Although the exact moment is lost in time, somewhere near the beginning of the 20th century in Naples’ oldest coffee shop, the legendary Caffé Gambrinus a charitable soul bought two coffees. They told the barista not to make the second right away, but to keep it for someone who needed it.
It was probably an offhand gesture, but in a city where coffee is less an indulgence than it is a human right, the simple clarity of what became known as Caffé Sospeso (Suspended Coffee) soon was a defining feature of Neapolitan society.
The idea was easy: if you’d experienced an unexpected windfall, or had a good day at work, you’d drop in to your local café and purchase two coffees: one for you, and one to be held “in suspense”, ready to be collected by a patron less fortunate than yourself.
Occurring at a time when Italy was considerably more poor than it was rich, the ritual was a way of acknowledging that good fortune was a fickle thing and that one should never forget the men and women whose luck hadn’t yet come to pass.
In the wake of Italy’s post-war boom, such charitable sentiments were eventually consigned to the dustbin of history.
Caffé Sospeso may have languished forever was it not for the 2008 financial meltdown in the Eurozone. Following this sudden blaze of economic instability, veteran Neapolitan writer and actor Luciano De Crescenzo penned a series of articles about a dimly remembered tradition from his own childhood. “It was a beautiful custom,” he wrote. “A cup of coffee offered to the rest of humankind.”
“WHEN WE BOUGHT OUR OWN CAFÉ WE WANTED IT TO BE A COMMUNITY-MINDED PLACE, SO SUSPENDED COFFEE WAS AN OBVIOUS CHOICE.”
Joining forces with a number of local charities, Neapolitan mayor Luigi di Magistris declared December 10 Suspended Coffee Day. And so the movement began anew. As unemployment and bankruptcy spread across Europe like wildfire, so too did the idea of Caffé Sospeso. Soon, one could purchase a Suspended Coffee from cafés in countries as diverse as the UK, Spain, Bulgaria, Russia, Argentina, America and, of course, Australia.
Here at home, the very first Suspended Coffee was served in late 2008 at a Melbourne café called, unsurprisingly, Caffé Sospeso. Although that particular coffee shop is no more, the tradition has caught on around Australia. Some cafés have expanded the concept to sandwiches and other menu items, so that those in need can get a feed as well as a hot drink.
Jay McEvoy of Fitzroy’s Ethos Cafe says offering Suspended Coffee is a no-brainer. “When we bought our own café we wanted it to be a community-minded place, so Suspended Coffee was an obvious choice,” he explains. The support has been overwhelming. “Nine hundred people in the local community have gotten behind it to purchase 900 coffees, and all but 72 of those have been claimed, which is just fantastic.”
In Sydney, Redfern café and vintage store The Rag Land has also taken up the tradition. Owner David Jiew is a little more ambivalent about his experiences. While he loves the concept, getting the word out is a constant challenge, as are the people who occasionally take advantage of his customers’ generosity. “People are willing to give money, but those who are really in need aren’t coming to collect the coffee.” To combat this, Jiew created a voucher system that he distributes through local charities, which hand them directly to those who could use the coffee most.
At Ethos, the biggest problem has been the negative attitudes of some patrons toward those collecting the coffees. But McEvoy is adamant a handful of complaints won’t stop them. “We want to allow people who might not have a bed, or shelter, or a regular meal, to come in and get something regular in their life. If customers don’t like that then, well, perhaps this isn’t the café for them.”
The rise of Suspended Coffee has been accompanied by a number of other café-based initiatives designed to combat homelessness. Chief among them is StreetSmart Australia’s CafeSmart Day, which encourages coffee shops across Australia to contribute $1 from every coffee sold on the second Friday in August to projects in their local community. Last year they raised over $80,000 with the help of 275 cafés.
But for those sticking with the Suspended Coffee tradition, there aren’t plans to let up anytime soon. “It’s something we value a lot,” McEvoy says. “The staff members take real pride in it and our customers love the opportunity to do something meaningful. We’re looking forward to serving 900 more.”