Caffè sospeso, or Suspended Coffee: A Christmas Message

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Fair Grinds Coffeehouse New Orleans

New Orleans    Chaco and I go open Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, our social enterprise that supports ACORN International’s organizing in Latin America on Christmas morning. He will get there at 530AM, and I’ll trail in about 615AM. I’m the helper, and not much of that he often tells me, but we open together every Christmas morning to support the regulars. Some go to the “right track” upstairs every day in our Common Space. Others just count on us for a great cup of coffee early in the morning, and we’re about all that’s there.

Reading the New York Times before I run down, there was a great “coffee” article on the front page about a Italian custom having a revival in Naples of having an espresso and paying for a second as a caffe’ sospeso or suspended coffee for someone who needs a cup of coffee but might be short of the cash that day.

Says something about the season. Says something about coffee and great coffeehouses.

Thanks to the New York Times for what follows:

In Naples, Gift of Coffee to Strangers Never Seen

By GAIA PIANIGIANI DEC. 24, 2014

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The Storico Gran Caffè Gambrinus, which honors the Neapolitan tradition of the “suspended coffee.” The practice, which boomed during World War II, has found a revival in recent years. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

NAPLES, Italy — One azure morning in December, Laura Cozzolino arrived at her corner cafe in central Naples and ordered her usual: a dense espresso, which arrived steaming hot on the dark marble counter.

She lingered over the aroma, then knocked it back in two quick sips. But instead of paying for one coffee, she paid for two, leaving the receipt for the other — a caffè sospeso, or suspended coffee — with the bartender for a stranger to enjoy.

“It’s a simple, anonymous act of generosity,” said Ms. Cozzolino, 37, an employee of a medical device company. “As a Neapolitan who tries to restrict herself to four coffees a day, I understand that coffee is important. It’s a small treat that no one should miss.”

The suspended coffee is a Neapolitan tradition that boomed during World War II and has found a revival in recent years during hard economic times.

From Naples, by word of mouth and via the Internet, the gesture has spread throughout Italy and around the world, to coffee bars as far-flung as Sweden and Brazil. In some places in Italy, the generosity now extends to the suspended pizza or sandwich, or even books.

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Receipts are left to be claimed by those who are unable to afford a cup of coffee. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

Naples is a city well known for its grit, beauty, chaos and crime. Despite those things, or perhaps because of them, its people are also famous for their solidarity in the face of hardship.

No one here seems to know precisely when or how the suspended coffee began. But that it started here speaks to the small kindnesses that Italians are known for — and also of the special place that coffee occupies in the culture.

In a time of hardship, Italians can lack many things, but their coffee is not one of them. So it may be the most common item left at many cafes, as a gift, for people too poor to pay.

More than 90 percent of Italian families drink coffee at home, and there is one coffee bar for every 490 Italians, according to Illy, one of Italy’s leading coffee producers, and a local organization that studies food and drinks. Espresso comes in seemingly infinite forms: ristretto (strong), lungo (more water), macchiato or schiumato (with a bit of milk or milk foam), or corretto (a kick of liquor added).

Drinking one is an act rigorously performed standing at the counter for a few quick minutes. It naturally sets the passing hours of the day. It is both an intimate and a public ritual.

Many bartenders attribute a soul to the coffee-making process and take pride in knowing their customers’ preferences, even before they lay an elbow on the counter and start talking about the sun — or lack thereof — or complaining about the government.

“Coffee consumption predated the unification of Italy by more than 200 years, so the rituals and traditions around it are very ancient,” Andrea Illy, chairman of Illy, said in a phone interview. “In Naples, coffee is a world in itself, both culturally and socially. Coffee is a ritual carried out in solidarity.”

That solidarity is spreading. In 2010, an ensemble of small Italian cultural festivals gave form to the tradition of generosity by creating the Suspended Coffee Network.

The purpose was to weather the severe cuts to the state cultural budgets by organizing and promoting their own activities together. But it also started solidarity initiatives for those in need. Encouraging a donated coffee was one of them.

Now, across Italy, the bars that have joined the network display the suspended coffee label — a black and brown sticker with a white espresso cup — in their windows.

