The Shockingly Unjust & Hideous Death of the Cafe Au Lait. =(

July 27, 2009

I had a moment of clarity the other night while doing something I rarely do anymore:  I went and hung out in a Borders store, browsed through the books, the albums, the magazines, got a cup of coffee, and sat down to take in some culture.

I noticed some jarring changes.  Most obvious was that the CD section had been reduced to a quarter of its previous size.  I mean: SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT of the CD bins had been removed.  I went to take stock of the carnage.

It seemed that most of what had been removed were “catalog” titles… they’d nixed the “old” music in favor of new artists and new releases by established acts, and most of the acts I could see at a glance I would call “peripheral” or “emerging” artists.

It was a bit astonishing to realize the number of artists who had albums on display that I have had some kind of contact with.  These artists are… my peers, really.  In many cases there are completely arbitrary factors that have dictated that their albums are still available in a nationwide chain store, while mine have not been on those shelves since 2005.

I had just taken all this in when I walked over to the cafe counter and placed my coffee order.  I was present, but mildly distracted, so the counter dude’s response to my request surprised me more than it should have:

“A cafe au lait!  Wow; most people don’t know what that even IS!”


This, of course, is not true.  Plenty of people know what a cafe au lait is.

Err…          …don’t they?

Well, shit.  Maybe they don’t?   I pondered this as I went to sit down.

“Cafe Au Lait” is French for “coffee with milk”.  It’s been a staple on cafe menus all over the world, regardless of language, for as long as I can remember.  At least until Starbucks came along.

Starbucks capitalized on a major idea: they convinced the public that “ESPRESSO IS MORE VALUABLE THAN COFFEE”.  The idea is nonsense, of course — espresso IS coffee.  It’s simply prepared differently.  There is no practical reason to charge twice as much for it.  Sure; it requires a different grind and a separate machine, but grinders are adjustable, and espresso machines are standard overhead in cafes.

Besides that, it has become commonplace for a 2 ounce shot of espresso to cost the same as a 12 ounce cup of drip coffee.   Um…  hello?

People were already used to paying close to 2 bucks for a cup full of drip coffee.  By convincing people that espresso is exotic and valuable and different, Starbucks made the world believe that the same sized cup with espresso in it was easily worth twice as much.  Even though most of what is in the cup is actually MILK; not espresso.

The problem for Starbucks was this:  if people equate a full cup of coffee with “two dollars”, and if you have to give people milk for free on the condiment stand, you can’t charge a whole lot more just for dumping out half the coffee and replacing it with HOT milk.  True; a Cafe Au Lait usually doesn’t cost more than 25 to 50 cents more than a standard coffee.

Well if the maximum price for a cup of half coffee and half milk is $2.50, how are you supposed to convince people to spend $4 on a cup that has only 2 ounces of coffee and is MOSTLY milk?

You take the better deal off the menu.

People will forget.  Those that don’t won’t want to speak up.

That’s what Starbucks bet on.  They were right.

There is NO “Cafe Au Lait” menu option at any Starbucks, anywhere.  If you ask for one, you’ll be told that it’s not on the menu.  They can tell you that, because they’re not lying; “Cafe Au Lait” is NOT on their menu.

Because they changed it’s name.  Starbucks calls a cup of half coffee/half milk a “Misto”.   The Misto does not appear anywhere on the menu, either, but if you ask for one, they have to make it for you, and you’ll pay…  (drumroll)   about $2.50.

But people don’t ask for it.  Because they either can’t remember it when they’re staring at the menu, or they don’t want to “be a problem” or draw unnecessary attention to themselves by asking for it.

This explanation is long, but the realization came to me in the second following the barista’s declaration:

I’m a Cafe Au Lait.

I’m a great deal, dammit.  I cost less than most of the other stuff out there, and I taste better than most of it…  or at least AS good!

I’m just not on the menu.

Whenever any listeners or fans discovered me, I was “on the menu” in their world.  I was playing on stage; my music became a common experience for everyone who heard me. After I sold CDs to these folks, they played them for their friends, and then my music was in the common cultural vocabulary they shared.

But over the years, those people grew apart, moved, met new friends who weren’t already familiar with my music.  Suddenly my songs lost their “common touchstone” status, and I was “not on the menu” anymore.  And just like the Cafe Au Lait, people forgot that I was an option, or didn’t want to be judged by suggesting something that wasn’t already in their new friends’ pool of common experience.

Once this mindset took hold, some people just erased me from their own cultural vocabulary, and even though they heard from me through email, by the time my next album came out, they couldn’t reconcile adding me back to their mental playlist.  Instead of getting excited about listening to my new music, they actually withdrew from it.

SO.  Check it out:

I am releasing my first full-length album in FIVE YEARS this fall**.  It is, by far, the best thing I’ve ever made, and no matter if you have listened to every note I’ve recorded over the past decade or if the last thing you heard from me was the last note of “Something Pretty” back in 2002, I would be honored if you would at least give it a chance.

We, the independent artists of today, don’t have media PR machines to change your minds, influence your friends, and direct your attention for you.

We have YOU, and we’re counting on you to remember us, talk about us, suggest us, explain us to those who don’t know.

We need you to put us back on the menu.

We need you to NOT take the path of least resistance.

We need you to order a Cafe Au Lait.

Thanks for listening.

**If you’re not already on my email list, sign up HERE and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.



  1. let me know when you hit that non-starbucks starbucks in your travels. i’m not sure i’d trust a cafe to pour me coffee if it didn’t have a cafe au lait on the menu.

    and in case anyone tries to beat you up over the espresso and coffee are the same thing…they are. http://www.ehow.com/facts_5180702_espresso-coffee-beans.html

  2. ***applauds…a lot***

    See, this is why I wish you blogged more: a seemingly simple post (based on the title, I was expecting something comedic, to be honest) is actually quite profound and carries mass quantities of social commentary.

    Well done, sir. I may have to force myself into a S***bucks just to see the barista’s expression when I ask for a misto….

  3. […] The Shockingly Unjust & Hideous Death of the Cafe Au Lait. =( […]

  4. Kudos, my friend – well written.

  5. Your tone is delicious,
    Espresso is, too;
    But cafe au lait
    Ain’t got shit on you!

  6. as one of the aformentioned artists, I agree with you, Mr. H.

    in barista terminology, I have no idea what I am, but as long as you’re around I know the fate of the independent artist is safe.

    and I can’t wait for the new album!


  7. I love a good coffee rant (Living in Ithaca I have observed impassioned coffee wars amongst the citizenry when Starbucks invaded our oasis of small coffee roasters.), but this turned into something more! I loved the analogy! The new world of music is both freeing and bewildering. It is possible to experience thousands (well, probably millions but sometimes we have to step away from our computers!), of artists one would never otherwise hear by finding their work on the internet. But, without the marketing machine of a record company, the question is “How do you find it?” I mostly rely on friends’ recommendations and the lucky chance of encountering an artist’s music. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to get turned on to your music. Very fortunate indeed. I hope to steer others to your delicious cafe au lait of sound.

  8. I ordered a Cafe Au Lait @ SBUX today and was given “Misto”. Apparently it’s here, and it’s hilarious that of all google results to be #1, it’s THE Seth Horan. Hope life’s treating you well, buddy.

  9. My goodness, sir. Whatever became of ye? It’s been years. Well, if it’s coffee that brings us back into each other’s orbit, I’ll take it. Much music still happening. You should partake!

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