Coffee and Community in Parkland, WA.

by Olivia Moore, Jordan Lankford, and Belle Helnore

Coffee (n): A drink made from the roasted and ground beanlike seeds of a tropical shrub, served hot or iced. 

Culture (n): The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

Coffee culture (n): Social interactions that rely upon the use of coffee.

The United States, compared to other countries, relies on a daily intake of caffeine. Very often, this takes the form of coffee. Within the United States, the West Coast, and most notably Seattle, WA., consumes the most coffee per year (Daily). Naturally, this coffee dependency has trickled south and into the heart of Tacoma and Parkland. At any given time, there is at least one coffee stand, shop, or drive-through open within a 5-mile radius. Along the 1.8 mile stretch of Pacific Avenue alone, there are six coffee stands that have a drive-through only, two that have a lobby only, and two that have a drive-through and a lobby. As a group, we wanted to see how coffee played a role in the Parkland community’s everyday life, as well as how it plays a role on campus at Pacific Lutheran University. We thought that the increase of drive-throughs in Parkland would reflect people being busier with their own lives, which would cause Parkland to have a lack of community. We also anticipated an increase of social interactions in lobbies (due to the small number of lobbies we have), but we found the opposite in both cases.

According to Rachel Bryant and Lauren Dundes, in “Fast Food Perceptions: A pilot study of college students in Spain and the United States,” people tend to choose “convenience” over “social values.” The article compares college students based on nationality—American or Spanish—and gender. Though the article found statistics, such as American males are much less concerned with the nutritional value of food compared to American females or Spaniards of either sex, we were much more interested in one startling statistic: “Americans devote nearly 50% of their money to food that is either purchased or produced outside of their home” (Bryant and Dundes). This is every other meal. However, having said this, eating out seems to create a community outside of the house, which can be attributed to the fast food culture or even the grocery store culture. Families that need a meal go to the grocery store either for whole meals (like fully cooked chickens) or to a fast food joint like McDonald’s.

An extension of this fast food convenience culture is coffee and coffee culture. Coffee culture is strange though. When anyone goes to the grocery store, they don’t usually make conversation with those next to them, unless it’s about how cute the Seahawks cupcakes are (this from experience). Coffee, however, seems to bind strangers together. Conversation with a stranger can be held at a drive-through coffee stand as patrons speak beyond the barista to the car in the other window (also from experience). While we made the assumption that due to haste, drive-throughs would lose all community interaction, this simply isn’t the case. The way in which the conversations are held is changed (in-car versus in-person), but the community aspect is not lost.  In an interview with a barista from Big Foot Java (in Parkland), she said that she, “serves mostly families, and that a lot of the time people are willing to stop and talk,” (as long as the coffee stand isn’t too busy). This was a different response than what we were expecting. We were expecting drive-throughs to accommodate more parents than anything, and that they would be in a rush and unwilling to talk.

While coffee does provide us with caffeine, it also provides us with the opportunity to interact with the people around us. As Ray Oldenburg describes in his book The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You through the Day, “Coffee breaks are more than mere rest periods; they are depended upon more for sociable human contact than physical relaxation.” Though he is talking specifically about the workplace, his idea of people needing social breaks for interaction can be applied almost anywhere. In coffee places, the evolution over the years has been quite accommodating. Some have gone from locations that strictly sold only coffee to adding various items to their menu such as pastries, cookies, and even energy drinks. Not only this, but in the Tacoma area a majority of places sell coffee now, such as gas stations, restaurants, and fast food restaurants. Contrary to Oldenburg’s ideas, Parkland seemed to be more about convenience at first glance. When we looked closer, we realized that, although people here choose convenience, they still chose interactions, but only in ways that fit their comfort zones, such as in drive-throughs.


