Monday, December 12, 2016

Besides the Beans

Hard Times, Caffetto, and the Late-night Undercurrent of Minneapolis Coffee Culture

Illustration by Beth Schulz.
Illustration by Beth Schulz.

On a Monday in May everything is blooming. It’s finally flip-flop season and another semester is thrown to the wind, already forgotten in the sweet summer air. Girls in floral dresses float across the sidewalks of Dinkytown, their hair bright and bouncing. Cars roll by languidly, windows down, the boys wearing aviators and smiling. The young and old alike plop down on strips of summer grass, talking or not talking, careless and close.

But the thick, tainted glass of the coffee shop is a heavy buffer. Inside the happy voices become suddenly dull like a festival somewhere far away, intensifying and dying out with each swing of the door. A display case divides the “in” and “out” lines with steel-sleek, insulated mugs and instant coffee pouches. I peek around a cardboard cutout advertising some blown-up coffee beans tumbling from a brand-name bag and find what looks like an upscale family room, the tables and armchairs of which are bathed in sleepy blue light from scattered, miniature lamps. Light, jazzy songs fumble through the air. The few who are sitting are texting or slapping emails out at warp-speed in a very bored or frenzied way, respectively, but nobody is looking at each other.

Then I’m at the register. The barista asks how I am. She’s looking over my shoulder.

All right.

I order something with coffee in it for $4.50 plus tax. She calls the next customer. I wait. Great machines hiss and steam in answer to quick, mechanical hands. I pick up my drink, merge into the exit lane, and avoid eye contact. At the door the exit sign burns an olive green that, I notice, matches the interior color scheme.

Someone planned that, I think, suddenly weary, dejected in a way I don’t understand. All I can do is watch the jumble of feet in front step toward the exit, each swing of the door bringing me closer the hell out.

Fast Food, Fast Coffee

When I step into these places, I find my experience more reminiscent of my trips to McDonald’s than anything else, but instead of a miniature wind-up car I get an over-sweet coffee with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Fast-coffee may not come with fries or a prize, but all the obvious differences aside there is no denying that coffee, like fast food, has become a mass-produced good with in-and-out service and a slap-on smile.

But there’s no value menu in chain shops, and even regular coffee—without the trimmings—can cost over $2. The most popular drinks made with milk and flavored syrups can sell for twice as much as regular coffee with little or no added cost of production. While mass-produced coffee and mass-produced meat stay cheap to churn out, the former can cost five times as much. But why can a place like Starbucks peddle cheap coffee for so much while McDonald’s continues to sell its double cheeseburgers for a dollar? If consumers aren’t emptying their wallets for the coffee then what, exactly, are they paying for?

One answer is nothing, or at least nothing tangible. The plush furniture and ambient lighting of chain coffee shops is designed to create an image. The replication of this image in chain stores creates familiarity, which, along with perceived convenience and class, is something many people are willing to pay for. The decor is also suggestive of upscale comfort, taste, and, ultimately, of upscale coffee worthy of upscale prices.

But the lighting and music and color-coordinated exit signs don’t exist only to justify prices. Before consumer taste shifted to espresso, pumpkin lattes, and in-and-out service, a café’s biggest selling point was its atmosphere. Cafés often served as de facto community centers, regular melting pots of social commerce. They were places to congregate: to take a date, play chess, or just lounge in the company of like-minded loungers. Coffee, being well liked and cheap, can transcend class distinctions and therefore attracts a diverse group of people.

In addition to selling cheap coffee, the image crafted by chain-coffee, complete with capricious jazz and mandated smiling, is intended as a replacement for this more authentic community. The original draw of coffee shops—the people who create the atmosphere—has been replaced by a simulacrum of faux suede couches and individually affirming salutations. Yet for the same reason you can’t pay someone to love you, you can’t create real community by training employees to ask how do you do, or by dribbling light jazz through the air or by tinting the windows for a better ambiance.

Most of us are willing to accept the simulacrum as long as the overall appearance of luxury is maintained and the coffee stays reliably mediocre. The success of fast coffee is, after all, a reflection of our taste, and though some may still appreciate a truly convivial café, in 2011 the majority of consumers award class and convenience top priority.

