What’s the Big Deal about Bagels and Coffee?
Welcome to Alpine…May I take your order?
When you walk into Alpine Bagel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, seldom do you not encounter a line that wraps around the student union seating encompassing dozens of students trying to place their orders. Alpine has been a food favorite for many, many years amongst students, faculty and locals. The campus’s exclusive bagel shop not only has the monopoly, but they have a loyal customer base that comes to Alpine time and time again. Beyond this, the question must be asked—what about the atmosphere at Alpine Bagel makes students at UNC want to come back over and over again to not only enjoy a fresh bagel or coffee, but also to simply study or accomplish some homework?
This is a topic that has been explored to an extent in coffee shops, but considering that this is not a typical coffee shop and that it is also on campus, I wanted to learn more about the created culture at Alpine and how this relates to the appeal for students at UNC. In an ethnography I conducted, I attended Alpine to observe and interview the folks at Alpine to learn more.
My observations revealed that the customers of Alpine are drawn to the store because of three main elements: the perceived busy-ness and unexpected behavior of the employees, the benefit of satisfying two desires at once (eating a bagel/drinking coffee AND getting work done via studying), and a sense of social belonging. Let’s delve in more to the unique culture at a small bagel shop in the middle of UNC.
Here’s how it’s done…
To obtain the observational data I would be using for my study, I went to Alpine on two separate occasions at different times of the day to conduct my research on why students enjoy local shops like Alpine so much. This timing ensures that I’m not just limited to the results I found in the morning, but rather, at two different times of the day. In the first session, I took an hour to simply observe and take notes of the people, setting and practices at Alpine. At the second session, I did this same thing again, but I also took time to interview a few customers sitting in at Alpine. My list of questions includes: I interviewed 6 different people at Alpine, all of which were females with the exception of one male.
Selecting the participants was relatively easy. All of the participants at the time were blonde or brunette Caucasian females who very clearly appeared to be students at UNC, with the exception of one Caucasian male who I made sure to include. I went to different parts of the seating arrangement at Alpine to see if my answers would vary by location, and to a large extent, they did not.
Going directly to Alpine Bagel and sitting in with the fellow customers made sense and allowed me to get up close and personal with the experience that Alpine provides. However, from my first trip there, I realized the vast majority of customers were females. Additionally, since most people were eating/drinking and studying, I pulled out my laptop to blend in with the environment. Due to these two things, I feel that my impact on the environment at Alpine was very limited in retrospect.
- [i]  Why do you come to Alpine Bagel at UNC?
- What makes Alpine worth coming back to?
- How often do you come here in the span of a week?
- Do you usually come alone or with other people?
- What do you think about the employees?
- What do you think about the bagels and/or coffee?
- Do you or have you ever done schoolwork at Alpine?
- Is this one of your favorite dining options at UNC?
- Do you enjoy the busy vibe here at Alpine?
Hustle and Bustle
It can be said without doubt that when something is stirring in a large group of people or the slightest hint of rowdiness ensues, bystanders and those within a small radius of the incident are drawn into it immediately. Look no further than traffic being backed up for miles on an interstate for a simple fender-bender; everyone wants to be “in the know” and a part of the action. The same general rule can be applied to Alpine Bagel.
In my observations, I immediately noticed the talkative and almost combative nature of the employees with one another, and even the occasional sassy altercation that would occur at the register. I don’t mean to compare it to Lenoir, one of two full capacity dining halls on campus that offers much more than just bagels, because that’s a different type of busy. At Alpine, it is less about the sheer number of people than it is the one long line, the shouting and bickering employees, the hip hop music, and the multiple conversations where everyone is speaking over each other. I made sure to ask people about this busy-ness at Alpine and as I suspected, 4 out of the 6 people interviewed said that they enjoyed the busy nature of Alpine.
