Quite fittingly the tradition of “caffè sospeso,” or “suspended coffee,” as it’s known, dates back around the time of the Second World War in Naples – a city that prides itself on excellent coffee. A customer at a café would pay for two cups of coffee – one for himself and one for someone less fortunate who happened to come along. The baristas would keep a log and serve a cup of coffee to anyone who would enter and ask, “Is there anything suspended?”
In Italy’s boom years the beautiful custom began to dwindle, but as unemployment continues to rise and small businesses keep closing in recent tough economic times, the humble tradition has been revived for Italians who can no longer afford the national beverage. The old Neapolitan custom has even secured its own holiday – “Suspended Coffee Day” – on December 10, with the support of community organizations and generous coffee purchasers. Social media campaigns have also brought the movement back to people’s attention, and the Suspended Coffees global Facebook page launched in March has garnered over 110,000 likes.
It has since spread to other countries in the European Union such as Bulgaria, Spain and France, and now across the Atlantic as a stylish way to show generosity. In an anonymous act of caffeinated kindness the donor and recipient never meet, but the simple gesture leaves them with a better outlook on life even if it’s just for the time it takes to drink their beverage.
Here in Canada, a number of coffee shops in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta have had customers paying it forward with coffees for unsuspecting patrons, proving the giving spirit continues to be contagious. This past summer, anonymous customers at Tim Hortons coffee shops in Toronto, Ottawa and Edmonton bought coffees for the next 500 people in line, and the media attention to these acts has spurred hundreds more to pay for a coffee or two at their local java shop.
“It’s a small gesture that goes a long way for someone who may be having a rough day and could use a little pick-me-up to brighten their mood,” says Christina Crupi, who is a regular “pay it forward” coffee purchaser at her local coffee shop in Woodbridge. “At the same time it also provides the person buying the coffee the same lifted spirit. It really makes your day.”
So what exactly are they putting in coffee? Whatever it is, it’s making a lot of us more generous. A prepaid cup of coffee has become a symbol of human solidarity in a society that’s become increasingly disconnected from community interactions. Whether you choose to pay for the Americano of the car behind you in the drive thru line or put $10 towards a coffee shop’s suspended coffee list, a little extra pep in your step for the day is almost guaranteed.
At the Homegrown Hamilton coffee shop, the Italian tradition has been embraced to support the local community. “The movement really matched what we already believe in,” says owner Mike Pattison, whose shop has been promoting the initiative since the spring. When customers stop by they can purchase a hot beverage or even food to be added on the suspended list. If someone forgets their wallet, is in between paychecks or out on the street, they are welcome to come in and ask for something suspended.
“The word spread fairly quickly, and people who had never visited us before began coming in just to take part in the movement,” says Pattison. “We had one woman who drove here just to purchase 20 coffees because she was so impressed with the idea.” Pattison says it’s hard to sum up the experience of being part of the suspended coffee initiative and the feeling of paying it forward, but it’s a tradition he hopes will keep its positivity and integrity. “Amidst all the negativity there’s still good in this world.” Just look into your cup of coffee to find it.