1928: New Orleans is credited with creating the coffee break
New Orleans has long been a coffee city, with a history dating to the 18th century and owing to the city’s location at the mouth of the Mississippi River, making it a perfect distribution point for South and Central American beans headed for U.S. consumers. But in addition to supplying the nation with coffee, the city is also credited with supplying it with a new tradition: the coffee break, as documented in the 1928 book “Fabulous New Orleans” by author Lyle Saxon. “It is no unusual thing for a businessman to say casually: ‘Well, let’s go and get a cup of coffee’ as a visitor in his office is making ready to depart,” Saxon wrote. “It is a little thing perhaps, this drinking of coffee at odd times, but it is very characteristic of the city itself. Men in New Orleans give more thought to the business of living than men in other American cities. … I have heard Northern business men complain bitterly about these little interruptions for coffee or what-not.”
Nowadays, when people think coffee, they probably think Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain that seems to have found a home on every other street corner throughout the country — and indeed the world. But New Orleans’ coffee culture, with a history as rich and robust as a shot of espresso, still runs deep, whether you’re sipping a cup at old standards like PJ’s, CC’s and Morning Call coffee houses or fancy, newer indies like HiVolt, Cherry Coffee and Church Alley.
- By the mid 1850s, 62 million pounds of Brazilian coffee passed through the Port of New Orleans, second only to New York.
- According to a WorldCity ranking, New Orleans imported $559 million worth of coffee from January to September 2017. That ranks it third among U.S. cities, behind the Port of Newark in New Jersey ($660 million) and the port of Oakland in California ($604.7 million).
- In the 19th century, the city’s coffee importers clustered their businesses on Gravier Street, in the present-day Central Business District, near its intersection with Camp Street, according to Philip Collier’s “Making New Orleans.”
- Coffee roasting didn’t emerge as a major industry until the late 19th century. Up until then, consumers preferred to buy green coffee beans, roasting and grinding them at home.
- In a September 2017 ranking of the best coffee cities in America by WalletHub, New Orleans ranked a mediocre 27th out of the nation’s 100 largest cities. Ranking first was Seattle. Coming in last was Laredo, Texas.
- The New Orleans coffee stand dates to the early 19thcentury, when former slave Rose Nicaud set up a stand near the French Market. It was a huge success, prompting others to follow suit.
- At one time, the French Market boasted a number of coffee stands, the most famous being Morning Call, established in 1870 (but which no longer operates a French Market location) and Café Du Monde, established in 1862.
- New Orleans loves its chicory, consuming more of it than any other U.S. city. Although legend has it that chicory was introduced to locals during the Civil War to stretch increasingly scarce coffee supplies, it was actually in use long before then.
- How much does New Orleans appreciate coffee? It even incorporates it into its desserts, such as the flaming post-dining concoction known as café brulot, the preparation of which is often as spectacular to watch as the finished product is to drink.
Well, of course the coffee break was invented in New Orleans. Even if you hadn’t before heard of the practice’s local provenance, it all just makes sense. Not only has the city long been a hub of coffee production, but it also famously embraces things of pleasure and leisure. (This sentence of Saxon’s bears repeating: “Men in New Orleans give more thought to the business of living than men in other American cities.”) Put them all together, and you’ve got the recipe for a mid-morning pause for caffeinating purposes — and another in the mid-afternoon, and another whenever it can be squeezed in. And if anybody wants to complain about it, you can just explain to them (over a cup of coffee, of course) that it’s simply in our DNA.