A Closer Look at Drive-Throughs and Lobbies in Parkland

In the Parkland area specifically, the coffee shop where one would expect the PLU community and the Parkland community to overlap is Blue Steele. Blue Steele (formerly a Forza coffee) sits in a shopping plaza near 116th and Steele Street (this part of Parkland is close to freeways). Given its location, it would appear to be a premium space for those in the community as well as PLU students to interact with one another. Additionally, the location has a tragic but important history. In 2009, four police officers were shot and killed there. After this happened, there was more of a sense of community in Parkland. The name was changed to Blue Steel in 2012 to honor the officers. The owner, Courtney, explains “Our mission is to enhance the lives of our community by connecting with our customers and providing an unforgettable and inspiring experience” (News Tribune). Though some time has passed, we expected to see a sense of community (including the Parkland community and the PLU community) reflected throughout the coffee shop. However, after observing interactions, we found that Blue Steele’s lobby is not as interactive as one might think. When co-author Jordan Lankford first walked in, one of the first things he noticed was the lack people in the lobby. Aside from this, the people that were in the lobby looked like they were all over the age of 20. At the largest table, there was a meeting of what sounded like construction workers planning their next project. There were people on the couches and sitting at the smaller tables, but they all had a laptop or a phone to distract them from talking to one another. Ironically, their coffee selections were not as extensive as the food selections. On the menu, they had a special sandwich called “The Lute.” This was the only obvious crossover he observed between PLU and the Parkland community. The social interactions that happened in Blue Steele were quite limited. Unfortunately, we were hoping that we would see more interactions in lobbies. After observing Blue Steele, we concluded that there may be less interaction in lobbies due to the lack of intimacy in the lobbies themselves. By contrast, drive-throughs have baristas that are usually the ones facilitating conversations.

A different type of lobby that we looked at was Old Main Market (OMM) at Pacific Lutheran University. OMM is more of an on-the-go coffee area, though it does have a small lobby. The unique thing about it is that is also has a store area, that sells various beverages, sandwiches, and home-care necessities. While observing OMM, co-author Belle noticed that, while many people were ordering coffee drinks, only three people (two girls and one guy) ordered their coffee and drank it there.  Everyone else (12+ people) took it to go. The three students that drank their coffee at OMM were studying separately from each other and not socializing. OMM also caters to faculty members, which Belle also observed. Her final observation was that more students bought items from the store then ordered drinks, which isn’t surprising based on the amount of items in the store versus the amount of drinks that are offered. Even on PLU’s campus, a college that has community in their mission statement, there isn’t much socialization in coffee lobbies. Part of this could be contributed  to the fact that majority of students get coffees before class or that there are other areas on campus that students can sit down and have interactions.

Based on our observations, we found that drive-throughs offer more social interactions than lobbies, which is the opposite of our initial thoughts. In lobbies, one would expect that the atmosphere of a coffee shop and the act of sitting and enjoying a coffee would encourage and produce more social interactions. However, it seems that coffee culture has adapted to our hustle-and-bustle lives. Although interactions in drive-throughs are shorter by nature, they are designed to fit into the typical Parkland lifestyle . Many people are on-the-go and do not have time for longer interactions. The social interactions they get in the drive-through suffice. In lobbies, people are able to get more comfortable. With that, they are able to have more distractions that lower their chances of actually engaging in social interaction with the people around them.

In Parkland, people have found a way to get convenience and social interactions that fit their lifestyles. While lobbies may not be the most popular place for social interactions, it can still be found that coffee is something that brings people together to interact, no matter how short the interaction may be. While we found that social interactions may be limited, we found that both Blue Steele and the PLU population are active members of the community. For example, Blue Steele donates coffee, was renamed for the longevity of the police officers who died and scholarships are given out from Blue Steele. We can see this replicated in the PLU community. PLU works closely with its neighboring schools, Washington High School and Keithley Middle School to help improve the community in which they live. The Circle K International Club does volunteer work for UNICEF, and allows the PLU community to grow and thrive through their service. While Blue Steele and the PLU community lack social interaction within their coffee shop lobbies, and we would think it would illustrate the no real community involvement going on, we cannot trust this. Both organizations are heavily involved in their community even though it may not show in this one stereotypically social location.


Works Cited

Bryant, Rachel and Lauren Dundes. “Fast food perceptions: A pilot study of college students in Spain and the United States.” 06 Mar. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You through the Day. New York: Paragon House, 1989. Print.

Roberts, C. R. “Steele Street Forza looking at a new brand that honors law enforcement:Blue Steele Coffee Co.The News Tribune. 31 May 2012. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.

The Daily Beast. “20 Most Caffinated Cities.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 27 July 2010. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.