30 March 2013

Is #Suspended #Coffee a Good Idea?


The post below was created on March 30th and I have been updating the story, with dated entries below.

However, I know that many of us might not have enough time to read this whole article, all the way down to the most important bit, so I'm putting the most important bit, here, right at the top.


We are very pleased to say that thanks to the Suspended Coffee post that went viral on Facebook, we have pledged to connect with London's only FREE homeless shelter, that is open ALL year round, Shelter From The Storm

We are encouraging you to donate any money that you might have spent on buying a Suspended Coffee to Shelter From The Storm, instead.

It's very easy and you know that the whole amount will be going directly to the cause. 

Shelter From The Storm tell us,
'We promise that your £2, the price of a cup of coffee, will go directly to providing food and drink to London's homeless.'

Please help them to help our homeless by texting CAFE13£2 to 70070.

ORIGINAL POST, March 30th:-

Is #Suspended #Coffee a Good Idea?

Suspended Coffee?

What's the BIG Idea?

The idea is that you can walk into any coffee shop, buy an extra coffee, a 'suspended coffee' and then that 'suspended coffee' isn't made but kept in reserve, for when a homeless person walks in, they can then say, 'Is there a suspended coffee here, please?' Then if there is they can have a free coffee that's already been paid for, by another member of the community.


This post has gone viral all over Facebook and people are loving the concept, it really pulls at their heart strings and you'd think that coffee shop owners and large chains would be rushing to support it wouldn't you?

They do NOT! But why NOT? When it seems like such a brilliant idea, an idea that pumps money into the coffee shop, makes people that pay for the coffee feel good and gives a little help to a homeless soul.


So is my partner and Co-Founder Gunter Hollenstein. Gunter and I have often spent many hours discussing the direction of our business, who we are going to help, how we are going to connect with our community, how we can help promote artists, what we can do to help in a crisis situation. How do we support local business? How are we going to help the local economy, how can we run our business more efficiently and greener? Long hours and discussion. 

When we heard about the suspended coffee scheme, we both had the same bitter taste in our mouth and a sadness in our hearts.

People have responded almost hysterically to this idea and in the last five days, I have been asked so many times to support the scheme, that I'm sick of saying no and giving my reasons. So this blog is principally to tell you why, although this idea seems like a good one on the surface, we would NEVER EVER do it.

People in our local community know, our customers and business connections know that we are very kind hearted and soulful in the way we run our business, so how could it be that we are so AGAINST this popular idea?

These are the reasons:

1/ Part of the spirit of owning a coffee shop is that you can pass support onto others when you can, both Gunter and myself enjoy doing that. We are not alone, several other independent Coffee Shop owners agree and I believe that the chains are also against this idea, even though it could potentially boost sales.

2/ I believe most people in coffee shops will give a coffee and a bite to eat, to a homeless person, without such a scheme being in place. We certainly do! Didn't really want to shout about that as I don't want the rest of you dressing up as you think a homeless person might look. Plenty of independents and chains do the same.

3/ That's what truly brings our community together, those little actions, that we don't need to shout about. I feel sorry that I've have had to mention it here, in explanation to my aversion to the 'suspended' coffee scheme. There doesn't need to be a scheme, as you know most people running coffee shops have a really big heart and sense of community. 

 4/ Do you really think that if a homeless person walks into a coffee shop,  they get turned away, if there is no 'suspended coffee'? I've heard of this idea but it doesn't appeal to me...Gunter and I see it as part of the pleasure of owning a coffee shop that if someone can't afford a coffee, they're homeless, destitute, depressed, we can offer them coffee, water, tea, soup and a little snack to take away.

5/ I really, really wouldn't want my customers to pay for what. I seeas quite a spiritual thing. It's because of our customer's support of us and our business,that we have a responsibility to share that success with others that need help in our society. Being in a train station and near to the job centre, we have a few 'regulars' who are homeless and down on their luck. I've tried to help some further by getting St Mungos involved, in certain cases too....but sometimes....it doesn't work. I feel suspended coffees would go against our ethos as a shop, it's something I just could not do. It would feel dirty to get money from someone and make a profit from someone else's misery. We are very firm about right and wrong in our little shop and that to me just feels so wrong. 

