On a hot Sunday in Chicago, 25-year-old designer and illustrator Topher McCulloch was on his laptop sitting, as usual, at his desk in the dining room. An image struck him. It showed a white tabletop on black trestles supporting, most prominently, an iMac and a swing-arm lamp. Interior design website Apartment Therapy had published the photo and McCulloch’s friend Colin Quinn posted it on his Tumblr.
The photo came from an article entitled “Genevieve and Maxwell’s Mid Century Perch,” taking readers on a virtual tour through a house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. A pebbly-beach palette set the right tone for the patio-turned-home office, Janusian in its capacity to channel the choppy waters of work while still containing the warm sands of domesticity. On one side, floor-to-ceiling glass panes let the space fill with natural light and some filigreed shadows of California flora. On the other side, an interior window gave perch to ceramic doves, positioned to direct their coos into what another photo revealed was the bedroom and to turn their backs, aptly, on labor.
Psycho-aesthetic interpretations aside, what matters is that the image inspired McCulloch. And so on August 29, 2010, a year and a day since Apartment Therapy published it, McCulloch liked, reblogged, and captioned the photo.
The same day, Quinn responded with a new post of his own: the last three words of McCulloch’s caption, punctuation included.
Appreciating the play by his fellow designer friend, McCulloch kept up the rally. He gave the now-isolated phrase a font-lift, and on August 31st, posted the Bodoni Poster Italic version on his art Tumblr and on Flickr. When a commenter suggested the Flickr photo be transposed to a mug, McCulloch obliged. On September 9, 2010, a tweet confirmed the availability of his “but first, coffee.” microwave- and dishwasher-safe ceramic receptacle on Zazzle.
McCulloch then left all this in “a state of benevolent neglect,” as he put it in the 2015 article on Medium that alerted me to his existence and, inextricably tied to that, to his starring role in the story my editor assigned me to write: an investigation of the meme “But first, coffee.” Dated September 29th, McCulloch’s article was pegged to National Coffee Day, but was also a pertinent half-decade reflection. Suddenly, something he had progenitorial feelings about was everywhere.
“It was another gut punch the day Etsy sent me an email featuring a mug emblazoned with a beautiful typographic ‘but first, coffee’ illustration. I gasped the first time I saw someone on the street wearing one of these shirts. Now, I’m trying to be over it,” wrote McCulloch, both sardonic and gracious. “To be honest, a lot of the versions people have made are more beautiful than my original, and that’s one of the exciting things about the internet’s natural urge to remix and repurpose.”
It’s not that the three words were never before so sequenced, typeset, and disseminated. Etymologist Barry Popik includes “But first, coffee” in his online dictionary, citing an 1868-69 volume of The Colonial Monthly: An Australian Magazine as one of the earliest occurrences. He documents its use in a 1994 translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and in a headline from The Washington Post published in 2000. And yet, as Google Trends shows, online searches for the phrase began in February 2011. They continued relatively apace for three years, until March 2014, when interest in metaphorically starting with coffee reached a new height. By October of that year, searches for the phrase skyrocketed, with interest peaking in December 2015. By this point, it had become a bona fide meme.
Apart from all the digital quotation plaques and hashtags, the phrase—like the very drink it privileges—has spilled into many realms of everyday life. Totes, T-shirts, wall décor, and tech accessories are low-hanging fruit for memes made material, though there are still surprises. Caption Polish sells 10mL bottles of a “deep espresso brown” nail varnish called But First Coffee. While the phrase is regularly attached and attributable to young women, in a salient counter-example, Target markets a men’s But First Coffee t-shirt. “Give it up for your gotta-have bevy every morning,” bro-speaks the product description. “It just let’s [sic] everyone know what comes first, without having to say a word.” And in a weirdly-wonderful anachronistic incorporation of the phrase into '90s nostalgia, Primark festoons its Central Perk pajamas with a red “But first coffee.”
The meme has also gone brick-and-mortar. Cafes in Istanbul, Jakarta, and London are all named But, First Coffee.
English may still be the lingua franca of web-driven capitalism, though other languages have capitalized on the phrase, too. “But first, coffee” throw pillows come in German and in Spanish; the latter’s purveyor, a brunch blogger in Barcelona, equally gets the message across via smartphone case and tote. A vendor on Etsy delivers the punch line in Greek, offering “but first καφέ” on a tea towel, T-shirt, and mug. The Facebook username butfirstcoffee is paired with a Hebrew translation of the phrase for its profile picture, yet its owner, a food stylist and photographer, had to settle for a hyphenated web address: but-first-coffee.com.
