“There’s another one! What is that, like, the fifth one this month?” Lew said as she and Bobbie drove passed the newest location for Stepford Coffee Roasters.
“They’re buying up all the struggling coffee shops. They must be doing something right, though. Do you ever remember seeing a line like that when it was a Jolt?” Bobbie replied.
“You mean, like, yesterday? How did they even get the signage up that fast?”
“What does that even mean?” Lew asked incredulously.
“You have to hand it to the Aussies. They didn’t create the flat white or avocado toast, but that hasn’t stopped them from acting like they did. They’ve rode that popularity all the way to the top of the coffee culture food chain.”
“So every time some asshole mashes half an avocado on a piece of bread I’m supposed to shit myself with gratitude.”
“Australian ingenuity,” Lew conceded. “They replaced the old Shocks. No more Shocks.”
“Yeah but who even went there anyway?”
“I think it’s great. The coffee scene was getting stale. We needed some new blood to perk things up a bit.”
“Feel that way now?” Lew asked a smirk, pointing as the pair drove past yet another new Stepford shop.
“Oh HELL no! Not Insomnia!”
Like a lot of baristas in town, Bobbie had gotten their start in coffee at Insomnia. It wasn’t a specialty shop by any stretch—it sold more frappes than lattes by a large margin—but the late-night cafe held a special place in the local coffee scene’s heart. It was an institution.
“Turn around. We’re going in.” Bobbie demanded. They were incensed at the audacity. Lew’s righteous anger had transformed into the sort of smug self-satisfaction you can only get when telling your best friend “told ya so.”
“I think it’s great. We needed some new blood.”
“Don’t do that. Just turn the car around.”
Pulling into the parking lot, Bobbie and Lew barely recognize the building that was once the beloved hangout. Insomnia was like a time machine that transported you back into a late ‘90s coffee shop: dingy, with poorly-drawn murals adorning each of the dark-colored walls, bulletin boards full of flyers, some from years ago. (That Mumford & Sons cover band never found their banjo player, but four of the flyer’s tabs containing contact information had been removed at least.)
But Insomnia was gone now, the wall of syrups, the rickety stage for tragicomic open mic nights, the grinder with the little piece of plastic screwed into it keeping the baristas from adjusting the grind size, all of it. And in its place stood the hyper-white, overexposed, clean to the point of sterile Stepford Coffee. The only thing left unchanged was the owner, Jim Childress, a Gen X burnout still trying (and failing) at his whole “Ethan Hawke in Slackers” look.
Bobbie and Lew stood in the doorway of the Stepford nee Insomnia, mouths agape. Jim spied his ex-employee and ran right over.
“Isn’t it great?!” Jim beamed.
“Love what you did with the place, J Man,” Lew said, chronically incapable of not needling Bobbie.
“This is a disgrace, James,” Bobbie stated sternly. They always called him James when they were upset with him, as they often were when under his employ.
“Oh c’mon, Bobbie, this place needed a change. Just give it a shot. Take a seat and I’ll send Audrey over to take your order.”
“There’s table service now?!” Bobbie was nonplussed.
Lew and Bobbie took a seat at one of the few available tables—all brand new—and waited for Audrey to come take their order.
“At least they kept some of the staff. This place just wouldn’t be the same without Audrey,” Bobbie said, and they were right. Audrey was about two decades into her Hot Topic phase and she was kind of the gatekeeper at Insomnia; once Audrey was something other than standoffish to you, you knew you were in.
“How did they get all that nasty old paint off the walls?” Bobbie wondered to no one in particular.
“Oy bruvs, can I getcha an avo smash and a flatty?”
“We’re good tha…” Lew’s words trailed as she looked up to see Audrey. But not the Audrey she remembered. A different Audrey, bedecked in a crisp white dress shirt and a fresh pair of jeans under a leather trimmed denim apron. The non-descript Oceanic affect was new as well. So was the vapid smile.
“What did they do to you?” Bobbie asked.
“It’s pretty great, huh? So what’ll it be? Tables are for paying customers only.”
“Just a coffee.”
“Same,” said Lew.
“Right now on filter we have a washed Yirgacheffe, a honeyed Costa Rica, and if you want to try some kinda wild, we have an anaerobic g-g-g-g-g-g-esh-ur-ur-ur.” Audrey’s head began to kick repeatedly to the side, her face contorting with each spasm. As the tics continued to get stronger, Jim ran over to usher Audrey to the back.