In participating coffee bars, customers might toss receipts in an unused coffee pot on the counter, where the needy can pull them out and use them. In others, customers pay in advance for an extra coffee, and the cafe keeps a list or hangs the receipts in the shop window.

As the most vulnerable increasingly feel the pinch of Italy’s long economic crisis, bars in some southern towns have started inviting customers to pay for a sandwich — or more — for those in need.

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Coffee at Storico Gran Caffè Gambrinus in Naples, Italy. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

This year, Feltrinelli, a large bookstore, encouraged clients to buy a book and leave it for destitute readers who could then go and collect it.

Likewise, in 2012, a pizzeria in Naples, Da Concettina ai Tre Santi, created the suspended pizza logo and printed it on its paper tablecloths. Each week, it manages to deliver around 15 free pizzas for the poor.

But in Naples, with its rich diversity of neighborhoods, coffee bars hold a special place as gathering points for all: senators, families with grandchildren, street artists, businessmen and beggars.

“Coffee in Naples is an excuse to dialogue, to tell stories, not like in other more hectic Italian cities,” said Bruno La Mura, one of the owners of the Spazio Nea art gallery, exhibition room and coffee shop, which has offered suspended coffees since it opened in 2012.

“Here we don’t drink coffee, we ‘take’ it, as a medicine,” echoed his business partner, Luigi Solito. “To me, the philosophy of the suspended coffee is that you are happy today, and you give a coffee to the world, as a present.”

Even before joining the Suspended Coffee Network, some Neapolitan cafes embellished the tradition on their own.

At Gran Caffè Gambrinus, a 154-year-old cafe in Naples, in 2009 the managers began displaying an old, oversize Neapolitan coffee pot, a local version of the kind in almost all Italian homes.

They leave the lid open, with explanations in six languages — and in Neapolitan — of what a suspended coffee is and how clients can contribute one by dropping a receipt inside.

Of more than 1,500 espressos it serves on average every day, about 10 are left suspended by customers, said Sergio Arturo, one of the owners. About five people come every day and stick their hands in the coffee pot and take a receipt, a number that has increased in the past year or two, he said.

Almost everybody in Naples seems to know what a suspended coffee is, though not all bartenders have served one.

In Naples’s old quarter, an area heavily visited by tourists, Caffè 7Bello serves about 1,000 suspended coffees a year, mostly to older people, migrants and the Roma, the owner, Pino De Stasio, said.

It is in the building where the 20th-century thinker Benedetto Croce once lived, on a street that is today lined with souvenir shops and pitchmen selling lucky horns made in China for a euro. That is where Ms. Cozzolino left her suspended coffee.

“I didn’t know about the suspended coffee,” said another customer that day, a mother of four from Bucharest, Romania, in flip-flops, socks and a light winter jacket, who panhandles nearby. “I just came by once, and they gave it to me, so I come back. We like coffee, too.”

 

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Certification Confusion Hurts Consumers and Producers

San Pedro Sula  Meeting with our organizers in Honduras and Mexico, we once again found ourselves struggling with the problems of certification claims for coffee and other products.  The globally certifier for fair trade coffee, the Fair Licensing Organization (FLO) is based in Bonn, Germany, but everyone and their cousin is now certifying coffee as “fair trade” or organic.  The problem faces us as we debated the costs of running a coffee operation in a new building being opened at the university in San Pedro Sula that would finance the organizing in Honduras.

We have numerous partner cooperative fair trade coffee producers in Honduras.   Our old friends with COMUCAP in Marcala near the Salvadorian border greeted us on this visit.  We have other friends nearer to Tegucigalpa who also produce excellent, FLO certified coffee.  We are committed to serving Honduran coffee in Honduras, but at $0.35 to $0.75 per cup for students, our organizers and the Fair Grinds manager wondered how we could stand out if there was no real understanding in the local market of the value of fair trade and organic coffee?  The local market is used to drinking the worst coffee beans produced in Honduras, and here we are talking about an operation that wants to serve the best and still compete.   Yikes!

We also have producer members now around San Pedro Sula growing plantains, yucca, and other stuff that are desperate for higher prices but can’t be economically exported at their small scale. Our coffeehouse here, assuming we can get it up and running, would want to compete by going “all local,” so this would help, but we would hardly be able to pay more.  Sigh.

