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If you look around, sometimes it feels like the world revolves around coffee shops. College students especially are known for running off of caffeine addictions, so local coffee shops in college towns are known for being hotspots where students can work, relax, or socialize. However, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about the way people can safely interact with each other, including how cafés fit into our daily experience. I was introduced to the Open Eye Café after moving to the Carrboro-Chapel Hill area, and surprised by all the people still choosing to enjoy their coffee in its outdoor seating area. This led to the question: What demographic of people primarily elect to sit in the outdoor patio area of Open Eye Café, and why do customers choose to sit out there, despite it likely being more inconvenient/noisy than taking one’s coffee to-go?
The Open Eye Café is a popular, locally owned staple of the Carrboro-Chapel Hill area in North Carolina. This coffee shop epitomizes the typical Carrboro vibe, with its murals, plants, and indie artwork. Carrboro is stereotyped as a white, progressive, bohemian area, where people buy organic food at the farmer’s market every Saturday and drive sustainable Priuses. It’s no surprise that Open Eye’s ambiance has made it a popular Carrboro hangout.
The pandemic of course changed everything. Open Eye didn’t close, but it completely shifted to outdoor only seating, significantly limiting their capacity. It instituted an efficient and safe curbside-pick up option to allow for easier business to-go, yet the café still seems to be attracting a large amount of customers who elect to sit outside, taking time out of their day and potentially risking exposure to COVID-19.
This may be explained by the unwaveringly human need for interaction with a greater environment. According to researchers, people need a “third place”: a place that is neither home nor work, but still a valuable and frequented location in one’s everyday (Waxman, 2006). Third places allow people to connect with each other and the community in a relaxed manner, and can become locations of “place attachment”, leading people to associate the place with their lived experiences (Waxman, 2006).
October 2, 2020, 11:00 a.m. to 12:49p.m., Open Eye Café, Carrboro, N.C.
When I enter the outdoor patio, there’s a definite peaceful atmosphere that surrounds the area. A few customers sit at individual tables, distanced from each other and focusing on work. Customers continue to trickle in and out, some in pairs, conversing in hushed tones, and many bring with them a laptop. Most stay long after their drink is finished, suggesting that the location is a greater factor for staying there than the drink itself is.
As it gets later, it gets noisier, as more pairs come to converse and socialize. Some still bring laptops to work on, but the peaceful atmosphere has made way for a distanced social scene. Some people even bring food, which (given that it isn’t served at Open Eye itself), suggests that they went especially out of their way to enjoy it amongst the greenery and discussion at Open Eye. A worker frequently comes out to wipe down empty tables so that new people can sit there, and sometimes will end up engaging in casual conversations with customers. Open Eye has now transformed to a hub of friendly -yet COVID safe- interaction.
October 5, 2020, 2:15 p.m. to 3:41 p.m., Open Eye Café, Carrboro, N.C.
On Monday I return and talk with Ella, a student at UNC and a Carrboro native, who has been coming to Open Eye for years. She reveals that just now she accidently bought a drink that was way more expensive than she intended it to be. Despite this, she assures me she’ll return to Open Eye soon, and is glad to have supported her local business in such a way. She talks about how she visits Open Eye out of loyalty and love of the atmosphere, since she doesn’t really like coffee.
Throughout our conversation, she explains that she comes to Open Eye at least once a week, if not more, to get homework done and have an opportunity to leave her apartment. She describes how sitting in the outdoor patio of Open Eye can almost convince her that the world is still like it was pre-COVID, and since she’s now only able to spend time with her friends outside, Open Eye is one of the only places she feels she can safely socialize. They try to get homework done, but more often than not, simply end up talking the whole time. This testimony implies to me that overall, the community and charm that Open Eye provides is the most significant attraction for its customers, and its COVID accommodations allow patrons to re-experience pre-pandemic life, while still remaining safe.
My observations suggest that Open Eye Café does serve as a vital third place for many UNC students and Carrboro residents, and it has become especially valued as a third place during the pandemic. It provides a location where patrons can socialize and connect with the greater community, while still feeling safe and productive. It is important to note the affluence of the demographic. Though Open Eye is popular with college students and young adults, you must purchase a drink, and therefore only those who can afford the price of the atmosphere can enjoy it. Though Open Eye promotes itself as a welcoming community, it is only accessible for those who can pay to partake.
Moreover, throughout my observations I noted only one person of color in the patio area. This represents (on a small scale), a much larger issue in Carrboro, as the lack of diversity in the area stands in sharp contrast to the progressive identity the town has developed. Further research on this topic could look into the overlap of class and race in Carrboro, as well as the economic effects of the pandemic and how this impacts the demographic of customers at Open Eye.
Mona, A.C., & Wood, R.C. (1999). Consumer loyalty in the restaurant industry A preliminary exploration of the issues. Emerald Publishing, 101(4), 317-326
Waxman, L. (2006). The coffee shop: social and physical factors influencing place attachment. Journal of Interior Design, 31(3), 35-53
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