☕ Coffee Journey - Third Place

Welcome back to the letter T of my coffee journey across the alphabet. Today we're talking about the Third Place.

Coffee bars in Italy represented the third place between home and work. and Howard Schultz, or "Uncle Howie", as many Starbucks partners like to call him, wanted to recreate this experience in his stores in Seattle and later all over the world. 

Growing up in Europe, a coffee store was a place people went to meet friends, drink coffee, read the newspaper and smoke cigarettes. 

Yuck - I know!

As a student I used to work at a place just like this. Apart from the smoking it was a great experience. Many customers were regulars, and if you found yourself in the Old Town and felt like coffee - or ice cream in summer - that's where you would go. 

This was back in the early 1990s. Nobody would bring their laptop and connect to free wi-fi back then. They were probably not even invented? I just had to google the timeline of notebooks, and so should you, it may make you feel all nostalgic ;-)

Anyway. I was talking about Europe. We grew up having not only coffee shops but decent coffee. Hey, my neighbour countries are France, Italy and Austria, all of which claim to have invented the coffee culture! 

So when in 2000 there were rumors that Starbucks was about to come to our market, there were mixed reactions: 

  • Conservatives were like "who needs overpriced yucky American fast food coffee that comes in a plastic cup?"
  • Travelers and hipsters (or wanna-be) were delighted. Finally! 

I'm trying to think what the appeal was. Just the coolness factor? The actual products? The logo? Either way, many people were excited and got in line in the early morning hours to be among the first ones to visit the flagship store in Zurich, Switzerland. 

I wasn't one of them. First of all, I didn't drink coffee back then, and second of all, I was packing my bags to move to San Diego, CA, where I frequented the La Jolla location. It used to be pink. 

Can you believe that a few years later they painted "my" Starbucks store lime?

See? I had already adapted "the third place" concept without knowing this was a thing.

Anyway, on that particular day in March, it must have been a Thursday, because new store openings always happened on a Thursday, two thirds of all *for here* ceramic logo mugs disappeared. People must have thought they were included in the price ;-) 

Remember, in "L is for Latte Index" we learned that in Switzerland, prices are particularly high for pretty much everything, and a visit to SBUX is no exception. 

The company took it as a compliment. Yes, technically it was theft, but it was also sort of free marketing and a sign that people were excited.

Did the third place feeling kick in right away?

I had been away from the country for a while, and even as I got back after 9/11, it took a good while until I visited one of the handful of Starbucks that had been opened in the meantime. As a non-coffee drinker I was more interested in the overall atmosphere and the baked goods, and I think I was not too impressed. They didn't even sell Diet Coke. I know, shame on me for expecting them to do so in the first place. 

I think the first time I experienced what the third place means, was in February 2004 during my in-store training that was part of my immersion. in Seattle, WA.

I was a Barista at the Queen Anne store, and I was having a hard time memorizing recipes. How many pumps, how much milk foam, is it hot enough,..? It really stressed me out. The other baristas were busy, I couldn't ask for help for every single beverage, but then again I didn't want to give the customer the wrong drink!

When I was able to catch a breath, I started to notice that the same regular customers were coming through the door every day. 

I particularly remember John. His morning routine was to drive to the post office, get his mail from the PO Box, come to our store, get coffee, grab a chair and open his envelopes. He would then make a few phone calls, all while slurping his coffee and eventually leave.

On the third day or so my manager found out that I was going to be working "at the office" in my future day job, meaning he didn't get in trouble if I didn't turn out a star Barista after his training. From then on I was allowed to do easier work. 

One afternoon - it was surprisingly sunny and warm - I was introduced to the Frappuccino station. Guess what, it was the most hectic job in the entire store that day! It was easier though, once I had figured out the measurements, all I had to do was throw everything into the blender and press the button!

The best part, however, was when I was put on lobby duty. This is usually the least popular job. You have to clear and wipe the tables, mop the floor, empty and take out the trash, and clean the bathroom. What did I like about it? I did not have to worry about recipes! There were no lines of customers who were I a hurry! I actually had time to connect with the guests who were sitting there.