Reading the US papers on-line I was heartened to read of a filing before the US Federal Trade Commission by Forest Ethics and others claiming the industry was false marketing paper as certified when it seemed they were self-certifying.  Everyone would love to be able to “say” they were great, certified, organic, and so forth, and get away with it.  And, in fact Starbucks self-certifies and gets away with it.  There are now splits on coffee with Rainforest Action, the former US branch of FLO, and FLO itself all issuing certifications.

We have to have consumers throughout the world care that the producers are getting a fair wage, working cooperatively, and delivering a great product, but on the street corner level there is almost no way for us as vendors to carry the weight of consumer education if big operations have a self-interest in confusion and self-certification for their own profits.

Certification Confusion Audio Blog

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Why Not Coffeehouses in Latin America to Support Cooperatives and Organizing

Why not ACORN International / Fair Grinds Coffeehouses" in large Latin American cities?

Miami              The more we talked to coffee producer cooperatives in the Marcala and San Juancito mountains of Honduras and tried to piece together a plan to directly trade coffee to the USA and Canada and especially our own Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in New Orleans and its monthly support of our offices in Central America, the more it seemed a natural to think about opening our own small mini-coffeehouses in places like Tegucigalpa and perhaps Lima, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City.  The notion would be to open café cooperativas for ACORN & Fair Grinds that would only serve coffee and other products directly obtained from cooperatives operating in the home country.  The proposition would to reverse fair trade into the home countries and keep the “buy local,” “buy organic,” and “buy fair trade” right there rather than something that happens in rich, developed countries.

Would it work?  Could “coffee cooperatives” work and compete, especially with the local market?  Not sure about that.  Ironically in places like Honduras where great coffee is grown the local market, like so many places is driven by price.  A lot of what is sold in places like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula is coffee beans cut with a variety of other substances to lower the costs.

But, we don’t have to compete with Starbucks, just duplicate the “mission-driven” ACORN International / Fair Grinds model sufficiently to pay the coffeehouse bills, support the cooperatives by opening up a better market, and do well enough to support the local organizing with a local self-sufficiency plan.  Why not?  Could work!

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Pulling Shots in the Service Industry

2 Mardi Gras Costumers Get their Coffee at Fair Grinds Before Hitting the Streets

New Orleans   Getting up at 430 AM to go to work reminded me of the days worked in the oil fields and offshore after high school where the clock started at 6AM and I had to be in the field or on the boat, or at Luzianne Coffee Company when I was 19 and 20 and had to catch a couple of buses to make it for 7AM.  Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday and all of the baristas were hitting the parades and partying down, and I was going to open until noon to support our regulars and those who might be in need of a good “cup of coffee for a change” until noon.  A couple of hours playing with the cash register months ago and a quick couple of hours of training on Saturday and another hour on Monday, and I was ready to try and open up, pull shots, pour java, and make it work in some form or fashion.   I was counting on some Mardi Gras good spirits from customers willing to be more patient than usual perhaps, and the fact that the tip jar was going to support ACORN International organizers in Latin America as well as anything we cleared on my time and effort.  Of course as I told more than one customer, I was also in that rare position where I couldn’t get fired!

In the almost 6 hours I kept the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse open, believe me, it was hopping.  I never had a break, not even a cup of coffee, from the time I poured the first cup for a tired regular that had been cleaning up her family’s parade watching spot.

Here’s what you notice behind the coffee bar, sometimes with a bit of surprise:

  • I was surprised how few people I saw in costumes?
  • It was embarrassing how happy – and patient – most people were at seeing that we were open!  One young woman blurted out how happy she was in the thick of a long winding line, I thanked her, and it turned out she had gone to school with my nephew and was another Little Rock girl!
  • Standing there working the bar gave a fair number of people the opportunity to mention ways in which they knew me or someone in my family or supported the work or one thing or someone we knew in common, and that was especially nice.
  • I did more than 100 tickets and got raves for my espresso drinks (maybe I have a future!), and I bet some 20 or 25 actually thanked me for being open on Mardi Gras, which didn’t make me less tired at the end of my 8 hours there, but did make me feel at least as smart as the average bear for doing this crazy thing.

