Which is friendlier: Starbucks or indie cafes?

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Dan Watkins

The knock on chain stores is that they hurt community. Starbucks comes in, drives your local café out of business, and a chummy group of neighbors turns into a bunch of anonymous latte drones.

But is it true? Anthropologists from the University of West Virginia recently published an article based on observations at six Boston-area coffee shops—three independently owned (Pavement Coffee House in Copley Square, 1369 Coffee House in Central Square, and Diesel
Café in Davis Square) and three Starbucks locations. Their intention was to determine how effectively Starbucks outposts provide the community-based environment associated with a traditional coffee shop—as the song goes, a place where “everybody knows your name.”

The anthropologists focused their observations on five categories derived by sociologist Ray Oldenburg: how social and welcoming a place is; the arrangement of seating; the activities taking place; amenities (Wi-Fi, power outlets); and the overall atmosphere, as measured by music volume, volume of chatter, wall color, lighting, and decor.


The biggest surprise was that Starbucks actually provided a more welcoming environment than any of the three local coffee houses. They credited the Central Square Starbucks with having the most vibrant sense of community; baristas there knew many patrons by name and could anticipate their orders. The anthropologists also noted that Starbucks baristas were friendlier to new customers: “The Starbucks baristas would help customers by explaining the many options available and even offering suggestions. In contrast, the baristas at the independently owned coffee houses were more aloof.” Starbucks also offered free Wi-Fi, while the locally owned shops charged for access or set a cap on use.

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The observations point to an important difference between corporate chains and some varieties of locally owned stores. Chains make money by being maximally welcoming, even if such openness verges on blandness, while a distinctively parochial (or even slightly unfriendly) edge helps independent shops create identities.

When robots paint

Courtesy of Oliver Deussen, University of Konstanz
A painting by e-David.

When you watch an artist paint, individual brush strokes can seem random. It’s often not until close to the very end that the image the painter is after becomes clear. This is doubly true when you watch e-David, the robot painter, at work. e-David (the name stands for “Drawing Apparatus for Vivid Image Display”) was created by a team of engineers at the University of Konstanz in Germany. It’s a former welding robot that has been retrofitted to reproduce, brush stroke by brush stroke, existing works of art. The robotic arm has access to five different brushes and 25 colors of paint, and after each dab of paint, it takes a photograph of what it has painted so far. Computer software analyzes the photograph and tells e-David where to place the next brush stroke.

The strangeness of the process is especially evident when e-David signs the art at the end, beginning by making the dot over the “i” and then writing the rest of its name backwards. It’s hardly how you or I would do it, and it’s a clear reminder that—once someone else has given you the idea—there’s more than one way to make the Mona Lisa.

Kevin Hartnett can be reached at