“Sorry about that, the staff has been under a lot of stress learning the new menu so fast. Come along, Audrey, let’s go take a quick break.”
“Is she ok?” Lew asked.
“She’ll be fine. Still working out the kinks. Did I hear y’all wanted to try the Gesha?”
“Forget it,” Bobbie said, “our shifts start pretty soon. We should probably go.”
“I hear Stepford just bought Man-O-War. We’ll all be in the same coffee family again!” Jim said to Bobbie with a sheepish grin. Bobbie’s face grew ashen. How could Man-O-War, their beloved coffee shop they had devoted so many years of their life to up and sell out like that? It’s not like it was even struggling.
“Come on, Bobbie, we’re gonna be late,” Lew said, concerned.
Back in the car, the two drove silently towards Man-O-War, wondering if there was any truth to Jim’s revelation.
“They can’t, right?” Lew asks, breaking a silence in that ten-minute car ride that felt like hours.
“Jim’s full of shit,” Bobbie spits, trying to convince themself as much as they were Lew.
“Only one way to find out.”
As Lew and Bobbie headed behind the counter at Man-O-War to clock in, Bobbie sees Andrew, the owner, shaking hands with a handsome 50-something man in a Stepford Coffee Roasters logoed shirt.
“What’s going on here? Who’s that?” Bobbie demands.
“This is Steve Hogan. He’s with Stepford Coffee Roasters.”
“And why is he here? You’ve let the devil in your home, Andrew.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to say anything just yet but I guess the cat is out of the bag,” Andrew said. “We partnering with Stepford Coffee to make some updates to this place. It’s going to increase efficiency. We think you’re really going to like them.”
“You mean you sold out,” Bobbie says.
“It’s more like a collaboration.”
“So this’ll still be Man-O-War?” Lew interjects, hoping to deescalate the situation.
“No, we’re rebranding as a Stepford, but there will…”
“Screw this, I’m outta here. I quit,” Bobbie fumes.
“What?! Bobbie, you can’t walk out and leave me to work the shift alone!” Lew pleads.
“Come with me then. There are still shops in this town that have a soul.”
“I… I can’t. I need this paycheck. It’ll still Man-O-War, at least for a while, right? We can look for something else together.”
“Not to me it isn’t. I can’t be here right now. I’ll walk home.”
“Let ‘em go,” Andrew said to Lew. “I think you may change your mind about this place once you see what your pay is going to be once we’re a Stepford.”
“I’m sorry, Bobz, I have to stay.”
“Fine, but call me after your shift. We need to talk about this.”
“Fuck off, Andrew.”
Hours pass and no word from Lew. Man-O-War would have closed three hours ago now and still nothing. She’s not picking up her phone either. Alone, newly-unemployed, and life in general disarray from the day’s events, Bobbie drinks themself to sleep while watching the last episode of Lodge 49 that they were supposed to be watching with Lew.
The next morning, hung over, angry, and under-caffeinated, Bobbie decides to head up to Man-O-War to see what Lew’s deal is. But upon arriving, it’s no longer Man-O-War. All the signage has overnight been changed to Stepford.
This is all too weird. The bones of the shop remind Bobbie of their former employer, but everything else about it is a clone of what Insomnia became. Andrew spots Bobbie and heads to meet them.
“I just want to talk to Lew and then I’ll leave,” Bobbie interjects before Andrew can say a word.
“No problem. Take a seat and I’ll have her come over and take your order.”
“Table service? Ugh”
Bobbie sits at the nearest open table, their eyes darting around the building wondering how all these changes were made so quickly. Whatever it was they loved—or thought they loved—about what this place used to be is gone.
“Fancy a flatty?” a semi-Australian voice said.
Bobbie’s lip begins to quiver as they look up to see the origin of the question.
“Or maybe you’d prefer a filter. If you want to try some kinda wild, we have an anaerobic g-g-g-g-g-g-esh-esh…”
Bobbie’s eyes fill with tears as Andrew comes over to usher the server away.
“We’ll still working out the glitches,” Andrew says to Bobbie, stricken motionless with panic and sadness.
“Did I hear you wanted to try the Gesha?”