6/ Look at how many people support the idea and would pay for those coffees....they are just the same type of person who, if they owned their own coffee shop, would give a free coffee and nibble to eat! It's human nature. 

7/To set up a scheme like this and get everyone to say 'ah' and get them to pay for coffees that they don't know are ever going to be provided stinks of scam and it's not necessary.

8/ Human nature says that the homeless person will get a cuppa.....and funnily enough, that is what the post is proving. There but for the grace of God, go I. I think most of us think like that and treat others how we would like to be treated.

9/ I was homeless for a while, right down at the bottom of the pile....I was lucky enough to be put into disgustingly horrible temporary accommodation...I know, as many of us know that these people are not scum of the earth, to be sneered at, we know any homeless person could be our brother, our mother, our father our sister our son our daughter, or ourselves. These are vulnerable times and we are all close to the edge....

10/ If you truly want to support these individuals, either ask what coffee they would like, and take it to them,.or make sure you visit your independent coffee store more regularly, in the knowledge that most of them would give out coffees upon request and at discretion to homeless people....and that by ensuring these coffee shops are running at a profit because you love them, they will naturally share back the love to the community without shouting about it! Book an appointment with yourself and 9 friends, to meet in your local indepdent coffee shop, buy them all coffees, introduce them to a great business, help the business to thrive, so they can keep trickling down the love and support that you have given, into their community.

That's sustainable!

What Do You Think?

Please let me know, please join in the debate, what do you feel? Please comment here. Can you convince me otherwise? xx

UPDATE APRIL 5th, 2012

Thanks to The Consumerist for their Blog, all about this Blog, which you can read, here.

At least one of the major coffee chains has been reported by a national paper as joining the Suspended Coffee scheme, I'll let you judge whether they have joined the scheme or not by reading the article for yourself, here. 

The great thing about the Suspended Coffee debate is that it has made the coffee industry, including ourselves look at more ways that we can help homeless people, it is something that we all need to look at very hard indeed.

So, we are very pleased to say that thanks to the Suspended Coffee post that went viral on Facebook, we have pledged to connect with London's only FREE homeless shelter, that is open ALL year round, Shelter From The Storm

We are encouraging you to donate any money that you might have spent on buying a Suspended Coffee to Shelter From The Storm, instead.

It's very easy and you know that the whole amount will be going directly to the cause. Shelter From The Storm tell us,

'We promise that your £2, the price of a cup of coffee, will go directly to providing food and drink to London's homeless.'

Please help them to help our homeless by texting CAFE13£2 to 70070.

Thank you for reading this far. If you have any thoughts about this, please join in the debate and comment below.

Karen. xx

Update April 7th

The article by Boughton's Coffee House, below, is the most balanced article that I have seen about Suspended Coffee so far, it quotes from this very blog post above, as well as having quotes from independent coffee shop owners that have taken on the scheme.

Read the Boughton's Coffee House article about Suspended Coffee, here.

We are looking forward to going to visit Shelter from the Storm, very shortly, to see their work.

Thanks to The Londonist, for also picking up on the Suspended Coffee Story and for referring to our blog, in this article, here.


Tangorine said...

I definitely agree with you here.

There are a lot of people out there in the world who are obviously very generous and charitable who would do this, and you can immediately see it's a nice gesture of someone to walk into a coffee shop and buy a 'suspended coffee'. Yet I don't agree this is the way to "help" individuals who are homeless.

There are obviously many coffee shop owners who would give out coffee to homeless people regardless of whether someone has paid for it or not, so there is no need for this scheme.

Alongside this, I feel every area should emphasise to their local council that more should and can be done for the homeless, providing them with support; but only with shelter, but with other needs as well. And these are the more effective ways of supporting the homeless.

I obviously haven't had the experience of being homeless so I wouldn't know how it feels. But I have, just like everyone else, felt good about someone supporting me when I needed assistance.

