Is there somewhere that you go often, where people know you and you know them? Is it a sports club? A bar? A church. Whatever it is, it is a “Third Place”.
Sociologist Ray Oldenberg coined the term in a book as far back as 1989. His view is that they were a community “hangs outs” and an essential part of the way that we build social connections. They allows us to feel included in Society. Everybody needs them but especially older people. One of the major threats to a long healthy life is the loss of those social connection. Loneliness in old people is a killer. According to the “State of Aging Report 2022” there are now 1.3m men over 65 living alone in the UK. This is an increase of 67% in the last twenty years.
The Starbucks’ Edward.
“On Today’s Episode of Why I Wanna quit my Job”
This was the heading of a tweet that cost Josie Morales his job as a US Starbucks barista. He was infuriated when he received an app order for a Frappuccino. It was a “Venti Caramel Ribbon Crunch” with thirteen modifiers or additions. These included five extra bananas and seven extra pumps of dark chocolate sauce. He posted a picture of the $14 drink and the name of the purchaser “Edward”. The order was part of a Tik Tok craze for inventing and posting new Frappuccinos. The craze was driving the baristas crazy. Unfortunately Morales’ tweet backfired. It went viral and many customers ordered it on the app from their barista! He was let go by Starbucks for a breach of social media policy.
The incident is a reminder that we are losing Third Places. Starbucks had a clear aim when it first started. It wanted to become the “Third Place” for all it customers. They had picked up the idea from Oldenberg. Not home and not the Office. A place where you could meet people and become a regular. They deliberately used round tables to make it “safer” for people to sit on their own if they wished. One commentator called it the “front room of the community”. The baristas where part of the story. They were welcoming and played the role of the host.
Baristas prefer drinks where they can show their skills at making a good coffee. They prefer a flat white. Their role has changes beyond recognition. They are no longer the hosts in a “third space” where people can get away. They are no longer the experts at making coffee. Instead they are often at drive thru stations. All they do is pump extra shots of syrup and cream into Frapuccinos. Those have been pre-ordered. Their social contact is shouting to people through serving windows. Josie felt he needed to vent and it cost him his job.
Josie’s story was part of an article this week. It was about how Howard Schultz has recently returned as CEO of Starbucks for the third time. He has returned to a very different business to the one he left. He last took the helm in the mid-2000’s when McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts launched the coffee wars. They offered good cappuccinos at much lower prices. This put the economics of Starbucks under pressure. If people wanted to use it as a Third Space they needed to pay for the experience.
The solution was to offer customized drinks at premium prices. There are currently 170,000 ways to customize drinks at Starbucks. 70% of US sales last year were cold drinks. They were cold brewed coffees, iced lattes and of course the famous Frappuccinos. People could still linger over their drinks. The problem was that to offer such a variety of drinks Starbucks had moved ordering on to their app. As one barista put it “The Edward had to be ordered on line. No customer could look a barista in the eye whilst ordering it!”
The company is closing 420 of its traditional “Third Place” stores in the US. It is opening new drive through or pick-up stores. If your drink has been pre-ordered you can “save” time but lose out on any social connection. By next year 45% of all US stores will be in these “non-traditional” formats. The US is losing these Third Places.
Creating Third Places
Will the market provide what older people need or will society have to do it? The policy makers stress the importance of loneliness as a threat to older people. The issue is whether those older people recognize it? Does the decline in Third Places provided by Starbucks signal a disappearance of underlying demand? Perhaps they were attracting a different younger segment? Certainly, COVID will have had an impact. Social distancing and face masks are not conducive to a “Third Space”.
The proliferation of food and drink outlets in malls and streets might suggest there is still a role for the market. McDonalds itself has become a Third Place. In some locations people are visiting and siting with a cup of coffee. For as long as people have lived in communities entrepreneurs have created inns and communal eating places. The remains of Roman Pompeii contain many precursors to Starbucks.
Other writers argue that Third Places have to be created by the community itself. If all it takes is a cohort of regulars they can theoretically be anywhere. They are essential for building strong communities. They allow everyone to understand that they are part of something bigger than themselves. These blurred lines between public and private places are where some of the most important events of urban life take place.
Some Cities are taking the initiative. The High Line in New York is a classic example, It has created a community of regulars who enjoy the plant life above street level. Of course all public spaces are not necessarily Third Spaces. People have to be able to sit and relax. They have to have time to realize that they are amongst other regulars. Some argue that Starbucks never was a Third Space. It was a pale commercialized imitation of the real thing. Only of a fraction of people ever stayed long enough. Only a fraction every came often enough. For some however the “Edward” is bad news and marks the loss of a place.