June 15, 2021

The third place: What is it & how does it relate to coffee shops?


Defined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg as an informal public gathering place that serves the community, the “third place” has been an integral part of human society for centuries. 

While home (the first place) is private and work (the second place) offers a structured social experience, third places are more relaxed public environments where people can meet and interact in a range of different ways. 

The third place “label” can be applied to a range of different social spaces, but for many, the most prominent example is the coffee shop: a friendly, informal meeting place to catch up with friends and even meet new people. To learn more about the concept of the third place and explore the topic in more detail, I spoke with the Vice President of Coffee Enterprises, Spencer Turer, and Professor Jonathan Morris, the author of Coffee: A Global History.

You might also like our article on the neighbourhood coffee shop.

Coffeehouses in Europe

As far back as 17th-century Europe, coffee shops have embodied many characteristics of the third place.

Before the coffeehouse emerged in Europe, the tavern was without a doubt the most important public meeting place across the continent. As people were often either unable or reluctant to host at home, they would instead meet at taverns to drink and socialise.

However, when the first coffeehouses were opened in England in the 1650s, they offered the opportunity for people to mix without alcohol.

Professor Jonathan Morris is the author of Coffee: A Global History and the co-presenter of A History Of Coffee. “Early coffeehouses were not alcoholic venues like taverns, they were more serious,” he says. “They were somewhere you could meet with people and be more alert.”

Jonathan tells me that what characterised early coffeehouses across England was a sense of equality, which was against convention in a society that was focused on class and economic status.

“People could meet someone they had never met before and wouldn’t encounter under any other circumstance,” he says. “They could speak to one another as equals. 

“The long benches and tables were laid out in such a way that you would basically be seated in order of when you arrived, which encouraged conversation between strangers from every position in society.”

Over time, coffeehouses developed an “identity clientele” in which people who shared interests would meet in the same location. For example, in London, Lloyd’s Coffee House became a centre for maritime discussion after attracting a crowd of merchants, sailors, and shipowners.

“Coffee was the price of something more,” Jonathan explains. “The price of the coffee covered everything else you got by being in a coffeehouse. 

“They were called ‘penny universities’ because you picked up information while you were enjoying your coffee – for the price of a penny.”

As coffeehouses spread across Europe and adapted, they increasingly became recognised as places where like-minded people could meet. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pavement cafés of Paris and Vienna played host to a steady stream of artists, writers, and musicians.

It was around this time that the German word Stammtisch (which translates literally as “regulars’ table”) became commonly used in Vienna to describe the familiar and informal atmosphere of these public meeting places.

“The coffeehouses across Europe had a role as a kind of loci for like-minded people,” Jonathan tells me. “Again, it’s that idea of an identity clientele, where if you were in a certain trade, you knew where you could go to find similar people.”

Oldenburg’s third place & the changing face of the coffee shop

In 1989, urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg published a landmark book, The Great Good Place, in which he examines the “third place” in all its various forms, from the beer garden and the bookstore to coffee shops and bars.

In the book, he describes the third place as “the heart of a community’s social vitality”, and outlines eight key characteristics that one should have. These are: 

  • Neutral ground
  • A leveling place (meaning no focus on an individual’s status)
  • A home away from home
  • Conversation as the main activity
  • A playful mood
  • A low profile
  • Accessibility
  • Regular patrons

Drawing on examples throughout history, Oldenburg argues that in any healthy, strong democracy, citizens should balance their time between work, home, and the third place.

“It is in the local diner, tavern, or coffee shop that those who face common problems find their common ground, give substance and articulation to group sentiment, and offer social support to one another,” he writes.

However, near the end of the book, Oldenburg states that the concept of the third place is starting to lose traction, particularly in the US. According to him, public spaces are changing, becoming more commercial and consumerist, resulting in an “ever-increasing retreat into privacy”.

Spencer Turer is the Vice President of Coffee Enterprises, a tea and coffee consultancy based in the US. He has worked in the coffee industry for almost 30 years, and in that time has watched the coffee shop change as a third place. 

