“Let’s Meet for Coffee”: Greenville’s Coffeehouse Culture

by   |   estephen@bju.edu   |  
Two girls sitting, holding coffee mugs

The morning coffee ritual is common enough to be an all-American running gag. You probably turn off the alarm your phone chirps out at some predawn hour, roll out of bed, and stumble to the kitchen where you gratefully pour out a steaming cup of coffee, fix it up with sweetener and cream, and take a long, fog-lifting sip.

Even if you don’t get your caffeine fix at home, it’s possible you run by one of Greenville’s 17 Starbucks locations, 14 Dunkin’ locations, or even one of the 17 McDonald’s on your way to work or school—or whatever you got up so early for. And if not, there’s probably coffee waiting in the break room once you get there.

America loves coffee. Last year we consumed 1,293.56 tons of the stuff. We drink it at home and away from home, with any meal. You can buy it in any form, anywhere, from 5-star restaurants to gas stations. Coffee is a special drink: we associate it with making good memories, working hard, having long conversations, early fall and early mornings. It’s special enough as a beverage to get its own restaurants—or, as we prefer to call them, coffee shops.

Greenville’s Coffee Culture

Greenville in particular seems to love its coffee. Our distinct coffee culture is tied to local roasters, growing social consciousness (i.e., roasting coffee from ethically-sourced beans), and a resurgence of small-business culture that Greenville’s economy fosters and supports. Several subcultures interweave happily in the warm confines of local coffeehouses—business people meet for impromptu meetings outside the office, artists collaborate, and freelancers of every stripe find their office spaces in public places, well caffeinated and ready to work. Coffee shops attract their clientele by creating atmospheres that invite conversation while balancing our needs for solace, supported by comfortable furniture and warm, delicious cups of coffee.

“Let’s meet for coffee” is something most Greenvillians have said at least once. Meeting for coffee provides a happy medium for socializing—you can meet friends, coworkers, first dates or new clients somewhere that’s not as expensive as a restaurant and doesn’t have the same time constraints, but still offers food, drink and ample seating. Because coffee shop environments give customers the option to escape their usual working space, they’re particularly popular with students looking for somewhere else to study—the Starbucks a block from BJU is packed with our students every night from September to May.  

Coffeehouse to Coffee Shop

Greenville’s coffee culture can find its roots in ancient traditions. The idea of the coffee shop—or coffeehouse, its preferred historical moniker—is really old. The oldest recorded coffeehouse appeared in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century as a place where men could gather and drink coffee, talk politics and philosophy, and read—sound familiar?

Coffeehouses grew popular as other empires rose and fell, with colonizing groups transporting coffee and the idea of coffeehouses to Europe and eventually the United States, where Italian immigrants built coffeehouses to remind them of home. Coffeehouses have always been third-place locations: gathering places away from work and home where friends could meet and discuss ideas or spend time in quiet reflection, all while enjoying cups of piping-hot legal stimulants.

In America, coffee culture has its own special flavor. Though American coffeehouses used to be primarily privately-owned, small-scale ventures that hosted beatnik poets and other unconventional thinkers through the ’50s and ’60s, they’ve taken a turn to the mainstream thanks to megachains like Starbucks. Though Starbucks offers a more formulaic experience, it still attracts customers for the same reasons coffeehouses have always been popular: they offer comfy seating, food, a relaxed atmosphere, and of course, coffee. People are willing to pay extra for the environment and the specialty drinks they couldn’t necessarily get at home or at another restaurant.

The American Coffee Experience

But American coffee culture doesn’t exist exclusively in the mainstream. Smaller, independently owned chains or standalone coffeehouses have regained popularity in the last several years, most likely as a reaction against the proliferation of coffee chains. These coffee shops focus on finding great coffee suppliers and roasters, carefully selecting beans by flavor and origin. Some shops do their own roasting in house, offering bags of one-of-a-kind beans for customers to purchase. Decor is often eclectic and cozy, focused on comfort and creating a relaxed and quiet place to meet, to read, to write, to study or to talk.

At these coffee shops, coffee is more than a functional beverage: preparing it is an art form, studied and practiced. In addition to drip coffee machines (your average coffee maker that frequents kitchens and office break rooms), you’ll see baristas using French presses, espresso machines, milk frothers, Aeropresses, vacuum presses, massive coffee grinding machines, drippers, and other mysterious coffee-brewing mechanisms, all producing different flavors and feels. Coffee has elevated its status from basic caffeine jolt to aromatic, carefully-crafted flavor experience.  And Greenville’s caffeine scene makes no exception.

Greenville Coffee Hotspots

Greenville has plenty of specialty coffee shops around, all with their own unique vibe and menu offerings. Here’s just a few, all a stone’s throw from campus:

  1. Spill the Beans: Located right next to the entrance of Falls Park, Spill the Beans offers both specialty coffee drinks and ice cream, giving you refreshment options no matter what the Greenville weather happens to be doing.
  2. Methodical Coffee: Also downtown, this spacious and airy café features a small plate menu crafted by an in-house chef and boasts their own line of custom roasts.
  3. Bridge City Coffee: This local roasting company just opened a shop a block away from BJU, offering a laid-back gathering place and pastries from nearby bakeries.
  4. 101 Espresso Bar: Housed in a building that’s quirky, tall and skinny, 101 Espresso Bar sits just outside downtown and offers delicious, expertly prepared drinks. Don’t let its size deceive you: it’s bigger on the inside with enough seating for a gathering of friends.  
  5. Coffee Underground: Can be found, appropriately, at the corner of Coffee Street and Main Street downtown in a basement floor of a historic building. A popular place to meet friends in the evening hours, Coffee Underground offers desserts, comfy couches, plenty of tables, and a theater that hosts improv comedy nights and poetry slams.

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Emma Galloway Stephens is a writer and faculty liaison in BJU’s Marketing department as well as an adjunct writing faculty member.