But those of us who do value conversation over expediency, or authenticity over luxury, who are tired of settling for the lame, transparent alternative again and again: Don’t despair. These no-name cafés aren’t relics of a bygone era. Though rare, often unapologetic and sometimes crass, they are very much alive and—perhaps most telling—open late.

Café Noir: Hemingway and Hospitality

“I am of those who like to stay up at the café…with all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night,” says the older waiter in Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

Two waiters, one older than the other, argue whether they should close the café. It’s well past midnight and only one old man remains, deaf and drunk on brandy. When the young waiter eventually goes home to his sleeping family the café is closed. The old man and the other waiter part ways, each disappearing into a tangle of night streets.

It is not hard to sympathize with the story’s estranged characters. When open, the café is a beacon of light for the sleepless men, a place of refuge and hope amid a city otherwise indifferent to their troubles. But when closed, the café means nothing; its essence dissipates like its welcoming light into the shadow of every other sleeping building.

The story was originally published in 1926, yet in 2011 it is far from outmoded. The refuge denied these men in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is hard to find now. In Minneapolis, like most other U.S. cities, this community has been forgotten, warped, or subjugated to profit motives. The latter is often why it is hard to find a café open after midnight. In the caffeine business, it doesn’t make sense to stay open late. Most people stop drinking coffee at night, so a midnight closing is more than economical for a business concerned solely with optimizing their costs to earnings ratio.

That’s why late-night cafés often boast so much character and conviviality. After midnight these places have no monetary incentive to stay open. In the age of drive-through coffee and $5 lattes, any attitude that isn’t strictly profitable is hard to come by. But two cafés in Minneapolis, Hard Times and Caffetto, are willing to harbor the city’s sleepless patrons, regardless of what they can dish out for it. This operative mode, as one can imagine, is indicative of a special kind of place.

The Uneasy, Collectively Chronicled History of Hard Times

As a regular to Hard Times, the café in Cedar-Riverside that doubles as a vegan restaurant, I sometimes forget that it is not a normal place. I don’t mean irregular in the sense that it is collectively owned, or that it only takes cash, or that it’s only closed between the hours of 4 and 6 a.m. All those things are true, but that doesn’t really get to the heart of it.

Take tonight for example. As I write this sentence, a man, inexplicably wet (it isn’t raining), is barking at a couple to my left to buy flowers that he is selling from a black crate, also dripping. The barista ignores the flower guy—he’s here so regularly they must have some sort of understanding—and focuses his attention on another man who, sitting two tables left of me against the rear wall, is trying to whistle. He is failing, though he is not without effort. The barista goes to him and says the obvious, that he needs to stop, so he does. Though this instance is less alarming than laughable and ultimately innocuous, things here weren’t always this way.

If the regulars haven’t already told you themselves, it doesn’t take much internet savvy to learn the basic history of Hard Times. Like every other research project (and against the admonitions of every teacher I ever had) I started with Wikipedia. After all, Hard Times is renowned enough to have its own page, a laurel that eludes the area’s finest farm-to-table restaurants.

Founded in 1992, the café was founded as a collective by eight employees of the Urban Peasant, a restaurant that was failing at the time. The name was a perfect fit, altogether prescient of what was to come the following years. By January 2000 it faced closure after several arrests following a drug sting conducted by the Minneapolis Police Department. The tie between Hard Times and international drug trafficking might not have held up to close scrutiny (the raid yielded only a small amount of marijuana) but that’s not to say the café didn’t have its moments.

Take January 13, for example, on the same year of the raid. That night Hard Times patrons were greeted with a handful of bullets fired into the cafe from a passing car. Luckily, there haven’t been any drive-bys since, and today the prospect of death has been replaced by the shrill tweet of off-key whistling. Loyal customers may have unclenched their teeth somewhere over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean the place has lost its edginess.

Open 22 Hours a Day on the West Bank

Inside the café, depending on the time and sometimes regardless, there is death metal playing off vinyl, the kind with inexplicable screaming; pure puppy-strangling music. Although rules don’t permit it, men otherwise homeless sneak a few hours sleep at tables partially obstructed by a partitioned wall. At the bar, baristas peddle mugs of coffee for $1, which is the minimum purchase price for admittance.

Sometimes a family wanders in and inadvertently reminds me where I am. Although most people indulge their voyeurism quietly, sitting rigidly in the beaten booths, reading messages gashed into the table or shooting nervous smiles at the regular who smiles back with his mouth open, the more unabashed mothers (they are, for whatever reason, usually the most expressive) sprout giddy smiles and point at the artwork, making a safari out of it.

