Random Acts of Coffee

American franchises should embrace the caffe sospeso, a classic way for customers to pay it forward.

Anthony Bolante/Reuters

The Italian custom of a “suspended coffee” is being revived, according to this piece in The New York Times.

A caffe sospeso is a random act of kindness whose origins remain murky. The practice was certainly popular in wartime Naples, a place and time of almost legendary solidarity in Italy that produced much significant postwar American literature—including The Gallery, a novel by John Horne Burns about the rich and permissive brew of Neapolitan soldiers, prostitutes, and gay bars. (After being heralded as the next great American novelist, Burns wrote a thinly fictionalized novel about my high school, where he had taught, that decades later remained scandalous for its vituperative portraits of teacher and students and its gay themes; William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, was in Naples at the same time and revisited his and Burns’s time there here.)

In those few years of anxious, excited, libertine desperation, a caffe sospeso was a way of being kind to strangers—paying in advance for someone’s espresso, or ristretto, or macchiato. You didn’t know who would get it or whether their need was as great as yours might have been the day before or would be the day after. In a world urgently lived in the now, you were bringing a jolt of pleasure to someone who needed it.

Naples, a place where coffee runs in the blood, was a logical place to revive the custom. I conducted much of the research for my Joy of Coffee there, and learned Naples is particularly good at the method of keeping upturned espresso cups partially submerged in scalding water before pulling shots; steeping huge amounts of ground coffee overnight in cold water for an early version of cold-brew; and making the ur-version of the shakerato, iced espresso in a cocktail shaker that has taken hold among American baristas. The streets around the Caffe Gambrinus still pulse with the rough, throbbing life you can imagine of wartime Naples, and the sumptuously restored mid-nineteenth century interior still functions as the grand drawing room and main gathering spot for the whole city. In Naples, coffee is a “ritual carried out in solidarity,” Andrea Illy, the head of Illy, told the Times.

So when cultural budgets were threatened four years ago, the Gambrinus was a founding part of the Suspended Coffee Network. Customers either pay for a coffee and put the receipts in a bowl for those in need to take, or the cashier keeps a running tab of credits customers pay on top of their bill.

I’ve often done this, without knowing the elegant term caffe sospeso: paid a couple dollars toward the coffee of the person behind me. My usual reason is less general love of humanity than specific guilt toward the people I’ve kept waiting because of my ridiculously complicated orders: three-eighths of a pound of separate coffees blended together at Peet’s because that seems the most interesting combination of what’s on the day’s board; espresso drinks whose complications I blush to admit at Starbucks or at Dancing Goats, in my newly adopted part-time hometown of Atlanta. It gets me surprised smiles from customers who minutes before felt exactly as I do behind a customer like me: extremely irritated.

But it’s an idea that has broader reach than annoying, time-wasting customers like me. Starbucks has launched many initiatives to help create jobs; Panera has opened entire branches that are pay-what-you-can, including one right in the center of my hometown of Boston; Whole Foods regularly donates a small percentage of the day’s receipts to local charitable organizations.

These require large-scale, one-off organization. Here’s my Christmas challenge, starting with Starbucks: companies should add a new key code to registers so that customers may pay a certain amount for the next customer’s order. Make it company-wide, every day of the year. Find a neat term that will become as universal as previously unknown Italian words were until, well, Starbucks introduced them into the American vocabulary. Maybe by next Christmas you’ll be accustomed to a regular order using words you never thought would cross your lips, though with an underlying concept you instantly embraced. Maybe start with: “I’ll pay for a caffe sospeso.”