Coffee Break

Can't imagine your office without java? Take a moment to learn how it got there.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the March 2005 . Subscribe »

It's not you. It's not your product or service. It's not even the restroom, though that's close. If there's one thing that your business couldn't survive without, it's--without question or argument--coffee.

Can you imagine what would happen if you refused to let your employees sip coffee at their desks or, if not there, in the company break room? You would likely be strung up to the ceiling fan and left to spin the day away, while your employees went off to sip mocha lattes and plot your ruin. Your business would curl up and die. As well it should. Coffee and the workplace have had a symbiotic relationship for some time now.

The first coffee break as we know it likely happened around the turn of the 20th century. Howard Stanger, a professor of management and marketing specializing in industrial relations and business history at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, says it was in 1900 when the Larkin Company, a hybrid soap manufacturer and mail-order company, began giving employees free coffee to drink in break rooms. As far as he knows, this is the earliest example of an official coffee break.

Like many businesses of the time, entrepreneurs were concerned that their female employees not be subjected to their brash male co-workers and the harsh conditions in the factories. Since women couldn't completely be shielded, "companies often tried to create domestic spaces where they could take a break," says Stanger. "In photographs, you'll often see [break rooms] decorated like a middle-class home." Offering coffee in these refuges was an amenity that would lead to future amenities, like health benefits and pension plans in the 1920s.

Today, of course, coffee at the workplace dominates much more than a few minutes a day, because people appreciate the drink for the same reason their counterparts did 100 years ago, observes Stanger: "They drank it for the caffeine jolt, the warmth and the comfort."

Bean There, Done That

A timeline: Great moments in the coffee/work relationship, from the bush to the break room.

850 A.D. First known discovery of berries containing caffeine. As legend has it, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed his goats were friskier after eating red berries on a shrub. After trying them himself, the goatherd realized he felt happier, too. Kaldi had just created the world's first coffee break.

1475 The world's first coffee shop opens in Constantinople.

1600 Coffee reaches Europe. The first coffeehouse opens in Italy in 1654.

1674 Not everybody is consuming the drink. In London, the Women's Petition Against Coffee declares: "Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops and spend their money."

1901 Instant coffee is invented. Offices across the world slowly, but surely, recognize what this means for them.

1920 With Prohibition in effect, martinis during business meetings fall out of favor, and coffee sales take off.

1971 The first Starbucks opens in Seattle, launching a chain that currently boasts more than 8,000 locations worldwide.

1972 Mr. Coffee enters the market, inventing the automatic drip process. It becomes a staple in office break rooms everywhere.

1999 Over 81 million Americans drink coffee in their workplaces, according to a Gallup Poll survey; 52.3 million obtain it from their offices.

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