But at the end of the day, this is just another topic which one could argue both sides of and never reach a satisfying agreement just like "is donating money to large charities effective?", as I do not believe in donating money as "donating action" as I see it a lot more effective and reassuring you're helping someone.

felicity said...

Hi, i wanted to read all about this suspended coffee idea thoroughly before i commented.I totally 100% agree with Karen Mercer.Never would i refuse/turn away a homeless/down on their luck person who was in need of a coffee and didn't have the money to pay for it. I am sure any independent coffee place would do the same.This suspended coffee scheme does not appeal to me at all.I don't need this scheme to help me feel good about helping the homeless/less fortunate this is something i already do and its straight from my heart with no strings attached.

Anonymous said...

Karen, thanks for setting out your views. I was a bit dubious about the scheme anyway and now I completely understand your point of view. It reminds me of going into a big supermarket recently and seeing big signs about buying food to donate to the food bank - drumming up their business and publicity on the backs of people in hardship. I have every confidence that local businesses are kind to people in hardship and, personally, I'd rather donate to the food bank as my way of helping.

Anonymous said...

Not sure I 100% agree as I actually support the idea. No, not all coffee shops will give away free coffee nor open their doors to homeless people only a select few like yourselves would. I agree buy a coffee and take it too a homeless person, but why not have a scheme where they can also come inside. Also if someone dressed well, say a chap who has worked all their lives, but has been made redundant and doesn't have the means to buy a coffee walked in would you turn them away as they are dressed well, how exactly would the scheme work...but again I do support the idea of it.

Denise said...

Totally, totally agree with you Karen, excellent account which puts into words why I felt it was nothing more than a gimmick when I first heard about these suspended coffees.

Claire said...

Agree with your points, but maybe there is one good thing about suspended coffee; it removes a barrier and gives people an alternative way of offering a homeless person a coffee etc. it shouldn't replace asking if they'd like a drink face to face but for those who find it uncomfortable approaching a stranger, they have another option. I prefer 'paying it forward' where you pay for your own coffee and then the next customers coffee. They then have the choice of accepting a freebie or paying it forward and pay for the next customer :)

Anonymous said...

I personally think the suspended coffee idea is great as a) this in theory gives the public a powerful, tangible way of knowing their cash is making a real difference. I used to work for a large UK charity in fundraising and as we know, despite the great work charities do, a lot of the money ends up in admin b) those worse off are less marginalised as they are encouraged to come into those coffee shops that they would normally stay away from. Yes it does sound like a gimmick to cynics but I think we should be applauding this movement rather than doing it down

Bim said...

It is easy to see and agree with both points of view. Ultimately, like a lot of things in life, there are many different ways to achieve the same objective. In this case, to help someone who, for whatever reason, may need our help and whom we may be able to help in a rather novel way.
To be honest, I didn’t see the original idea as implying that coffee shop owners, or anyone else for that matter, were not necessarily kind-hearted and generous to any less fortunate than them. Rather, I saw it as an additional opportunity for others, beyond the shop owners, to help, if they wanted to, in an easy and convenient way. I'm genuinely surprised that such a simple idea has generated such polarised views.
Clearly it could be open to abuse e.g. people accepting payment for “suspended” drinks but pocketing rather than actually passing on the drinks. Or people not really in need claiming they are. However, if it works as intended, I think it is an excellent idea though it may not appeal to everyone. Surely, the important thing is that someone gets a welcome drink or something else that may be on offer rather than not at all?
If I were desperately in need of help, to be honest, I would appreciate that help whether it came through a gimmicky scheme or some spontaneous act of generosity!

Karen Mercer said...

Hi Bim, thanks for commenting here. I suppose it leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it's encouraging coffee shop owners to profit out of poverty. I don't like the idea of that at all. X

Lexi said...

Hi Karen,

I've been reading your comments all over the internet today and while I'll admit I don't fully understand some of your arguments above, I am always open to being convinced, as you say you are.

But without discussing your concerns one by one, I simply want to ask: what is wrong with a business adopting a program that fosters a sense of volunteerism in the community? My family owns a successful bakery/cafe. We give back to the community in countless ways that many of our customers don't even know about. We feel that accepting suspended orders is a way to give our customers a chance to contribute. There is nothing wrong with feeling warm and fuzzy about doing something good. That is the natural reward we humans get when we know we've done the right thing. Better yet, that feeling fosters the desire to continue doing good!

