-of-home, turning coffee consumption

into a public expression of individuality. In the age of Instagram, every detail needs to be on-

brand nothing is really private (Brown 1). This idea expresses that our interest in coffee, at

least with the younger generations, is down to more of an expression of personality. This is also

very apparent in our culture today. Everyone wants to keep the whole world updated on their

lives. People are constantly posting pictures on social media about the food they are eating and

the drinks they are drinking. It is a popular and trendy thing to go to your local caf, order a

beverage, and get work done there. As people we are always trying to be relevant and fit in.

Going to coffee shops and drinking coffee is just what is popular now, and there is definitely

more incentive for people to spend a few extra bucks on a fancy coffee beverage now than ever


Gracy Olmstead helps to reiterate this idea. She draws the comparison between coffee

lovers with wine lovers. She states, It seems many people are as excited about various coffee

brews as they are about winesand coffee tasting can have a similar air of self-conscious elitism

as that expressed in various wine-loving circles. This also shows that people go to coffee shops

and buy fancy drinks as more of a statement of popularity, and not so much for the simple

enjoyment of coffee. She also says, Coffee drinking, like so many other foodie veins, comes

with a bit of identity sculpting. The way you drink, where you drink, how you drinkall of it

becomes part of your cultural and social persona (Olmstead 1). This reiterates that all of the

decisions made by these consumers is about making a public statement about themselves. These

articles show that the ventures we make to coffee shops might not just be about good coffee and
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getting work done, but more about polishing your own personal image of what people perceive

you to be.

There are many different factors in determining why we as a culture are so infatuated

with coffee shops. From the atmosphere to making statements about our personality, there are

many different reasons why people continue to spend money at these businesses. I do not believe

there can be one definitive answer as to why people go to coffee shops, but I believe these

reasons previously stated about are some of the main reasons as to why people go. As long as

this trend continues, you can expect to see coffee shops be a major part of our culture.
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Works Cited

North, Adrian C., David J. Hargreaves, and Jennifer Mckendrick. Effects of Music on

Atmosphere in a Bank and a Bar. Vol. 30. N.p.: Journal of Applied Social Psychology,


Scanner, Brian, and Simon Oxenham. "Do You Get Your Best Work Done in Coffee Shops?

Heres Why." New Scientist. N.p., 27 May 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Gander, Kashmira. "Coffee in the UK: How Britain Became Addicted to Cafe Culture." The

Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

Waxman, Lisa. "The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical Factors Influencing Place Attachment."

The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical Factors Influencing Place Attachment (Article,

2006) [UNC Charlotte Libraries]. Journal of Interior Design, May 2006. Web. 23 Mar.


Ashworth, Christopher. Personal Interview. 28 March 2017

White, Victoria. Personal Interview. 28 March 2017

Johnson, Daniel. Personal Interview. 28 March 2017

Olmstead, Gracy. "Why Do Americans Drink Coffee?" The American Conservative. N.p., 27

Mar. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

McPherson, Heather. "Why Do People Study At Coffee Shops?" Odyssey. N.p., 19 Oct. 2015.

Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

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Brown, Nick. "NCAs 2016 National Coffee Drinking Trends Report Is Big on The M Word."

Daily Coffee News. Roast Magazine, 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

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