A new chapter in the rich Italian tradition of paying it forward via coffee has been born in Los Angeles, where LA’s queer-centered coffeehouse Cuties Coffee recently launched a community tab program. The goal: to ensure that the joy and comfort of a cup of a coffee in a safe and welcoming environment is available to all who need it, regardless of whether they can afford it.
Since queer community members (especially those who are also marginalized in other ways) face higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and poverty than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts, the community tab advances Cuties’ mission to provide a true community hub for all—even those without the disposable income for their daily brew—by ensuring that no one is turned away for lack of funds.
The Suspended Coffee Tradition
In launching the community tab program, Cuties’ founders Virginia Bauman and Iris Bainum-Houle aren’t creating something entirely novel, but rather refining an historic tradition to fit their local community. The concept of suspended coffee—purchasing a second coffee for an anonymous future customer in need—is a tradition that comes from Italy (supposedly Naples) and dates back at least as far as the late 19th century. Originally called caffe sospeso, the tradition experienced a revival in Italy in 2011 when Italian authorities created an official “Suspended Coffee Day” to be celebrated each December.
Two years later, Irish plumber John Sweeney became enamored with the idea and launched a Facebook page Suspended Coffees. Four years later the page has over 388,000 “Likes”; the official organization Suspended Coffees that came from it has inspired thousands of cafes across the world—including many in the US—to adopt suspended coffee programs. Although some coffee shop owners found the concept of an official program to match customers looking to pay it forward with customers who could use a coffee break controversial, the idea resonated with many and continues to spread.
The Community Tab
Within the queer community, crowdfunding and passing the hat for friends and strangers alike is also a rich and longstanding tradition; both despite and because of the fiscal marginalization the queer community experiences, its members support each other when in need, and the community tab is just another expression of that tradition. Cuties, which was founded partially off of crowdfunding, has already tapped into that custom to give back to the community and create much-needed safe space.
“Our community faces frequent financial hardship,” said Bauman, reflecting on the inspiration for the program. “We want our space to be accessible, without the stigma of not having the funds to buy a drink or attend an event. The community tab allows people who have the means to support those who don’t.” Notably, the community tab allows its recipients to access the program without having to draw attention to their lack of funds—instead of asking the barista if anyone has left an extra drink, Cuties’ bar has a bowl of tokens that function as dollars from which anyone, without conversation, can pay. Customers can also add money to the bowl by purchasing “extra love” for any dollar amount with their order.
“Ultimately, the system needs to be able to be taken advantage of without conversation and be visible at the time of purchase,” says Bauman. “There needs to be a way to use it without outing yourself to others in the shop.”
Bauman and Bainum-Houle funded the tab via an initial investment, but even after only a few weeks, the balance is already being maintained by the community, both in the cafe and through a Patreon account where fans can support long-distance.
Bauman hopes the community tab will encourage queer and otherwise marginalized community members to come out and socialize even if they are facing financial hardship. “Isolation is extremely prevalent in our community—there are multiple challenges to leaving your house when you are a queer individual. If we can remove one of those challenges by providing the structure for those with means to help those without, then we’ll be very happy.”
Beyond the Cup
While Cuties has been open for under a year, the community tab is only the latest in their mission to serve their community beyond the cup. Bauman and Bainum-Houle—who met while attending queer, sex-positive, and storytelling events in Los Angeles and bonded over the inclusive community they wanted but didn’t yet see—think of Cuties as much more than just a place to get a cup of coffee. “We wanted a space that anchors the community, open during the daytime so that all ages could attend,” Bauman tells me. “We wanted a space for folx who don’t find a home in the queer nightlife scene. We wanted a space that was casual. There was a gap that we saw that a coffee shop could fill.”
Their flagship event, Queers, Coffee & Donuts—a casual queer coffee and donuts hangout—started before Cutie’s official launch. Since their storefront has been open, they’ve created a host of other events, including the Friday Flirt!, in which attendees can cruise in a safer space without alcohol, screenings of queer films, and craft nights. “My long-term goal is to have an event happening every day in the shop so there's always something for our community to do and look forward to. That can mean a lot when your right to exist is under attack,” said Bainum-Houle. In addition to those events, they also provide a weekly newsletter featuring events happening in the broader LGBTQIA+ community as well as their own, including a section called “Adventures From Your Couch,” which features queer media that can be enjoyed from home including movies, music videos, books, articles, and podcasts. “This is for folx who aren't going out that week, whether that's because of social anxiety, mental illness, disabilities, or chronic illness. We want those folx to know we're thinking about them even when they can't come to the shop.”
Pay It Forward
For some, specialty coffee has earned itself a reputation for being elitist and inaccessible, and while those claims don’t necessarily take into account the whole picture, they also aren’t without basis. A focus on paying higher prices to coffee producers and workers across the supply chain doesn’t come for free, and as cafe prices have climbed, gentrification has put a pinch on many of the communities that house cafes. Communities that are marginalized have felt this pinch the hardest, and Cuties is working to make sure that their business actively circulates wealth back into the local queer community.
To support the community tab and Cuties’ other community programs, donate to their patreon and pay it forward—after all, it’s a coffee tradition.
Photos courtesy of V.V.