In one response, the participant said, “To me it just seems like there’s always some interesting conversation going on between an employee or customer, not that I’m eves-dropping or anything!”. “There were many employees who expressed their appreciation with patrons as well,” notes Lisa Waxman in the Journal of Interior Design (Page 14). I can completely understand this because in my two visits to Alpine, I couldn’t help noticing the hustle and bustle created by the constant discussion, often times via raised voices, between employees and the many conversations between even customers.
Two Desires Fulfilled at One Place
Clearly the fact that you can go to Alpine and not only consume a scrumptious meal but also get some much needed work done is something that does indeed appeal to customers. This quote goes to show that it’s not all about eating bagels or drinking coffee to students. Six out of six respondents replied saying they enjoyed the coffee or bagels at Alpine, although not everyone loved both. However, perhaps more telling was that 4 out of 6 people said that they have done schoolwork here at Alpine at some point in time, and that the only reason respondents 5 and 6 didn’t is because “we have intentions of studying but basically we come here and always see other friends and end up not getting any work done at all.” So basically that’s another six out of six responses, I mean, they tried right? “Oldenburg defined these gathering places as third places, and further explained that these places are not home or work, but the places that get people through the day,” says Waxman in the Journal of Interior Design (Page 1). Especially during a time in our lives where work really piles up and we have more to do now than ever, I’m not surprised that students are using more of their time to multitask at places where truly the only reason you would go there is to get a good bagel and coffee.
Sense of Social Belonging
Lastly, I hinted at in my thesis the idea that everybody wants to feel like they belong. At Alpine, at least amongst those that I interviewed, they feel as if they fit in. As David Joon-Wuk Kwun said in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, “In view of that, campus foodservice has become, to a greater extent, a place not only to eat, rest, and study, but also to enhance the sense of community and quality of campus life” (Page 3).
Five out of six respondents said that they come to Alpine at least once a week, with one respondent admitting “I come here way too much but it’s fine, I’m fine.” I bet you can make an educated guess as to who said that one. However, the point is that a place like Alpine isn’t free like Top of Lenoir or Rams Head. Instead, Alpine comes at a cost, and whether that’s a plus swipe, cash or credit card is another story.
We can logically conclude that if students are willing to sacrifice one of these things for one store at least once every week, they clearly feel confident enough to do so. If I were doing a different study, I might argue that there is a positive correlation between number of times eating at a restaurant and sense of belonging. For lack of a better phrase, it just makes sense folks.
Wrapping it all up…
So here’s what I’m trying to say: there are lots of individual reasons students at UNC attend a place like Alpine Bagel. However, all of those things can be boiled down to three main concepts that make Alpine and other niche coffee shops so appealing. They fulfill two desires at the same time, and at Alpine, those two desires are eating bagels/drinking coffee and studying and/or doing homework. Second, Alpine creates a sense of belonging amongst its customers. The students that are going there are going there at least once a week, and you only go out of your way to go somewhere if you feel comfortable.
Last, the hustle and bustle at Alpine is unparalleled in my experience at UNC and constantly provides entertainment, and distractions, to those eating or studying there. When these three things come together, it provides for a large customer base with a group of people all drawn back to the same place although possibly for different reasons. It may not matter to you, but perhaps next time you’re enjoying your coffee or bagel at your local shop you’ll realize what makes that place so special to you. I’d bet that many of these same features will come back up.
To conclude, ethnographies will always leave more to be found out, but I would certainly recommend studying a coffee or bagel shop that is perhaps a little more diverse and representative of the American population. It could just be the demographic drawn to coffee shops, but until I could do more than two sessions at one place, there’s no way of finding out.
Waxman, L. (2006). The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical factors Influencing Place Attachment.
Retrieved November 11, 2016, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-1668.2006.tb00530.x/abstract
Joon Wuk-Kwun, D. (2011). Effects of campus foodservice attributes on perceived value,
satisfaction, and consumer attitude: A gender-difference approach. November 11, 2016,
Fuller, B. K., & Burns, M. (2005). Hole in One Bagels. Retrieved November 11, 2016,
Lauren Daly. Alpine Bagel Cafe Picture. Digital image. Daily Tar Heel. UNC, 2015. Web. 11 Nov.