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You don’t have to sneak your poke bowl or deli sandwich into the cafe any more. The rules have changed.
Right now, I’m sitting in Identity Coffees with an iced Americano and a small packet of Trader Joe’s blueberry digestive biscuits. I’ve parked myself in the far corner of the cafe, away from the baristas, in hopes they won’t notice I’m eating something other than something from their display case. I’ve been surreptitiously sneaking food into cafes for years, always with a sense of guilt and some anxiety that I’ll be caught by a scornful barista and put on some sort of cafe blacklist.
But I’m starting to think I’m the tactful one in the ever-evolving relationship between cafes and their patrons. A few weeks ago, I was at Identity, this time sitting in plain view of everyone, while the man sitting directly to my left shoveled some kind of globular food from a takeout box into his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. Curious, I peered over: It was a full-on poke bowl from Ohana Poke Bar, packed to the brim with hunks of raw fish, mango, macadamia nuts and crunchy, crispy onions. I marveled at this mystery man’s devilmay-care attitude with regard to coffee-shop etiquette. My cracker-smuggling ways looked like a misdemeanor compared to this all-out cafe felony.
This was not an isolated incident. While just a few years ago it was virtually unheard of to bring a cooked meal into a cafe, the social mores have changed. I’ve seen people bring their Pushkin’s sandwiches or lunches from the Co-op’s hot bar to eat alongside their $3 coffee at Temple. I’ve witnessed takeout bánh mi consumption at Insight. I saw an (admittedly pretty fabulous-looking) acai bowl at The Mill.
The Type A, rule-following side of me recoils. Every one of these cafes offers a pretty fair range of nibbles and bites—The Mill has griddled-to-order yeasted waffles, for goodness sake! It’s not like anyone is going to starve in the hour and a half they spend sipping their latte and scrolling through their Facebook feed. But with cafes serving the role of not just caffeinators-to-the-masses but also meeting spaces, workplaces and sites of general entertainment, relaxation and socialization, it seems inevitable that people would begin to view them as an extension of their homes.
Plus, I’ve yet to see a single barista or cafe owner approach one of these customers and ask them to leave their meal at the door next time. Based on my current research, that blacklist I’ve been so afraid of does not appear to exist. Customers are only pushing the limits of decorum because the cafes, in turn, are allowing it.
Am I going to start eating my little snacks all loud and proud when I’m at cafes now? No way. My plan is to continue to hunch over my little crumbs and wrappers in the darkest corner of every coffee shop like all those guilty dogs on YouTube who steal a piece of pizza and eat it mournfully behind the couch. I have a sense of dignity. But I will keep bringing my own food. I figure that if someone gets in trouble, it’s going to be the poke bowl guy before it’s me.