The month of April featured a particularly arresting collection of paintings. On the back wall, a boy opens his chest to expose a tangled mass of colorful organ material. In the opposite corner, the same boy kneels on bathroom tile, holding his eye on a fork out in front of him, as if in explanation. Even the regulars don’t afford this latter painting any attention save maybe a quick, queasy glance, while other, far less acclimated patrons go to extreme and sometimes laughable lengths to avoid the boy’s desperate stare, like ducking behind pillars or deliberately changing seats.

But once the initial shock wears off there is something undeniably seductive about Hard Times, unrivaled to any of the other “late-night” cafés in the city that close at midnight. But the alluring essence of the place doesn’t lie in the aesthetics. It isn’t the grotesque paintings, dollar coffee, or death metal that gives the café its character. It’s the community.

One of the first things a visitor might notice, before any of its other charms, is the heterogeneity of its people. I’m not talking about diversity in the college catalog kind of way. It would be hard to name a racial, social, or economic group that isn’t somehow represented at Hard Times, whether they are there to talk politics, do homework, or simply mumble to themselves.

There are the few regulars one might expect at an almost all-night vegan place called Hard Times: a couple homeless guys aforementioned pretending to sleep; a few kids with mohawks and chains hanging from their belt loops; a guy with glasses who seems average until you realize he’s been sitting in the same place for hours, staring at the table top.

But then there are also the well-dressed, suited gentlemen fresh from the office. There are men with iPhones and men with top hats. There are the clear-eyed and the suspiciously jovial, the healthy and the deformed, the dreadheads, and crew cutters.

There are also the memorable ones, like Sunshine, the eccentric Pakistani ice cream man who goes around from table to table preaching free love in broken English. My friend and I thought it would be wise to transcribe these capricious sermons for future reference and consideration. From what I could gather, his philosophy lies somewhere between mysticism and alcoholism. His prophetic slurs even revealed segments that read like haiku:

They have problem, I don’t have problem.
They change, I never change.
I always Sunshine.
—Sunshine, Friday, March 12, 2011, 2:30 a.m.

Authenticity and the Glamour of Being Unglamorous

Most of the online reviewers critical of Hard Times disregard this rare jumble of folks, instead directing their attention to the employees. Many mistakenly judge the sour indifference of the baristas to be purposeful, as if the place were the grunge equivalent of a themed ’50s café. “I get the vibe they’re going for,” writes Karen on “They’re tattooed and unconventional. Congratulations.” To those used to conventional places, especially those with “friendly” service, criticism is unsurprising. Most of it falls on the baristas. “The service was unfriendly,” writes another patron, “but I believe that’s the image they are going for” she says, repeating Karen’s sentiments.

In an age of ever-increasing appearances, it is rare to find an establishment that, rather than merely affecting an air of authenticity, is truly authentic. When faced with the real thing—a total lack of effort put into image—contemporary reviewers immediately look for a sales pitch; they assume the strings attached. But unlike Corporate Coffee, which orchestrates its exit signs to match the walls, the baristas at Hard Times do not affect an air of indifference to play into the come-as-you-are atmosphere. Their attitudes are as they are, and for no aesthetic or economic reason. As one loyal customer put it, “its a great place if you are not looking for fake kindness.”

For some, fake kindness is more maddening than no kindness at all. That’s not to say the staff of Hard Times is always unfriendly, or that a staple of a good late night café is the neglect of patrons from its employees. Caffetto, a café in Uptown open until 1 a.m., is in many ways the aesthetic opposite of Hard Times. For one, it’s nice, or at least comparatively nice. It’s visually unobtrusive and comfortable. The main room is lined with semi-worn leather booths lining the walls and neat tables-for-two in the body. Above, fans hum sleepily, their lights artfully caged in a web of metal. The walls are brown but look maroon, lit upward by a few small lamps along the walls’ edge. The air is infused with friendly melodies and the smell of herbal tea. Most of the patrons keep to themselves, reading or writing in silence.

