Toodle-oo, Caribou!

Coffeehouses come and go; it's the community even chain stores brew that regulars will miss

A wail of disbelief rippled through Chicago this week with the news that Caribou Coffee is leaving town.

What would happen to the employees? Where would the regulars go now?

Caribou customers have been in mourning, as if for a pet or a friend, grief that has been met with some mutters of, "It's only coffee."

What the mutterers don't understand is that a good coffeehouse is never only coffee. It's community.

I'm not a member of the Caribou community, though I've occasionally been to their stores and they've always seemed pleasant, despite the North Woods-lodge decor that in Chicago (the chain's hometown is Minneapolis) feels about as convincing as the palm trees on Oak Street Beach.

But you don't have to be among the Caribou loyalists to relate to their loss. Anyone who's a regular at any coffeehouse can imagine the jolt of having the habit yanked away.

A good coffeehouse is what sociologists call "a third place." It's not home (your first place). It's not work (your second place). It's the place where you escape the first two.

A third place is generally an unpretentious spot filled with regulars but open to anyone, where people of all kinds and social ranks mix, for little or no money.

My third place is Peet's Coffee & Tea, which, coincidentally, is part of the chain that will take over whichever local Caribous don't nail their doors shut. There are currently only two Peet's in the Chicago area, one on the North Side, the other in Evanston.

"P-e-t-e-s?" friends ask when I mention it.

I usually have to explain that no, it's two e's, like "tweets" and that even though it's based in Berkeley, Calif., it somehow manages to feel local.

Hard-core Peet's fans swear by the coffee. What I swear by (the brew's too strong for me, though the beans are good) are the people.

"How long have you been here?" I asked Laura, the barista, on Tuesday as customers floated in asking about the Caribou takeover.

"Thirteen years," said Laura, with the accent Chicago made famous.

Laura seems to know every customer's name and drink preference, and many of us have known her through all of her Peet's years. She and the other workers are a big part of what turns customers into fans.

In a perfect world, I'd frequent a local coffeehouse, something with more charm and deeper roots, but until that arrives in my neighborhood, I'm sticking with Peet's. It's proof that you can make a chain coffeehouse almost as appealing as something local.

Here's what makes a good coffeehouse work, in addition to the coffee and tea:

Employees who are well-trained but not corporate drones.

Employees who seem happy to see you and who remember you.

Permission to linger but enough turnover that the place doesn't feel monopolized by the same table hogs all day every day.

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