My comment could wind up quite long-winded, so I think I'll go blog about this myself. I hope you'll reconsider your position and see that any measure a company can take to foster volunteerism in its community, no matter how small, should not be bashed but rather praised.

Thanks for your openness to discussing this and inviting comments!


Karen Mercer said...

Hi Lexi, thanks so much for writing your comment. You've certainly made me think again. I was feeling so frustrated because I couldn't see why coffee shop owners would do this scheme, when they can just give a coffee anyway. When you say that it gives customers the opportunity to support and contribute to the work you do, that resonates with me and makes more sense. This is why I want people to comment. Thank you so much. xx

Suspended Coffee Scotland said...

May I add my thoughts?

The story went viral not due to the scheme its self... as many an independent like yourself have already have a heart!... but to the heartfelt feeling that everyone got when reading the story behind the scheme... and more importantly happy to do such an insignificant thing to help another. The Suspend Coffees pages have 40k+ likes where the majority see it as a scheme that could work and they would be happy to support.

Yes some may have stopped to consider the ruthless businesses out there that may not be honest... but this out weighs the generosity the individual feels to be able to give a one off Random act of Kindness without thought or pre planning... Unlike a charity donation other than street collectors! That moment when standing at the cash desk and being prompted by a sign and act immediately.

Most coffee shops employee's are not given the power to be able to act independently and give a Free coffee without fear of repercussion, hence a formal scheme would benefit the majority. No need for them to leave the person asking to go and find out if it can be done... Less embarrassment!

I also point out in your own words you did not advertise that as an independent business you gave to those in need at your discretion to avoid an increase... Therefore how does the individuals in need know who is willing to help and who isn't?

My biggest issue with your argument that those in need also have PRIDE and wouldn't necessarily ask? A simple sign in a window with a scheme that is promoted via the charities with those in need avoids any embarrassment and pride of the individual intact!

While there is many flaws in the logistics of this scheme it was based on a "Goodwill" gesture... The old fashioned way... We have to trust that the consensus will be trustworthy!

Suspended Coffee Scotland hasn't rushed in... while creating the FB, twitter etc to assist others when there is structure and a general consensus as to how it can be monitored and signage has been agreed as we believe for this to work it needs to be a nationally branded scheme!

The debate so far has made many points both for and against and we look forward to reading your continued posts.

Daryl said...

I own an independent coffee shop, I apologies about spelling & grammar English is my 2nd language I'm Romanian.
I love your blog it's very well written but I completely disagree with you, I fully support suspended coffee & here's why?

First of all people reading need to remember the company getlokal.ro who own the brand & logo have spend a lot of money on Facebook & twitter adverts, a lot of money in promoted press releases.
They need this to promote their business as they expand through Europe.
If this doesn't work this poor multinational company wont make as much profit as predicted & some people will lose their jobs.

Getlokal.ro are doing some wonderful things here, if I join the movement & take a photo of their sticker in my shop window they will give me 6 months free advertising in Romania, Bulgaria & Macedonia. If that's not charitable then I don't know what it.

I sell a latte for £2.50 & make £1.50 net profit.
I hope this takes off & I'll sell twice as much coffee & get twice as much profit.
So customers pay £5.00 & I make £3.00 profit.
I'll also be able to claim my corporation tax back I paid last year for every suspended coffee sold.
So customers pay £5.00 & I make now make £4.00 net profit.

The only downside is I think having HIV riddled, drug addict, alcoholic tramps in my cafe might but off my regulars. I'd probably have to throw there cups away.
At 1st I thought about only allowing them in at off peak times or making them have take out.
But I've come up with a better idea.

No one is going to check what I do so I'm not going to give any coffees away.
Now a customer pays £5.00 & I make £6.50 net profit.

I've already put the suspended coffee stickers in my store windows, luckily the tramps don't have Facebook, twitter or read the Daily Mail so they have no clue what it means & it won't entice them in.

