Once upon a time, in the magical land of Naples, Italy, a tourist sat in a café and watched as several customers ordered one coffee for themselves, and one “suspended.” Wondering what was going on, the tourist’s question was answered when a few hours later, a man dressed in shabby clothes walked in and asked, “Do you have a suspended coffee?” And voilà, one of those prepaid coffees was ready and waiting for him to claim.
Dubbed “The Legend of the Suspended Coffee” by Laura Northrup, a blogger for “The Consumerist,” the practice has become a movement around the world thanks to Facebook and a blog post written in 2011 after an Italian traveling to Naples saw the tradition for the first time.
A Facebook page called “Suspended Coffee” was created in 2011, but exploded in popularity in March as people across the world shared the story with their friends. As a result, coffee shops all over the world have pledged to offer their customers the option of buying coffees that can be given to those who cannot afford them.
The blogger who started it all, Majla Paoli, is an Italian who hails from Florence. “My introduction to suspended coffee came from a dear friend of mine, Giulio Mascoli, whom I inherited from my parents,” she said from Italy. She wrote the blog post after spending a day in Naples with him. As she explained on her blog: “The donor and the recipient would remain anonymous to each other, to protect generosity, pride, and the pleasure of coffee beyond hardships.”
That sentiment has inspired many coffee shop owners to give back to their communities by offering the old European tradition. William Hubault, a graduate student in Paris, has created a website, coffeesharing.com, that lists coffee shops that are now offering suspended coffees. The count is up to 146.
“It’s a simple idea that is really needed in today’s world to show that you care about other people,” said Rosemary Herbert, who makes the baked goods for the Banjo Biccies and Cupcakes cafes in the Swan Valley region of Australia. “The people that it attracts are like-minded people who want to see world become better place through the simple act of buying someone a hot drink or something to eat.”
“It’s the idea of it that inspired me to do it – the idea that a stranger would buy a coffee for someone they’ve never met before,” said Jessie Smith, who owns the Driftwood Coffee Cart in Sligo, Ireland. “It’s a lovely feel-good thing.”
Many places that have joined the online suspended coffee movement have only just begun to offer this to their customers, but are already seeing a willing few. Richard Hanson, of Hanson’s coffee shop in Huddersfield in the West Yorkshire area of England, has earned 26 British pounds in suspended coffees since he started advertising about it last week. So far, only one customer has come to claim a coffee.
“At the moment we’re going to get more donations than people coming in,” Hanson said. But he thinks that will change as more people in the area get to know about it.
Some cafes were already offering something similar to suspended coffees, and decided to join the movement officially. Tim Lidster, who runs Homegrown Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, sees both office workers and the activist community in Hamilton as customers, including vegans, vegetarians – and anarchists. The town also faces a lot of homelessness and poverty.
“We’ve informally been doing this for quite a while because of the nature of our clientele,” Lidster said. “Since we were already doing it, why not tie into the Facebook movement and make it official?”
Before the story went viral, the cafe used to get about 10 to 15 orders a day for suspended coffees. Now it gets about 15 to 20.
Lexi St. Laurent, who runs Amelie’s French Bakery in Charlotte, N.C., with her mother, offers a version of suspended coffees and meals, but she prints out vouchers for the items. At the end of the week, she gives the vouchers to shelters in Charlotte, which distribute them to the people they help. They can then come in to Amelie’s and use the vouchers.
“You don’t want to have to turn someone away saying they don’t look like they need this,” St. Laurent said. “This is a compromise.”
But while the idea of suspended coffees is spreading online, it’s not necessarily something that everyone wants to take on. “We are always touched when we hear about such thoughtful acts of our customers,” a communications representative from Starbucks wrote in an email. “While we are aware of this concept of suspended coffee, we do not have a formal policy in our stores around it.”
And there are some who are totally against the idea. Several bloggers who write about Starbucks have expressed their opposition, including Melody Overton, who said baristas have plenty to do without keeping track of suspended coffees, and might even just offer them to their favorite regulars or friends. She also argues that “the very poor and hungry need more than a free latte,” and that there are other ways to give back to those who need help.
Karen Mercer, who runs My Coffee Stop in the Enfield borough of London, and was once homeless herself, has written against the idea too. Whenever someone who is homeless comes in to ask for a free coffee, she gives it to them – totally unsuspended.
“I can’t take on suspended coffees because it feels wrong to profit from poverty,” Mercer said. “I’d be taking the money from the coffee and putting into my business when I can just give it to them.”
Even so, “it’s a fantastic thing because it’s made people think,” Mercer said. “It’s made people talk about homelessness and what we can do to help.”