Business people, housewives, students, senior citizens, homeless people - human beings from all walks of life. They had one thing in common: they appreciated a good cup of coffee, friendly service and a comfy place to sit down and do their thing.

This is how I learned about them, and frankly, this was such a valuable experience for me. My job was going to be in Human Resources, which also included Training and Development, so it was literally part of my job to "teach" the culture. The fact that making the beverages didn't come easy to me increased my empathy and reminded me to insist that new hires were properly trained "behind the scenes" before they were put on the spot.

I left Starbucks after my maternity leave in early 2009, and I knew what that meant: 

A promotion to customer!

Yes, my wonderful partner discount was gone, but I was allowed to go to stores and just sit down. Of course in the beginning, my former coworkers would still ask for my help or opinion, but I didn't mind, and I genuinely enjoyed sitting there, observing my fellow guests! I remember one day helping a gentleman applying for his retirement benefits. To him I was just a lady drinking coffee, he had no idea he was talking to the former Head of HR, haha.

Never mind. 

These days I'm a Hockey Mom who blogs, and many of my posts were written at the store where Colin trains. It has everything I need: a bathroom, a place to sit down where it's warm in winter and cool in summer (not every building in Switzerland comes with A/C), wireless internet access, and of course something to eat and drink. 

So after all these years, I truly enjoy Starbucks as (one of my) third place(s).

Do you have a place like this in your life?


  1. I was reading till the last to understand what Third place actually meant πŸ™‚πŸ™‚. In India cafe coffee days are more in number but star bucks is gaining popularity....people love hanging out there too....it's quite interesting to know your journey as barista then becoming HR and hockey mom... good to have your third place.....for me it would be a cafe called drive in cafe here in hyd where luxurious cars and bikes are rented....the ambience so calm and peaceful... usually i love sitting there and spending time...

    Dropping by from a to z "The Pensive"

  2. I suppose my ‘Starbucks’ is A&W. I love all coffee shops. They all have ‘atmosphere’. Love your story.

  3. As a non coffee drinker this is all totally lost on me. LOL.

  4. Lovely picture. Your opinion on lobby duty is a refreshing view with a clear lesson to look at the bright side of things ... when coffee shops started coming up in India it was mainly preferred by the youth. Mainly it gave them a "comfy place to sit down and do their thing". No elders were interested as they preferred piping hot filter coffee and they could sit and chat for hours with decent privacy. The prices was a shocker to the conservative folks :D... a regular restaurant would give much cheaper and hotter coffee in their opinion :)

  5. Another interesting coffee story! I don't really have a go to place since about the only thing I drink is water! LOL

  6. I don't drink coffee. I prefer tea or seltzer and, these days, that's generally at home. Right now, there's no place like home because I'm hazardous to everyone's health. Once I'm de-germified... outside is a good place. When it gets warm, there's nothing like a warm or cool beverage while sitting under a tree with a book in hand.

  7. I had not heard the term third place in such a context before. No, I do not have one of those. I'm glad you found yours.

  8. I didn't know the term third place meant another place beside home and work. I thought you won third place in a Starbucks contest at first - LOL. I remember feeling lucky to get the discounts when my daughter was working there. She would usually give her one free bag to us so we were stocked for a while. Love fraps!

    Janet’s Smiles

  9. Tamara, I love all of your commentary about coffee and coffee culture! Do I take it you are from Switzerland originally? Have you ever thought of taking this series and making it into a little book? With a red cover, of course? I'm serious.

  10. What a beautiful post! Must be interesting to work as a Barista and meet so many different types of people. Starbucks is increasing its stores across India. I guess for customers it's more about no-rush coffee and conversations or work and an experience. I personally prefer good old filter coffee at home but nothing like catching up with an old friend at a cafe!

    Dropping by via A-Z challenge from momandideas.com


Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment. It will be visible as soon as I had a chance to verify that you are not an anonymous user and/or a spammer.