“It’s difficult, because to be an effective third place, coffee shops have to entice customers to stay for a while,” Spencer says. “However, once they’ve enticed the customer, these places need to make money. 

“Unlike pubs [and bars], where there’s an expectation that when you finish your drink and stop being an active customer you leave, in coffee shops people often sit over a single drink for hours. While this is what we want in a third place, a business [often] can’t operate successfully in this way. 

“Basically, the fundamental principle of the third place challenges the financial viability of businesses.”

Take Starbucks as an example. When it was first founded, the company based the Starbucks “experience” on Oldenburg’s theory of the third place. 

After visiting espresso bars in Italy, CEO Howard Schultz was determined to bring a similar experience to the US. He made his intentions clear in one interview, declaring: “Starbucks serves as a third place between home and work, an extension between people’s lives, at a time when people have no place to go.”

However, while this may have been true when Starbucks was founded as a single coffee shop in 1980s Seattle, it has since expanded to more than 32,000 locations around the world, and arguably no longer embodies the third place “community spirit” in the same way.

“The problem when this happens is recapturing that community spirit. That’s quite difficult to replicate,” Jonathan explains. “When Oldenburg laid out his theory, I don’t believe he was thinking of coffee chains.

“Oldenburg’s main point was that the third place was very community-focused: it was a place where you would meet people who lived within the immediate vicinity. There’s no doubt that Starbucks initially positioned itself to offer that kind of role. But as it expanded, it has moved away from that format and taken on a slightly different approach, a different vibe.”

Third wave coffee culture, Covid-19 & more: What’s the future for the third place?

As third wave coffee culture has gathered speed in major consuming markets around the world, we have seen a renewed focus on the quality of coffee and the craft of growing, roasting, and brewing it. But what does this mean for the coffee shop as a third place?

For Spencer, there was initially something of a disconnect between third wave coffee and the third place as a concept. 

“At first, there was a bit of a gap in knowledge between consumers and baristas,” he explains. “They became very concerned with the quality of coffee, but consumers weren’t keeping up, which made [some] coffee shops seem elitist. 

“They looked only to serve the coffee they wanted rather than considering the needs of their clientele.”

However, he notes that things are starting to change again. A renewed focus on accessibility, education, and collaboration are paving the way for the specialty coffee shop as a third place of the future. 

“Today, we’re seeing a return to that community-building aspect, looking at the way baristas can connect people with the global coffee community by sharing their knowledge,” Spencer says. “Coffee shops have gone back to being friendly, inclusive places where people can go and socialise over coffee.

“In many ways, the barista is becoming an ambassador for the coffee shop.”

Perhaps more recently, the coffee shop’s function as a third place has changed substantially due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of this, global hospitality industry came to a standstill; researchers estimate that some 95% of out-of-home coffee businesses were forced to close their doors at one point or another in 2020.

Over the course of 2020, meeting others in public became impossible for billions. Third places around the world closed, and consumers instead started drinking more coffee at home.

However, Jonathan says that as coffee shops reopen, consumers will be eager to reclaim them as a third place and as somewhere to work.

“There’s a big future for the coffee shop as a third place, based on what they offer as well as what’s in decline,” he tells me. “My sense is that coffee shops will continue to grow and become more local, particularly if we see the shift in working behaviour become long term.

“If you think about it, if more people continue to work from home, they’ll use the coffee shop as their alternative home. If we see this, it could be successful for community building. If you say you can’t have the coffee shop, you’ve lost a big thing. I’m fairly confident in their future after the pandemic.”

For centuries, coffee shops have offered so much more than just the drinks they serve. From the penny universities of the 17th and 18th centuries to the third wave coffee shops of today, they provide a neutral environment where people can socialise, reflect, and debate over a cup of coffee.

While their role has changed through the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergence of third wave coffee culture, it seems more than likely that they will remain popular as a third space between home and work for decades to come.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how coffee shops can draw customers back after Covid-19.

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