On the topic of URLs, butfirstcoffeeblog.com belongs to a Connecticuter, whose corresponding YouTube channel broadcasts a range of ostensibly caffeinated life hacks, from DIY-ing a racerback bra to baking peanut-butter pill pockets for the dog. Across the Atlantic, an expat in London runs okbutfirstcoffee.com. Beginning the phrase with “OK” is a common variant; to my ears, it implies the conscious awareness of an interlocutor, thus suitable for someone like the London blogger, who specifies Creative Instagram Consultant as one of her titles.
What’s more, “But first, coffee” has become so widespread, it is now a phrasal template. That means that, like “Keep calm and carry on,” the phrase’s final syntactic element is regularly substituted with other words, some being hydration-related, some not.
When I asked McCulloch what compelled him to type “But first, coffee.” under that photo back in 2010, his answer was pleasantly prosaic—and relatable.
“It was a bit of an acknowledgment I was feeling lazy. I could procrastinate and simultaneously reward myself and maybe get an energy boost if I could just first get some coffee,” he said in one of our email exchanges. He added that he has been “a caffeine addict and coffee drinker for a long time, going back to a family vacation to Seattle when I was in about 6th grade.”
As for what led to the caption’s proliferation online, McCulloch believed “it was the phrase escaping Tumblr and landing on Pinterest.” Although his Tumblr post “had a decent amount of shares,” he noted, “it started getting saved to mood boards, stripped of context, and recreated. I think the early remixes led to more and more remixes.”
While the fire could easily have sparked as prose on a website or a social media platform, “But first, coffee” seems to have been propelled by text-based images, like McCulloch’s and Quinn’s first Tumblr posts. Then came the wares and the wear for sale—or rather, photos of it all. Visual documentation of these products is rich, but their overwhelming presence on image-driven social networks and online marketplaces makes for poor searchability.
If Sisyphus were my contemporary, he would be tasked with tracking down the “But first, coffee” pioneers who settled onto Pinterest. A company representative validated my concerns, confirming that there are no readily accessible date or time stamps on posts, and in-house data tools limit searches to what is written in a pin description. She explained: “I don't have a simple way to identify and accurately quantify all instances of that phrase appearing on Pinterest, since many of the pins may not have those words in their caption/description.”
Since Facebook, however, does allow searches of public posts by date, I headed there, hoping cross-references could serve as general indicators. The first occurrence I found was in 2011, seven years after Facebook began. (For reference, Pinterest launched in March 2010, a mere five months before McCulloch’s caption, and seven months before the advent of Instagram. And Sprudge was just a baby, born in 2009.)
Dated November 28th, the sole public post I see in 2011 links to a Melbourne-based fashion blog; the entry is headed “butfirstcoffee” after the same-worded quotation in the scroll-down story. Between a close-up of freshly cut nectarine slices and a portrait of a woman in bikini top and sun hat, the image appears to be the very one that McCulloch posted to Tumblr in 2010. McCulloch agreed, noting, “the kerning is the same.”
For 2012, three results turn up. December 30th’s post is the closest to a smoking gun. A user in Hillsboro, Oregon, shares a photo of a heathered gray V-neck; she calls it “a Christmas present off my Pinterest page!” and praises the giver as someone who “knows me all too well.#butfirstcoffee.” There is evidence, thus, that by the end of 2012, a “but first, coffee”—in neither font nor merchandise rendered by McCulloch—was put on a T-shirt, advertised on Pinterest, and hashtagged on Facebook.
By 2013, the hashtag had entered the vernacular of commercial coffee. A Facebook post from December 23rd by Peet’s Coffee captions a holiday photo: “Gift wrapping marathon. #Butfirstcoffee.”
That same year, another California cafe chain made one of the boldest, perhaps most consequential, moves for the phrase. In January 2013, Stumptown-serving Alfred Coffee opened its first Los Angeles venue and painted the three words onto a wall. “But first, coffee” is “Alfred Coffee’s claim to fame—it’s even trademarked” observed Sprudge in 2016.
“We only intended to open a single cafe at first, but really wanted something bold, and painted LARGE, to capture everyone’s attention when they walked in,” Alfred's beverage director, Jordan G. Hardin, told me via email. “We had seen the phrase somewhere floating around on Instagram before as a generic meme-type mantra and decided to own it once and for all and apply it to an actual coffee business.”
Asked what prompted the trademarking, Hardin replied: “The phrase defined and still defines Alfred Coffee & Kitchen. The two are linked forever and the same. And as we saw more and more coffee shops trying to mimic our success, layout, model and of course this phrase, we decided it was an appropriate time to trademark the phrase. This is after all a business and we had to protect ourselves from imitators.”
Bold and white, the words pop off sheeny black panels, sandwiched between walls papered in Manneristic floral bouquets. The text begins with an uppercase “B” and is intact with a comma and a period, like McCulloch’s rendition. It differs in its superscript “TM,” suspended between the second “e” in “coffee” and the full stop.
