Two Months to Perfect Coffee

It has taken me two months to get that perfect coffee “experience” as marketers put it. Why so long? you ask. It started when my espresso machine went on the fritz four months ago. I tried to repair it myself but now it sits disassembled and clunky on my kitchen counter like an old fish tank (see Making Things Better).

Two months ago I got into the habit of going to a coffee shop for an espresso drink every Saturday morning. There are three shops literally within a stone’s throw of my house. Two are commercial, one privately owned and operated. I went to the private one first, since I am partial to small businesses and try to support them as often as I can. Sometimes, though, they don’t last long. I am thinking of a lamp store nearby that folded before its first anniversary. Funny, but I need a new lamp right now.

I knew the owners of this coffee shop: a Vietnamese woman and her husband who came to America, worked hard, and became business owners. Sadly, a lawsuit over a handicap ramp forced them to sell the business, which is now run by opportunists intent on gouging customers. A medium cappuccino and one-pound bag of roasted coffee beans, with tip, cost me nearly thirty dollars. They’ll never see me in there again even though I started flirting with one of the baristas. I’ll miss the five-dollar oat cakes, which are so dense I suggested they call them “Black Hole Oat Cakes.” I won’t miss the dirty floors and messy tables.

The second shop was Starbuck’s, which actually served the best cappuccino. It tasted frothy, rich, and balanced. Like other Starbuck’s, they removed the furniture so there was no hanging out, just people milling around waiting for their drinks. I suspect this has more to do with lawsuits and incidents circulated on social media than Covid. The price was reasonable, though, which shows they have the volume to absorb the legal, liability, and marketing costs associated with operating a business today. To tell the truth, I went there to use a gift card I had gotten for Christmas. Once the balance zeroed out, I decided to go across the street to the third coffee shop.

This was Peet’s, which shares an early history with Starbuck’s. These two shops sit on corners directly across from each other, separated by a crosswalk and traffic light. After spending three weeks at coffee shop number one and two weeks at Starbuck’s, I was ready for Peet’s on the sixth Saturday, confident that this was going to be my regular haunt. Even the walk there, lined with California palm trees, roses, poppies, and birds of paradise, seemed to agree with me.

But this turned out to be a swing and a miss. I read the long list of offerings on the board and decided to go with something I don’t usually choose: a medium-sized, vanilla caffè latte. I don’t know why I did that except I wanted to celebrate finding the right coffee shop. There’s also the mysterious fact that I often end up doing what I don’t want to do, which gets a little complicated (see Measure Once, Cut Twice).

It was too sweet, much too sweet. In fact, it gave me a toothache. I resolved to return the following Saturday and order a caffè latte without the fancy syrup or chunks of caramel or whatever it is they put in drinks that has Alfred Peet roasting in his grave. So, that’s exactly what I did on week seven, except by the time I got home from that beautiful walk the foam had settled and a large, twelve-ounce café au lait was all that remained.

Yesterday, week eight, took me back to Peet’s. This time, however, I decided to order a cappuccino so that I would get foam without all that milk. But I got mixed up about where to stand while waiting. I shuffled from the counter where you get your drink to the area for mobile pick-ups and then the spot for DoorDash. I assume the DoorDash driver comes in, picks up your drink, and then delivers it to you. I don’t think you could get much lazier than that. Why not just have the guy drink it for you, too?

There were a lot of people coming and going, some with kids, others with dogs, all in a rush to do something or be somewhere other than Peet’s. One guy with a freckled-faced son picked up the wrong order but then put it back down. The woman who had ordered it made the barista whip up another for her, presumably because someone else had touched it. It was an iced something or other that looked like a big cup of Yoo-hoo with cream.

Unlike Starbuck’s, Peet’s has furniture and a large area where you can sit and spend hours on your phone or laptop, ignoring everyone else around you. That’s where I’ll go next week to wait for my cappuccino. It looks like the safest spot.

Image credits: feature Nathan Dumlao; cafe RR Abrot; coffee board Jonathan Borba. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” 


  1. I find Starbucks to have taken on a kind of forced casualness. The tables are a little too organized into regimented rows, the music kind of loud, and overall not the “third place” it once was (between office and home). Of course, few remember offices anymore.

    Dunkin’ Donuts is ok for a takeout, but nobody actually drinks coffee there. Likewise for our regional Wawa chain.

    Like George, I am back to home brew, with a drip maker that costs about $20 the world over. Regular coffee with cream is fine, no need for the “frothy, rich and balanced” cup.

    But what really drove me back to home brew coffee was the price of the Starbucks’ 16-ounce regular coffee – $3.13 for God’s sake. I can absorb inflation of 11% until a cup of coffee brings it home to me as to exactly how this affects me as a person.

    Inflation is now about half what it was, and I wonder if Starbucks is still at $3.13? I hear that is so.

  2. As the croak-throat, relocated valley girls would say, “OMG.” How about buying another espresso machine? Good God, what an ordeal, and a faux one at that. I might, and let me emphasize might, pick up a take out coffee once every two months, and the only place I’ll do that now is in Siesta Key. There is no way I’d even bother with any of the shops here in NYC.

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