Remember coffee shops like me could really do with tripling our profits at this difficult time, you need to support suspended coffee.

Follow my tag on twitter

Katherine Westphal said...

Wouldn't adding Suspended Coffees to your store increase your ability to help the poor? Like another poster said, you are getting your customers involved with the giving process.

Eddieographer said...

Agree with the bulk of what Karen writes though the idea that this it is "profiting from poverty" strikes me as odd.
In that case ANYONE who gets paid working in organizations related to poverty can be classified a profiteer.

My idea to improve the suspended coffee concept and at the same time eliminate some of the negative aspects like potential employee theft and/or customer deceit is simple to sell "suspended coffee gift certificates or vouchers".

That way the person can hand them out to homeless people themselves. This whole suspended thing kinda feels like a lazy way to feel good, like "I dont want to actually connect with less fortunate people so Ill just buy an extra cup of coffee and let the shop deal with it." I realize that people are generally not thinking like this on a conscious level and just want to do something nice or generate a little Karma, Im just saying thats what it feels like to me.

If you just want to feel real good then seek a person out look them in the eye and tell them "Hey I feel for you , I know its cold out here so here is a cert for a free coffee to warm you up."

In this way the shop can earn a profit so that if can continue to do good "charitable" work in the community.
Its a whole lot to easier to give stuff away when you have a whole lot more coming in!

jakelomax said...

I must confess, I could never think about an idea like suspended coffee like you did. If I follow your logic, allow me an example: if I start a movement tomorrow in which I give free CARS to people, one can argue that I am just a sorry a** frustrated rich man that needs to feel great and seek attention, right? How about free HOUSES? That can make me a bigger attention freak! So let's stop with these actions like GIVING FREE STUFF to people. Why....why would you call this beautiful idea a "scheme"?

From what I know, usually a "scheme" is a devious plan. To be shady or otherwise use intellectual power to deceive or carry out a plan for a personal interest. A plan with a twisted plot. WHAT is devious about buying someone a coffee?

I agree that we are free to speak our mind, free to have different views but really, THIS is an idea to consider bad? Really?

Eddieographer said...

Jake you are using extreme exaggeration with the house and car examples and missing the point totally.

No one says its a "bad" thing to want to help people, it just may not be the ideal thing from the perspective of the business owner who runs a coffee shop.

There are other factors to consider.

Also while the word scheme does have a negative connotation it is not necessarily negative. Any plan or program of action may be defined as a scheme.

jakelomax said...

With respect for the writer of this article, please allow my reply:

Eddie, my comment was directed to the general feeling this article gives to a reader. Can you read between the lines? You say a scheme is not necessarily negative: again, don't just read like in 3rd year school. Try to analyze this article and think what message it sends = suspended coffee is bad.

How about this:
"7/To set up a scheme like this and get everyone to say 'ah' and get them to pay for coffees that they don't know are ever going to be provided stinks of scam and it's not necessary."

Please tell me again how am I missing the point?

Kareen Cox said...

When I first read the facebook story, I thought what a fab idea. Now, I'm slightly sitting on the fence a little bit with this one as there are so many avenues that would need to be looked at. There’s advantages and disadvantages for everyone involved so I don’t really think that there’s a right or wrong answer.

My first point would be to look at the side of the needy person. Whilst many coffee owners would probably be charitable and give a free coffee/tea/sandwich to someone in need, how will that person know that they can get a free anything at this shop without being abused and told to 'bugger off' by some irate business owner? Homeless people have pride too. They don't always want to ask for free stuff. On the other hand, what if you give them a free coffee and they then proceed to come every day, then twice and day, and then tell their friends...? No coffee shop can afford that. If your customers can spare a few extra quid to share the cost, then the person in need of a hot beverage won't feel that they are being a burden to anyone. Your customers will feel that they’re helping a person in need and will in turn feel great about it. You won’t be out of pocket and the homeless person will get a hot beverage down them. Everyone wins or do they…?