One night I ask the barista who is playing over the speakers—it’s folky and reminiscent of Fleet Foxes. He tells me, and then dives into a long and detailed history of Megafaun, a band based out of Durham, North Carolina. I write down a laundry list of recommendations before excusing myself. Down a flight of stairs I find an open cellar, the walls of which are marred by free-hand, marker graffiti, the ink forming letters ane names with swooping colors. At Hard Times, the bathrooms are regular canvases where people write anything from poems to death threats to things completely bizarre (“Tom Arnold molested my brother”). Apparently, graffitti is commonplace for both late-nighters.

All that aside, the cellar at Caffetto doesn’t seem to fit with the first-floor’s reserved patrons, not with its pinball machines, ping-pong table and open piping. After midnight though, as the sleep-inclined customers slipped off home, those remaining began congregating downstairs in increasing numbers, and I began to see a new side of the place.

I return to ask Ian, the barista, a few more questions about Caffetto, including why he thought they stayed open until 1 a.m., considering that it wasn’t economical. It has always been that way, he explains rather vaguely, since its founding in 1993. I mean to press him further, but while I’m still scribbling in my notepad, a burly guy in a bandana asks me if I’m a writer. I explain about the article and he starts quizzing me on literature and ends by telling me not to go to grad school. His name is Jesse, a writer, musician, and regular at Caffetto since 1998, when he moved to Minneapolis from San Francisco. I soon meet the others, including Rashard, a local journalist who explains the need of black-owned businesses for equal opportunity in Minneapolis, a point I promise to mention. None of these things have to do with the story I’m telling of course, but I am nevertheless drawn by their camaraderie and openness. Jesse was not exaggerating when he described he and the other regulars as family.

No Place Like Home

The people at Caffetto welcomed me in a way the Hard Times barista with an eye patch never would. The two late-night families have their ostensible differences, but what unites them is not their atmosphere so much as their agenda, or rather their lack of one. Each put aside the pragmatism of their corporate competitors to stay open late, and by doing so each has come to exist with as much community as business.

I realized how deeply I had come to rely on that community after Hard Times closed suddenly and I had no idea where to go. Posted on the door one day in late April was a note explaining Hard Times would be closed until their piping was fixed. It was accompanied by a poorly drawn diagram of a car smashing into a wall, some pipes sticking out.

Over the next two weeks, I reluctantly stepped into other coffee shops, as if it were a betrayal. The coffee was too expensive. The lights were too bright. There were too many people I didn’t know. They asked me if I wanted whipped cream.

I saw some of the Hard Times live-ins about town. I saw the smiling man at Espresso Expose, though he wasn’t smiling then, with all his things tied up in grocery bags on the chair next to him. Many people looked at him with the same reluctance the visitors to Hard Times showed when they were confronted with the painting of the boy. I shot him a smile, a nod. He rolled a cigarette on the table. Then he rolled another.

Some just kind of wandered around outside. I watched from Mapps, a coffee shop across Riverside from Hard Times. As it got dark more people gathered in front of the place. Someone brought out a banjo. For the time being they had no home, no reason to be there, outside. But there was a banjo. I laughed, thinking of all of us, bastardized and scattered around the city, stumbling about in this other, strange world.

It was 15 minutes until Mapps closed at 8:00 p.m. I packed my stuff and went home, hearing the banjo strumming away behind me.

The Happy Return of Bizarre Muffins

When Hard Times reopened, it had never been busier. The door kept slamming and swinging open. People were walking everywhere. You could hear the clang of change being slung into the plastic jug at the bar. Everyone was grinning and giving bear hugs. Outside, someone was handing out cigarettes. The muffins were extra creative—raspberry chocolate chip, peanut butter with strawberry innards, peach and cream cheese.

Taped on the espresso machine was the sketch. “Car hit café go smash” it said. “Bad car, bad.”
What a strange and happy reunion.

That night, I stayed until closing, eating bizarre muffins and soaking in the death metal I couldn’t stand, delighting in all the fresh weirdness. When I walked home, dew stuck to the air like it was a windowpane. Stoplights worked uselessly. Everything was still, the whole city, I thought, was sleeping.

Collin Peck-Gray is a student at Williams College, where he studies English with an emphasis on creative writing. For more information on Collin, including samples of his nonfiction, fiction, and other ramblings, visit him at He is a Contributing Editor at Twin Cities Runoff.

Beth Schulz, a Minnesota native, presently resides in Madison with her sister and other associated goons. She fills her time with books, food, and the act of making inky messes.