Fact Check

Suspended Coffee

Café customers buy 'suspended coffees' for less fortunate patrons?

Published Mar 27, 2013

Glurge:   Café customers buy "suspended coffees" for less fortunate patrons.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, March 2013]

This story will warm you better than a coffee on a cold winter day:

"We enter a little coffeehouse with a friend of mine and give our order. While we're approaching our table two people come in and they go to the counter:

'Five coffees, please. Two of them for us and three suspended'

They pay for their order, take the two and leave. I ask my friend:

'What are those 'suspended' coffees?'

'Wait for it and you will see.'

Some more people enter. Two girls ask for one coffee each, pay and go. The next order was for seven coffees and it was made by three lawyers — three for them and four 'suspended'. While I still wonder what's the deal with those 'suspended' coffees I enjoy the sunny weather and the beautiful view towards the square in front of the café. Suddenly a man dressed in shabby clothes who looks like a beggar comes in through the door and kindly asks 'Do you have a suspended coffee?'

It's simple — people pay in advance for a coffee meant for someone who can not afford a warm beverage. The tradition with the suspended coffees started in Naples, but it has spread all over the world and in some places you can order not only a suspended coffee, but also a sandwich or a whole meal.


Origins:   The notion of café customers paying for "caffe sospeso" ("suspended coffees" or "pending coffees"), drinks that can later be claimed for free by less fortunate patrons, is something that has been described as an old Italian tradition in various news and Internet accounts, although we can't say how old or widespread the practice might actually be (inside or outside of Italy).

For example, "caffe sospeso" was mentioned in an April 2004 item published in the Italian online newspaper Nove da Firenze ("News from Florence"):

"Let's pay for a coffee or a cappuccino for those who cannot afford it," stated the appeal launched by the "Charity Patrol," a solidarity movement for the homeless founded in Florence by theater director Paul Coccheri. The initiative was launched on Easter Monday. The habit of paying to offer a "suspended coffee" to a needy person was, it seems, was born in Naples, where "everyone" now practices it.

A January 2011 travel blog post about the author's recent experience in Naples also related that:

I was having an excellent coffee in a caffe’ bar called Augustus on the main shopping avenue, via Toledo.

A well dressed gentleman of about 80 with a Borsalino hat and and elegant cane, walks to the cash register and asks to pay for "a coffee, and a suspended coffee". Then drinks his coffee and leaves the bar. I tried to ignore my curiosity, but I only could for so long. Then I just had to ask the man at the register, what in the world is a "suspended coffee".

So he patiently explained, trying to speak as close to a scholastic italian as he could (my question had given me away as an ignorant stranger):

"Right after the war, many gentlemen had lost everything they had, and couldn’t even afford coffee. Now, being that black hot liquid pleasure not considered a treat, but rather a basic human right in the life of any Neapolitan, those gentlemen who could still afford to have one, took a habit of paying for two: one they drank, the other was credited, to be had by the first less fortunate peer who would casually walk in the bar. The bartender would then say: 'Would you like a coffee, sir?' Which meant: there is a coffee paid for you, if you can’t afford one."

The donor and the recipient would remain anonymous to each other, to protect generosity, pride, and the pleasure of coffee beyond hardships.

A March 2013 report from Agence France Presse about the subject also described the practice as an old Italian tradition that had since taken root in Bulgaria:

Can't afford coffee? No matter. In Bulgaria, an old Italian tradition that sees good souls buying hot drinks for those who struggle to make ends meet has taken hold after weeks of tensions over deepening poverty.

More than 150 cafes across Bulgaria have joined a goodwill initiative modelled on the Italian "caffe sospeso" tradition, which literally means "suspended coffee", according to a Facebook page devoted to the movement.

The tradition — born in the cafes of Italy's southern city of Naples — sees people pay in advance for one or several coffees without drinking them.

A customer-in-need can then later ask if there is a "suspended coffee" available and have a hot drink without having to pay for it.

Poverty in Bulgaria — the European Union's least wealthy country — is increasingly sparking social unrest, with several desperate people setting themselves on fire.

Most cafes that decide to join the "caffe sospeso" initiative — which has been covered extensively on television — have posted pictures of payment slips issued for free coffees on the Facebook page.

"Super! The first 'suspended coffee' at our place is a fact," one user registered as Ethno Bar Red House said on the "Suspended Coffee in Bulgaria" page.

Some cafes use a pot of small cards or bottle caps to count the number of coffees already paid for, which can later be claimed.
Apart from cafes, several fast food places and grocery shops have also joined the Bulgarian initiative, proposing that their clients buy someone a loaf of bread or a snack.

In a somewhat similar vein, 1,468 customers at a Starbucks outlet in Newington, Connecticut, reportedly engaged in a "pay it forward" system during Christmas week in 2013 (although they were essentially taking turns paying for each other's orders rather than purchasing coffees solely for the benefit of the less fortunate):

Nearly 1,500 customers "paid it forward" at a Connecticut Starbucks this week, footing the bill for the drivers behind them in line at the drive-thru window.

The days-long initiative came to a close around 6 p.m. [on Dec. 28] when a customer broke the chain of holiday cheer that had been ongoing since early Christmas Eve, according to a Starbucks employee.

In total, 1,468 customers paid for each other's drinks at the Starbucks on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington, Conn.

On the first day, more than 300 customers had "paid it forward" by the time the store closed at 8 p.m.

Patrons kept the good cheer going Christmas Day, and then again throughout the week.

An image commonly used to accompany descriptions of the "suspended coffee" tradition posted on social media sites is an unrelated photograph that originated with a March 2012 Washington Post report about the plight of homeless people in the Washington suburb of Montgomery County and pictures a homeless man named Cal Walker sipping a coffee at a diner near the Bethesda Metro station:

Last updated:   3 January 2014


    Mason, Ari.   "Starbucks Customers Paid it Forward for Days After Christmas."

    WVIT-TV [West Hartford, CT].   29 December 2013.

    Agence France Presse.   "Italian-Style Coffee Philanthropy Takes Hold in Bulgaria."

    25 March 2013.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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