My second point would be that I'm sure a lot of coffee shop owners wouldn't want to participate in this scheme for the fact that it would mean that the 'undesirable' may flood their shop and could, in turn, lose them customers. I know this sounds awful, but cleanly dressed, ready for the office, workers probably wouldn't want to sit next to someone that is unkempt and possibly a little bit worse for wear. The general public like the idea of helping a person but in reality sitting next to one and make idle chit chat isn’t up everyone’s street.

Thirdly, unscrupulous shop owners could make huge profits from this scheme. Most of the contributions would probably be paid in cash, so there would be no trace of how much is coming in. If they have any overflow, what’s to stop them from keeping it? Not good. However, for the honest coffee shop owner, imagine how much they could possibly give over to charity if their ‘suspended coffees’ aren’t used?

There’s more positives to negatives. But it’s up to the shop owner to make the final decision as to whether it’s for them or not. Do your customers want this scheme? Do you want to help a larger amount of homeless people? Do you want more homeless people in your coffee shop? Do you want to lose customers as a result? Do you want to gain customers by people coming into your shop to buy a suspended coffee and then buying something extra for themselves? Would you like to contribute more to charities?

Keith Hepburn said...

Hello, Its difficult to have a valued opinion, but one I will give.

On the point about profits, perhaps the Coffee owners could sell the drinks at cost, so no profit is made from passing a drink onto someone down on their luck.

I really don't know what else to add. You should not have to explain your actions, and would be suprised if someone asked you why you were not signing upto the scheme.

Perhaps above all I can see that possibly the schemes would bring homelessness into peoples minds and that may not be a bad thing overall.

Anonymous said...

I am absolutely with you on this one. I wrote a blog about it too.
Bit of a less politcally correct rant than your nicely presented points but still..

Robert Fisher said...

Being from North America, this 'suspended coffee' idea is new to me. Having just learned of it, I started looking into it and doing some reading which brought me to your blog.

It's absolutely your choice to participate or not but your stated reasons are petty and selfish. The 10 of them really are just different ways of saying the same thing.

Suffice it to say that if I'm in London again I won't be stopping in your shop. Not because you don't want to be a part of the concept; as noted that's your choice and I won't fault the choice, but rather because the way you've expressed your objection leads me to not want to have anything to do with supporting your business.

Karen Mercer said...

Hello Robert, thanks for taking the time and trouble to read my blog and also write a comment. I appreciate that.

I have to say that I must have been unwittingly selfish! I don't want to be selfish, so if you could just tell me what is selfish about NOT wanting to make a profit from giving homeless people coffee, that would clear things up for me.

I think you should come to our shop and let a little of our kindness and generosity of spirit rub off onto you! xx

Jackson Allan said...

I agree with you Karen. I think it is great that you have offered people the opportunity to redirect the entire donation direct to charity. I have put a blog post together outlining what I think are the issues with the suspended coffee movement.

Other issues I think Cafe owners need to consider are the laws in their respective area. In QLD, Australia, charitable collections are regulated by law and some cafe owners could be breaking the law by soliciting donations - that is, actively promoting the concept. These laws are in place to ensure transparency because as pointed out by yourself and many others, there is great potential for fraud in this instance. As this movement grows it is going to attract the attention of regulators who will most likely point out that registered charities without profit motives should be collecting donations. Mostly because there is already a system in place to keep them accountable.

Another point is that donations on the economy level are finite and this movement if it starts to grow will divert donations away from charities who are more efficient at providing for those in need, such as 'Shelter from the Storm'.

If Cafes are insisting on taking part they should at least issue the coffees at cost price. I have described a model for how this could be done in my blog linked above. However there are better ways for cafes to support charity, your model is a good one!

Flourvonsponge said...

I own a coffee shop/bakery in Chichester, West Sussex and we have been doing the suspended coffee scheme for five months now. We do not charge our customers our usual price for a coffee if they wish to purchase and bank a suspended coffee. We take on a cost neutral approach to the suspended coffee and for a £1, this banks two coffees or teas or hot chocolate. The suspended coffees are represented by marbles in a jar and the clients from the kcal homeless shelter are aware of the sugnificance of the marbles.

This is our take on our experience with doing the suspended coffee scheme.