Coffee and Companionship at Open Eye Café
Entering Open Eye Café was a breath of fresh air. I felt welcomed by the familiar aroma of coffee brewing, the baristas shouting orders over the loud indie music and the sight of dozens of satisfied patrons enjoying their drinks, conversations, or work. It was a home away from home. Although Open Eye Café is not directly on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, UNC students were frequent patrons and I noted that the same students were in the café during both of my visits.
They repeated the behaviors of drinking coffee, working on their computers and interacting with the people around them. The repetition of behaviors and recurrent patrons compelled me to develop an ethnography to understand why students continue to come back to Open Eye Café?
I identified Open Eye Café as a third place, which is a space other than the home or workplace for people to come together to socialize and interact (Zamiri, 2016). Patrons developed a third place attachment to Open Eye Café due to the positive interaction with the baristas, the comfort of the physical layout and the frequent use of technology.
I visited and observed Open Eye Café in Carrboro, North Carolina twice. My first visit was on October 14, 2016 from 11 to 11:45 a.m., during which I recorded general observations about the physical environment and the behaviors of the patrons. My second visit was mid-afternoon on October 28, 2016, from about 1 to 1:45 p.m. I used this visit to take notes specifically on the factors of third place attachment I saw and to interview several UNC students.[i] In order to blend in as a researcher and participant, I followed the pattern of ordering a drink from the counter before sitting to “work.” Also, I wore a large flannel to match the other customers dressed in neo-hippy clothes. In this way I integrated myself into the culture so no one would bat an eye at me (pun intended).
Chatting with Baristas
Upon arrival to Open Eye Café, I was always greeted warmly by the young, smiling baristas working, and I felt an attachment to the space. During each of my visits, there were two or three baristas taking the orders, making drinks, and interacting closely with the patrons. Other customers also noticed the significance of the baristas. For example, a female UNC student stated that, “We only talked about my order, but he [the barista] was very nice and smiled at me. He made me feel very comfortable here” (personal communication, Oct. 28, 2016). Although the interaction was brief, it established a relationship that made her feel happier in the café during that visit and would likely prompt her to return.
The conversations that customers had with baristas at coffeehouses set the tone for their enjoyment. Manzo (2015) asserted that, “Interactions also among the most important features of the baristas’ work world and are part of what constitutes the coffeehouse as a social environment” (p. 759). Therefore, baristas shaped the social world of the coffeehouse with their attitude and behavior. Moreover, letting the customer know that they were important established the foundation for an attachment to the physical space and the other customers.
Comfort is Key
I felt attached to Open Eye Café the first time I visited because the worn, dark green arm chair I sat in reminded me of my favorite old chair from home. Open Eye Café was notably spacious and large, with a variety of different sizes of tables and plush chairs. One male patron I interviewed described the physical layout as an, “Open big room. It has a nice layout that works well for a lot of people” (personal communication, Oct. 28, 2016). Customers, like this student, became attached to the space because it felt comfortable and familiar to them.
The layout of the café was important because customers wanted to feel connected to the people around them, but not unpleasantly close. Rosenbaum et. al (2007) asserted that people may, “engage in proximity-promoting behaviors for which they readily enter places, perhaps within the commercial domain, in search of human contact…” (p. 47). The arrangement of furniture in Open Eye Café facilitated closeness and intimacy because the couches and chairs were structured to face each other. In this way, even if a patron came to the café alone, they developed a connection with the people sitting around them. The face-to-face created by the physical environment made the unfamiliar more familiar and made both extroverts and introverts feel a sense of belonging, and thus develop an attachment.
As an avid technology user, I connected immediately Open Eye Café because during both of my visits, at least half of the patrons were using some sort of a laptop, tablet, or cell phone. The high percentage of technology usage was because the third space offered an operative, comfortable environment for working. One UNC student, who had been in the café for several hours by the time I interviewed her, noted that since the café has “Big tables, Wi-Fi and coffee, I am able to get homework done more effectively than at my apartment (personal communication, Oct. 28, 2016). Individuals, like this woman from UNC, became attached to Open Eye Café because it was not only a place to be social, but also a great place to work.
In an increasingly digitalized world, people feel more attached to spaces where laptop and cell phone use is welcomed. In a comparative ethnography between Parisian cafés and American cafés, Kleinman (2006) argued that there are, “A variety of technical, environmental, economic, sensory, and architectural factors that can encourage and support the use of mobile information and communication technologies in cafés” (p. 207). Open Eye Café’s environment, specifically the easy access to electrical outlets, loud music drowning out conversations and free Wi-Fi connection, facilitated technology usage. Patrons were evidently attached to their cell phones and computers because of the high frequency of usage, and became attached Open Eye Café’s technology-friendly environment.
Open Eye Café – Home
Though it has not expanded to other locations throughout the community, Open Eye Café was a haven for UNC students, families from the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area, and to all lovers of good coffee. These people developed an attachment to the café as a third place because of the friendly, welcoming attitudes of the baristas, the comfort of the physical space and the normality of technology usage. In the future, it would be fascinating to compare a local coffeehouse, like Open Eye Café, to a larger known chain, like Starbucks to see if people develop a third place attachment in both spaces. A comparative ethnography between these two types of coffeehouse could offer invaluable insight to owners for the development and promotion of aspects of their businesses that facilitate the third place attachment.
Kleinman, S. S. (2006). Café culture in France and the United States: A comparative
ethnographic study of the use of mobile information and communication technologies. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 14(4), 191-210. doi: 10.1207/s15456889ajc1404_1
Manzo, John. (2015). “Third-wave” coffeehouses as venues for sociality: On encounters between
employees and customers. The Qualitative Report, 20(6), 746-751. Retrieved from: http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol20/iss6/2/
Rosenbaum , M. S., Ward, J., Walker, B. A., & Ostrom, A. L. (2007) A cup of coffee with a dash
of love: An investigation of commercial social support and third-place attachment. Journal of Service Research, 10(1), 43-59. doi: 10.1177/1094670507303011
Zamiri, M. (2016) Third place. Current World Environment, 11(1), 21-27. doi: 10.12944/CWE.11.Special-Issue1.04
- [i] Why do you choose to do your work or spend time at Open Eye Café?
- Why do you choose to use technology in the coffeehouse?
- How might you describe the feeling of the physical layout of the café?
- How did you choose your seat or position in the café?
- Did you have a conversation with the barista? If so, what did you discuss and how did it make you feel?
- How long do you typically spend in Open Eye Café?
- How frequently do you visit the café?
- Do you prefer to come alone or with others?
- How do you feel about the social interaction within the café with other patrons and the baristas?