As an organizer it can be easy to forget while crunching the numbers, evaluating job classifications, and emerging formal and informal work settings, that the service industry, growing so rapidly as a job source throughout the USA and in many places beyond, really is about service.   But more than that, embedded in that relationship when it works is not simply a master-slave hierarchical situation, but a sense of shared community, a recognition of commonality that counts as currency both need and mutual dependence.  Who knows where the widgets go, highlighting some of the alienation of production, but it seems in the service industry if we embrace it more fully and deeply, we have to be able to use this sense of community in both organizing and, ironically perhaps, delivering better service.

Perhaps my favorite customers were a younger couple, perhaps pushing 30 or so, that came in around 11 or so.  It came out that both of them were bartenders working at different places in uptown New Orleans and they had both pulled double shifts the night before.  The woman might have been pregnant by 5 or 6 months, though I’ve never been able to tell age or such conditions worth a darned.  She wanted a “vampiro,” which is a beet-ginger-etc drink we make that is our most popular new, health juices addition and he wanted a cappuccino, which ended up at 4 shots, 2 of which I “comp-ed” him as it developed.  My son, Chaco, had showed up to help me at the tail end of my shift and had two great quiches in the convection oven for them, and while I was pulling his shots, they kept looking at the brownies and chocolate chip cookies, and before it was all done, I had rung up their first order and their second order, and he had thrown $8 or $9 bucks in the tip jar to support ACORN International.  They were service workers, too, so when we pulled the quiches out too early, they had quietly gone around the coffee bar and gotten Chaco to put them back in for another couple of minutes.  As I move out to lock up the patio door, I saw they were still sitting at a table, food and drink long gone, bent forward to animated and serious conversation.

I’m rootin’ for them and a lot of other folks who shared a minute of conversation, needed their coffee and appreciated getting it hot and strong, joined our community in a quiet spot on a beautiful New Orleans day, and found a piece of peace as the parades rolled on.

Back-atcha and thanks! Fair Grinds Regulars Get the Conversation Going Early on Mardi Gras

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On the Farm in Paterno: Organic versus Fair Trade

Paterno   I had been to Paolo Guarnaccia’s family farm in 2009 when a group of us had dinner with his family while talking about the Simeto Valley.  Now I saw it differently as we joined his wife for a simple and delicious lunch there.  I had not fully realized that the farm was still in Paterno, simply on the other side of the hill from the Norman castle, old church and cemetery I had visited several times this trip.  With 23 hectares of land assembled over 30 years this was a large set of groves tended by Paolo, tenants, and volunteers that came throughout the year to help and to learn organic farming techniques.  Everything about this operation had a “social” purpose, as they say here, right down to the room that hosted school field trips and the vegetable plot tended by various people in rehab or other programs.

For the first time I toured the huge “warehouse,” as Paolo calls it, which is leased from the regional government, but is a combination packing shed, orange sorting and processing operation, olive oil manufacturing plant, and much more.  Consorzio Terre Di Sicilia is a model, organic, educational, and experimental farming location, but it is also largely empty, inoperative, and laden with debt.  At one point serving 1000 customers all over Sicily with certified organic products, it now was little used, waiting for an EU loan of 200,000 euros over the last number of years, which still hadn’t arrived, and only a place for a couple of small farmers to sort their oranges by size with one of the giant machines.  Paolo had tried to turn it all into a cooperative over 5 years, but it didn’t work out…just not enough interest.

Warehouse Waiting for Action

Similar to our friends with COMUCAP in Honduras and their coffee and aloe vera looking for markets, I started asking what it would take to get the marmalade made here over to North America where ACORN International could move it through Fair Grinds and other places to support the survival of farming in Sicily.  Get ready for a headache.

The blood oranges as fresh fruit are impractical to even consider because of cost and requirements to prevent Mediterranean fly from coming to our shores.  Scratch that.

How about fair trade, organic marmalade?  Well, organic is easy.  Rigorous Italian and European Union inspections are already in place which would meet any requirements.  Fair trade, though, probably not it seems.  This is not a co-op.  Looking at the FLO affiliate website FairTrade Italia it seems they only bring in products from the rest of the developing world.  When my friends have described Sicily as the Appalachia of Europe and of Italy, that doesn’t seem to count.

There has to be a way.  This stuff is too good not to save and survive.

Paolo and the Products They Once Made

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