Distributing "suspended coffees" to in Kings Cross: Chiado restaurant and wine bar, Potts Point. Photo: Brianne Makin
She only saw the young man once, but for Sandra Robinson, owner of Chiado Restaurant in Potts Point, the brief exchange of words, coffee and kindness still resonate.
“He was from Adelaide and had made his way up to Sydney. I think he was about 18 or 19. He'd had some issues with drugs, been kicked out of home by mum and dad and was just making his way through the country,” Robinson says.
The young homeless man was one of the people to whom the restaurateur distributed a “suspended coffee”, that is, a coffee bought by one of her customers for a stranger in need.
Coupon system: Espresso Organica, Concord. Photo: Domino Postiglione
“I've got a son, a young boy, and it just touched me how alone he was," she says.
The suspended coffee tradition began in Naples about a decade ago and has spread around the world. There are many variations on the central idea but in essence, a “suspended coffee” – or caffe sospeso in Italian – is a cup of coffee that a customer buys anonymously for someone who can't afford to buy one themselves. The customer pays for the coffee in advance and the cafe “suspends” it, later making the coffee for whoever requests it.
In the last few months around a dozen cafes, restaurants and bakeries in Sydney have begun offering suspended coffees. There's been no shortage of customer donations in that time. The next step: to try and raise awareness so the coffees can get distributed to those they are intended for. Marrickville Council voted recently to support the scheme, including promoting it to residents. In other parts of Sydney, restaurateurs are using creative means to distribute the donated coffees.
Mark Gibbons, owner of Gibbo's Truck Wash and Cafe at Revesby, has around 30 suspended coffees available to be claimed, and is getting out and about in his local area to try and spread the word.
“There's a homeless guy about three kilometres up the road from me and I've taken him up a coffee twice. He doesn't really know what's going on but I'll keep persisting,” he says.
In Concord, Espresso Organica owner Tom Labrakis has created his own coupons to help distribute about the 40 suspended coffees he has waiting. Customers who buy a suspended coffee at his cafe have the option of taking a coupon with them to give to someone they see.
At West Ryde's Pages Cafe, some coffees are distributed in the traditional way. The value of any leftover coffees is donated to charity Missionbeat. Owner Matthew Eagleton says customers bought 202 suspended coffees in the first month.
“We don't have a huge amount of homeless in the area so what we did was connect with … organisations in the local area so we can make a local impact,” Eagleton says.
“The early childhood centre next door, for example, has contact with a lot of single parents in the community and we pass on vouchers to them to give to their clients.”
Cafes participating in the scheme in the Marrickville local government area are hoping a decision by the council to promote the scheme will encourage more businesses to join.
"The more people that participate, the more it will start to filter down to the people who you really want to benefit from it," says Rosa Keeping, owner of Rosa’s Kitchen in Sydenham.
Chiado's Sandra Robinson, whose restaurant is located near the main strip in Kings Cross, says the experience of going out on foot to hand out coffees with her brother Jose, who co-owns the business, has been “very rewarding”.
“We get to have a chat, get to meet them, hear their stories,” Robinson says. Although she never saw the young man from Adelaide again, she says she still thinks of him from time to time.
“I haven't seen him since so I guess he just continued on his wandering,” she says.
For a list of outlets offering suspended coffee, visit the Suspended Coffees Sydney Facebook page.