Imagine this… it’s a freezing cold day. You’re outside. Your fingers are numb. You’d give anything for a hot drink and the chance to sit in the warmth. But you’re homeless. Putting the kettle on isn’t an option.
Or perhaps you do have a roof over your head – but you’re struggling. You’ve recently lost your job and there’s no money coming in. And everywhere, costs are rising. Buying a cappuccino isn’t top of your spending priorities.
These are the kinds of people the suspended coffee initiative aims to help.
It’s a brilliantly simple idea and it gets a Gold Star award from us here at Nina & Co. Those of us able to afford a visit to our local café buy our coffee and pay for another one at the same time – that’s the ‘suspended’ coffee. And when someone in need wants a cuppa and they can’t afford it, they have the one you bought earlier. Clever, innit?
The idea originated in Naples (the caffè sospeso) and subsequently spread to Bulgaria, the US, Russia, Canada, Australia, Asia and continental Europe. Hundreds of cafés have signed up to the scheme. Some shops are expanding the idea to cover cookies and other food. There’s now a UK Suspended Coffees Facebook page, set up by plumber John Sweeney.
It’s based on good faith from both the cafés and the recipients. When someone buys a suspended coffee, many shops simply tick a blackboard next to the list of available drinks to register the purchase. Anyone can enter a café and ask to receive a suspended coffee and they’re unlikely to have to prove their worthiness.
A lot of smaller cafés in the UK have been running the scheme for a while, but it really leapt to the media’s attention when Starbucks became involved. The US-based multinational coffee giant (you know, the ones with dodgy tax credentials) has a different approach. Rather than people claiming coffees in its branches, Starbucks sends the money to Christian charity Oasis, who distributes the coffee at “community hubs” around Britain. Starbucks also match every suspended coffee with a donation to Oasis. Other chains (including Pret A Manger and Costa Coffee) are considering doing something similar.
This is not a scheme without flaws. How do you make sure demand matches supply? What happens if people over-donate to cafés providing the coffees directly? If they build up, might those suspended beverages end up going to friends or favourite regulars? Many cafés deal with this by simply donating excess contributions to charity. What if there aren’t enough contributions? Then the people this scheme is aimed at will be no worse off than if it didn’t exist at all.
The honesty of the recipients is an issue, of course – if you get a coffee just by asking for one, it’s open to abuse. And sadly, there are always going to be people who take advantage.
Of course we can be cynical and say it means more sales for the participating café. But let’s not forget they’re businesses too. Some cafés give a discount on the price of the donated coffee, or donate some freebies themselves. And if they can find a way of funnelling their customer’s charitable impulses – is that so terrible?
Some may argue a free coffee is way down on a homeless person’s priorities. But the suspended coffee scheme isn’t intended to replace the work of other charities who are tackling the bigger issues. It’s just another practical way of trying to make life a bit more bearable for vulnerable people.
And then we get onto Starbucks. You may have noticed from previous posts I’m not exactly a fan. Cynics will say Starbucks has signed up to this to boost its image after the tax disaster last year. They’re probably right. However, to be blunt, that’s a reality of corporate social responsibility – at least with some companies. It isn’t purely motivated by altruism. But if the end result is someone who needs help gets it, I’m not going to criticise.
In fact, I’d like to see this idea go further. Could it extend into other areas of retail? At Christmas you can buy extra presents when you’re shopping and then donate them in the shop to charities. Why not all year round? Homeless and deserving people have birthdays too!
We’re all full of good intentions to buy the raffle tickets that came through the door, or go online to make a donation in response to an appeal letter. But it’s so much easier to make that charitable donation when your purse is already out. Anything that makes it easier to support people in genuine need gets our backing. Fancy meeting me for a coffee, anyone?