McCulloch expressed no ill will towards Alfred in his 2015 article. “I’m not saying that they did anything wrong by applying for a trademark,” he wrote. He also shared that he would “choose to believe the fantasy that the TM that’s been painted on to the mural and added to their website is a subtle nod to my initials.”
Nearly five years after the opening of its first venue on Melrose Place, Alfred Coffee has a total of six cafes (and a tearoom) in the LA area. Each of the cafes somehow incorporates “but first, coffee.” on its walls. The words are printed on cups and sleeves, which watchers of Curb Your Enthusiasm might have spotted in a season 9 scene of Larry and Leon sitting and reparteeing outside at Alfred’s Brentwood branch.
In fact, popular culture’s reception of Alfred’s slogan is itself revelational. In August 2014, when a ginghamed Hillary Swank was photographed walking by a cafe A-board, Just Jared called “But, first coffee” “a saying.” In January 2015, the blog Love & Loathing Los Angeles recommended five coffee shops, including Alfred Coffee, and by way of introduction stated: “Now that you’ve either posted or liked the obligatory Monday morning ‘but first, coffee’ Instagram, you can finally get down to business on actually drinking said coffee.” By December 2016, Israeli magazine Fashion Forward published a mandate for “Instagram captions that must disappear in 2017.” Number 1 shows cups corseted by the signature “But, first” sleeves.
Writing this at the end of 2017, the caption is so alive. If anything, the phrase is undergoing robust semantic evolution: once a mental note, then a meme, today heading into maxim—maybe even catchphrase—territory. “But first, coffee” has netted the zeitgeist of much of the twenty-tens. It is the logical, chronological culmination of Calgonic away-taking, just doing it, and thinking different.
Quinn had more personal insights on the phrase’s appeal. “I had always thought that my relationship, via Tumblr, with Topher was based more on an idea of a shared experience of being a creative queer person in a heteronormative yet creative role, and Topher seemed to be able to make that idea funny. Referencing each other is something that happened a lot,” he wrote. “Topher said something concise, it resonated, it was simple and that's how I liked it.”
Communicating from Europe, where he splits his time between Belfast and Berlin, Quinn also remarked: “If I think of anything when I see it, I think of how it became a joke: ‘there’s Topher’s idea that he wasn't credited for.’”
Popik, the etymologist, expressed similar sentiments. At the start of my research, I called his attention to McCulloch’s 2015 Medium article. Within hours, Popik emailed back, sharing his take: “someone stole [McCulloch’s] idea” from a social media site, “put it on T-shirts in 2012, and the expression has been viral since then.” He also said that “McCulloch was the first popularizer,” and compared him to the 1920s horseracing columnist John J. Fitz Gerald, who is recognized, largely thanks to Popik, for giving currency to “the Big Apple” as a nickname for New York City.
“People like McCulloch often get passed by, for money and even for credit. It happens with inventions all the time. I now give him credit and I'm sorry it wasn't in my original entry,” wrote Popik. Sure enough, his dictionary entry for “But first, coffee” was updated.
Before getting the chance to relay to McCulloch that a public record had credited him for his memetic masterpiece, I had inquired if there was anything that the world—or the internet—could do to help ease the kicked-in-the-gut feeling he described upon becoming aware of Alfred’s trademark.
He responded: “I'm still really holding out for Dunkin' Donuts to send me one of their ‘but first, coffee’ shirts. I've also joked about really wanting a copy of Alfred Coffee's neon sign.”
Curious if that shirt was officially issued by Dunkin’ Donuts, I contacted the corporation; a few days later, a PR spokesperson emailed that the brand was unable to comment. After sending Alfred Coffee a fillip, Hardin replied that the company “never heard of this gentleman’s name before” but that his 2015 article was “super insightful and a fun read.”
Incidentally, Alfred’s Silver Lake branch is located in the very same neighborhood as Genevieve and Maxwell’s Mid Century Perch, the scene of the photo that had inspired McCulloch’s caption.
That got me thinking. I wondered if McCulloch could soon take a break from his busy job. I imagined him leaving behind the impending cold of another Chicago winter, for a little time in LA. Perhaps Quinn could put his life on hold, too, forgetting about gray Belfast and/or Berlin, to join his old friend. Together they would visit Alfred Coffee Silver Lake. The balmy breezes would convince them to order iced matcha, for a change. The social climate would cue them to try the purported best avocado toast around. Genevieve and Maxwell would swing by, pleased to meet the out-of-towners and bring them on a look-see of their home office. But before that, McCulloch, and everyone else, would simply be, taking in the moments, offline, and letting themselves feel content and cared about under the neon glow of “But first, coffee.”
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.