The Bay Area is at the bleeding edge of all the hot new trends–from wealth disparity, to art and music, to café design–and I think I’ve identified the latest one. Succulents. [Edit 8/5: And air plants, which are technically not succulents, but are basically succulents.]
Especially in coffee shops. I’m not saying that the humble, adorable succulent is the next Edison bulb, but maybe, yes, that is exactly what I’m saying.
This trend has been rumbling underground for awhile now, but as of late, it’s really been gaining steam in the Bay Area. [And Portland and Brooklyn, oh brother. -Editors] It’s easy to see why: succulents are widely kept for their ease of care and feeding and their striking appearance. Succulents take on interesting and strange forms that obviously strike the fancy of many a café designer because they have evolved to survive long dry spells by storing lots of water. That also explains why they survive drought-stricken California, and the occasional neglect of café workers.
I took a tour of cafes that show off succulents to learn more about this hot new trend that’s sweeping the Bay Area, and probably coming soon to a carefully curated coffee experience near you.
Coloso Coffee is a tiny, newish cafe in downtown Oakland that opened earlier this year. Highlights include a tricked out old Starbucks-scarred La Marzocco Linea espresso machine with manual paddles, shots of Sightglass Coffee, and of course, an extensive display of succulents. The artfully arranged succulents come from Maggie Servais, succulent designer and part owner of Coloso.
Servais said, “Coloso is kind of a blank sheet, and we really needed something interesting for customers to look at and draw people in. I worked at Anthropologie for years and you can literally buy anything in that space, and I think that’s great. What’s the point of showing people something when they can’t buy it! Everything in Coloso is for sale.”
When I asked her why succulents were such a big deal right now, she had a few things to say: “Plants make a space feel inviting, something interesting to look at and maybe take home. Why they’re popular now I’m not sure. You never saw air plants a couple years ago. Maybe people are realizing it’s easy to have a little living friend if you choose the right plant!”
Is Pinterest to blame? A simple search for succulents revealed that roughly all of the claimed 25 billion pins on that website/social media service are of DIY succulent walls. This trend report has turned positively investigative.
Crimson and Cro Café
In Oakland’s impeccably hip Temescal Alley there’s Cro Café and Crimson Horticultural Rarities. Planters of succulents flank the café and plant store, and the aesthetic obviously extends inside.
Cro Café is another tiny shop with standing room only and a slick copper-encased La San Marco manual lever machine, and yes, dammit, some succulents. Luigi Oldani, the artist and designer that owns Cro Café, has an eye for texture, shape, and style. It’s obvious that Oldani put some thought into the metal work on the bar, the glorious little faceted espresso and latte bowls, and the odd succulent plopped around the café. He’s sourced the xerophytes thanks to a strategic partnership with Crimson, the plant shop next door that specializes in succulents, air plants, and carnivorous flora.
Oldani told me that he thinks part of what distinguishes Cro Café “from the hordes of other coffee chains is that the C-R-O- is hand-tailored for that neighborhood and that space. It would be foolish to try to duplicate it elsewhere,” he tells me. “Once we started focusing on the neighborhood it only makes sense that we collaborate and work with our neighbors!”
Oldani continued, saying that it started off as him taking “a cracked Hario server, or a chipped mug that needed to come out of service over to Crimson and they’d find something green to put in it. I always prefer living plants to cut flowers so succulents and orchids are my favorite things to get.” He says that air plants are good fit because “not everything wants to live in a 20 oz. cracked server with no drainage.” As to how he arrives at the precise scattering of air plants throughout the space, he says, “change of weather, change of seasons, or if a plant is doing well or poorly is all motive to shuffle the plants around the shop and rethink the layout.”
The faceted cups have an interesting backstory as well. Mitchell Heinrich, a senior designer at the semi-secret Google X labs, penned the design. He calls them Compiler Cups. The first run of the cups came from Atelier Dion in Oakland, and the current set come courtesy of Laguna Clay, in southern California.
Local 123 and Subrosa
Succulents can be everything from a design element to a café side hustle. In most shops, plants are kept around for their spiritual/aesthetic benefit. Local 123 takes it to another level–pretty literally–with extensive rows of air plants, mosses, and succulents hanging in trays from the tall ceilings. The greenery also spills out of huge planters in the courtyard of the café, and from hanging moss-covered pouches. Local 123 also has a partnership with a plant store, in this case Flowerland in Albany, CA, where they sell coffee in an Airstream trailer.
Subrosa is another notable tiny café in Oakland (an additional trend piece on tiny cafes in Oakland may be necessary…). The café offers succulents, Four Barrel coffee, and parklet-side seating. Subrosa, like Coloso, brings us a rotating cast of succulents and air plants on the wall, that one might be interested in purchasing, along with some coffee.
In fact, Coloso Coffee co-owner Jose Posadas even told me that sometimes customers think that Coloso and Subrosa are related “because of the white walls and the succulents.” If that’s a not an indication of a trend, I’m not sure what is.
What Does it All Mean?
Who buys a mini-succulent with their cortado? I don’t know. You could blame the succulent zeitgeist on the increasing officization of cafes–plants do apparently boost productivity and mood after all.
Are succulents the Edison bulb of 2014? I don’t know. It’s impossible to say. Earlier I blamed Pinterest, but my guess is that you, Sprudge reader, are also responsible for the growth of this trend. Maybe there is a succulent in your home, or in the cafe you’re reading this from right now. If you or someone you know has developed succulent dependency, keep them out of curated retail and cafe experiences for the next 24-36 months, or at least until The New York Times discovers it, Brooklyn-style.
Leif Haven is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in Oakland. Read more Leif Haven on Sprudge.