It’s a simple system: at a cafe, one person pays for an extra coffee which can be later claimed by someone who, for whatever reason, can’t afford the luxury of an espresso.
There are a number of stories explaining the origin of the tradition, but most start in the working class suburbs of Naples. Whether the caffe sospeso sprung from generosity shown to returned soldiers after World War II, or a gesture of Christmas spirit to those down on their luck in Naples 100 years ago, the charitable tradition has gone global since the 2008 recession.
Sydney cafes are slowly adopting the suspended coffee. One such cafe is The Rag Land, which sits at the Eveleigh end of Raglan Street, a stone’s throw from a large tract of public housing in Waterloo.
Owner Dave Jiew introduced suspended coffees after reading a news story about the movement in Melbourne because he thought it would suit the area, which is one of Sydney’s most disadvantaged. “I always wanted to be a community-based cafe,” he adds.
The principle of suspended coffee looks good on paper, but there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way of a person in need and their free coffee.
Jiew explains that often the biggest barrier preventing people redeeming suspended coffees is pride. Understandably, some are reluctant to walk into a cafe for the first time and ask for a free coffee. He says people often think, “I don’t want free coffee! I can pay for it. If I can’t afford it I’ll just go somewhere I can!”
A lack of awareness is another factor. “People don’t really know what suspended coffee is, especially the people who need it,” says Jiew. “I see a lot of older pensioners who don’t have the money to spend on a luxury like a coffee… A lot of them are migrants, where they don’t read or speak English that well, so language is a barrier as well.”
To address these problems, Jiew has adapted the suspended coffee system at his cafe. Money donated by customers for suspended coffees, collected in a big jar, is periodically counted and turned into vouchers, which Jiew then passes on to local community groups like the Big Issue and the Salvation Army.
Still, only about 50 to 60 per cent of the vouchers distributed are redeemed, which Jiew thinks is pretty low. However, he’s wary of advertising the scheme too widely in case it’s exploited. Unused vouchers are often given to Rag Land customers that work in local NGOs, as a little reward for their good work.
On the other side of the harbour, one cafe is using the system a little differently. Sparrow Espresso and Gelato, a busy cafe in Crows Nest, has been serving suspended coffees for around five months now. Rather than a charitable gesture, at Sparrow suspended coffees allow regulars a little leeway when it comes to paying for their coffee. Most suspended coffees are claimed by regulars who are without cash for whatever reason. Owner James Donaldson says that these customers usually replace the suspended coffee token on their next visit.
Like Jiew at Rag Land, Donaldson has chosen not to advertise Sparrow’s suspended coffees, save for a sign on the coffee machine. The people who redeem suspended coffees have usually learned of the scheme via word-of-mouth. It’s slowly becoming more popular, he says, adding that it “hasn’t been abused at all.”
To find out if your local cafe is part of the suspended coffee movement, check the Suspended Coffee Facebook page.