Drawing a Blank?

Blank Street Coffee on the corner of Charlotte Street and Goodge Street.

In the summer of 2020, a new neighbourhood cafe started up in New York. Now, at the end of summer 2022, Blank Street coffee has over forty locations in the US with two in the UK and the ambition of 24 in the UK by the end of 2022. This is not your usual small coffee shop. Nor is its financing. After initially raising $7m from venture capitalist firms, a recent fundraising round raised a further $25m. It is worth asking: why? What is it about this chain of cafes that makes financiers value it at more than $98m?

I came across Blank St Coffee at 44 Charlotte St on the junction of Googe St by accident. After a good Penang Assam Laksa down the road at Laksa Mania, we were after a coffee and this cafe looked, at first sight, like a small neighbourhood cafe. Judging from headlines in the New York Times, this post is going to date very quickly and conceivably, in just a couple of months we are going to wonder how it was that we had never heard of Blank St. As we got closer, the merchandise visible through the window, and other aspects of the coffee shop which are harder to pin point, suggested that this was a coffee shop backed by quite a lot of finance. There are a few such cafes around and it is not always easy to discern what it is, exactly, that indicates that they are far from my usual focus on neighbourhood cafes. However, on this occasion, we were after a coffee and thought we’d give it a try.

We ordered an Americano and an oat milk hot chocolate. The coffee is roasted by Origin Roasters and all the coffee is served in disposable cups. As we were drinking ‘in’ (on the benches outside), I refused a lid for the cup which was a mistake as the Americano had been filled to the brim of the cup. Shortly after taking the coffee from the counter and stepping outside I found, experimentally, how easy it is to spill a black coffee (as opposed to say, an oat milk hot chocolate). The over-filled Americano turned out to be an interesting feature because I had naively attributed it to human error. As with much else at Blank Street, such impressions can be deceptive.

Over-filled Americano and oat milk hot chocolate with a lid. You can see which one spilled by the liquid around the bottom of the cup.

I’ll declare a bias here. I think society works best with human interactions and community. It is why I have focussed on reviewing small, locally run, community cafes in the past. Blank Street Coffee has a different ethos which is to make good coffee affordable. While this is not necessarily a bad aim (click here for a discussion on the pressures and ethics involved in coffee pricing in cafes), Blank Street has a particular approach to cost cutting. Firstly it rents smaller spaces for its cafes. It also automates much of the coffee preparation. The baristas no longer have to make the coffee, they just push a button and the coffee comes out of the machine. This makes the over-filled Americano odd because it is an automated, not a human process, have they really designed the Americano to fill to the brim?

Blank Street Coffee explains that the fact that the baristas just have to ‘push a button’ for the coffee means that they have more time available to chat with customers. This does not make sense to me. I like knowing that the barista knows coffee and knows (and cares) how to make a good coffee. I like the fact that the barista knows more about coffee than I do and so can talk to me about different coffees and issues within the coffee chain. I do not see that the baristas can have the same in depth understanding of coffee if they are only required to push a button to make it. Nor do I think that this will reliably produce a good coffee as the coffee dosing needs to be adjusted throughout the day by experienced baristas in order to keep the espresso flavour consistent. There is a similar problem in experimental physics. In order to get more results in a given time frame (such as overnight), many pieces of equipment are now automated. This starts off as a great idea but has the result that the experimenters lose familiarity with the electronics behind the computer interface. It is hard to troubleshoot when something goes wrong if you don’t have the feeling for what different bits of the equipment do to begin with. On a practical point with the cafes, baristas are needed now because they are expected. If the aim is to provide good coffee cheaply, what is to stop getting rid of the barista entirely and allowing the customer to press the button?

Opposite Blank Street a properly blank sign. What used to be written on this sign?

The coffee itself was ok. It was nice to get a drinkable cup of coffee in a space in central London where you could sit on a bench and people watch. And in terms of the physics aspect of a cafe-physics review, there was also an appropriate point to consider. Just opposite the cafe there was a space on the wall of the shops for a shop sign. It was a type of nineteenth century panel built into the shop fronts which would in the past have been painted with the name of the shop below. Only this one was, fittingly, blank. Not really a ghost sign, it was so ghostly as to have disappeared altogether, it was a blank space. The presence of the sign was announced by its absence. A similar absence is revealing in space; “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Does this suggest that space is a vacuum? For sound waves to propagate, and so for your scream to be audible, the sound needs to create a pressure wave within a substance, whether that substance is a solid or a gas. If a sound wave cannot propagate and we take the movie-tagline literally, it would mean there is no substance in space, it is a vacuum. Depending on where you measure it, this is nearly true. In interstellar space, there is approximately 1 atom per cubic centimetre compared with 3×10^19 atoms per cubic centimetre on Earth’s surface. In intergalactic space there are even fewer atoms in a given volume. Even in interstellar space though, there are small fluctuations in the density of atoms with some regions having what appears to be a bunching up of the atoms present into waves as the shock fronts of things like distant supernovae come through. The spacecraft Voyager 1, launched in 1977, crossed the boundary into interstellar space in 2012. Voyager continues to take measurements of what it encounters and is now being used to understand the density of interstellar space, partly by measuring these bunched up bits as they flow over the spacecraft.

Voyager measures the density of space, partly by revealing the very absence of measurements for the most part. Which brings us poetically back to the name: “Blank” Street coffee. It is announcing something by its very anonymity. This anonymity is continued even inside the cafe. Painted a shade of green which is fairly instagrammable but somehow generic, a copy of other Blank Streets elsewhere. The space offers plenty to think about: what does it mean to be empty? Do we value something purely by its economic cost? And what does it mean to be anonymous, or even a unique individual, if you order coffee using an App on your phone?

Coffee at Blank Street was an experience. It can prompt many reflections on society and on physics. Yet, there are issues in its apparent anonymity and generic layout. Two weeks after visiting Blank Street, I visited a small, local cafe where the community and the physics jumped out at me. Offered the choice of many generic ‘blanks’ or a few memorable cafes, which would you choose?

Blank Street Cafe can probably, by now, be found all over London but was reviewed at 44 Charlotte Street.

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