Coffee shops have long been associated with the creative class. They are places where people congregate to hold meetings, catch up with old friends or other activities spurred by sipping stimulant-infused beverages. The coffee culture is growing in Phoenix, seemingly in tandem with the growth of the Valley’s technology startup sector.
“It’s like candy for the brain,” said Justin Talbot-Stern, a local entrepreneur and CEO of B2Gnow, a business to government software solutions company. “I actually am very productive in coffee shops.”
The Phoenix area has a long and growing list of popular cafes, including Cartel, Fair Trade Cafe, Lux Central and many more.
Steve Belt, owner of Echo Coffee in Scottsdale, said he has seen many entrepreneurs working in his coffee shop. He said the entrepreneurs stick around working for hours.
The draw for being somewhere public with background noise is common among those looking to be creative. Talbot-Stern said the background activity in cafes helps keep part of his brain entertained while the other part is able to innovate. This might seem counterintuitive, but there is something to be said about this line of logic.
A study published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research found that being around moderate ambient noise (about 70 dB) compared with low ambient noise (50 dB) “enhances performance on creative tasks and increases the buying likelihood of innovative products.” However, the study also found that high levels of ambient noise (80 dB) could hurt that creativity.
Coffitivity.com, has recognized this conventional wisdom and put a cafe ambient noise stream online for the world to enjoy.
People still like getting out of the house or office, though. Talbot-Stern said a coffee shop acts as a third office for him, away from his home and workplace. When he needs to concentrate on a project, Talbot-Stern said he needs to be in a quiet place like his office. That is not the case when he wants to be creative.
“I don’t invent in the office,” he said. “The office is corporate.”
Fortunately for Talbot-Stern, he lives in the Roosevelt district in downtown Phoenix, across the street from Lola Coffee.
“I will walk over to Lola at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon and spend 5 hours there,” he said.
Pat Sullivan is another serial entrepreneur who regularly meets at a local coffee cafe. He is getting ready to publicly launch Contatta, his latest venture focusing on contact management that he co-founded with two others.
“Hardly a week goes by that I don’t have one or several meetings at a cafe,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he likes meeting for coffee because it is something that can be done anytime of day, unlike meeting for lunch.
“I think (meeting at coffee shops) is more productive,” he said. “We’re in a neutral, friendly environment… I think that’s very conducive to establishing relationships.”
Coffee shops as places for discovery and productivity have a long history. The drink is often considered to have aided the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries as it spread through Western Europe.
Tom Standage, digital editor at The Economist, writes in his book “The History of the World in 6 Glasses” “coffee, like beer, was made using boiled water and, therefore, provided a new and safe alternative to alcoholic drinks. Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved.”
People started meeting in coffee houses around this time to debate and exchange ideas. Standage notes that the theory of gravity may have been partially developed during a debate in a coffee house. Voltaire was known to love coffee and Adam Smith wrote much of his magnum opus, “The Wealth of Nations,” at the British Coffee House. Even King Charles II got nervous about the freedom of speech in coffee houses and the possible fostering of insurrectionist sentiment. He tried, but ultimately failed, to close down such establishments.
Talbot-Stern said coffee is more of an accessory for him. He does not drink it because he likes it or needs it, he said, but “the coffee is a vehicle to the experience.”
Standage, too, said modern coffee shops are not necessarily about the drink.
“I think the key is not so much coffee, but the culture that goes along with it,” he said. “It was a tradition from the start that social distinctions were to be left at the door, and people were expected to be polite… This allowed ideas and people from different social circles to meet and mingle. This is how coffee came to be associated with business, entrepreneurship and so forth. It’s also why [coffee shops] led to so much innovation.”
This coffee house culture is what lead Standage to compare coffee houses to modern social media in his upcoming book “Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years,” due out in October. This culture is also why the scene in almost any coffee shop across the country is one full of people working on laptops or engaged in exciting conversation.
In “6 Glasses,” Standage asks, “Is it any surprise that the current center of coffee culture, the city of Seattle, home to the Starbucks coffeehouse chain, is also where some of the world’s largest software and Internet firms are based?”
The same could be said of Silicon Valley. Now it looks like Phoenix is ready to join the ranks of U.S. cities fueling a new innovative class with an old coffee house culture.
Did you start your company over a cup of coffee? Where do you sit, create and enjoy a cup? Share with AZTB and nominate your favorite coffee shop!