This morning, Slate’s Heather Schwedel penned an article criticizing coffee shop sandwich boards. She titles the article, “When Did Sidewalk Café Sandwich Boards Start Trying So Hard to Make Jokes?” I see your point, Heather, and raise you the advertising industry since the 20th century. Call us old-fashioned, but we sincerely don’t understand what’s wrong with “creative expressions of branding,” as Schwedel terms the sandwich board art.
She gets pretty rant-y, spending about 1000 words shaming pun-happy baristas. In referring to one solicitous sandwich board, Schwedel writes, “the sheer cheekiness nearly knocked me over.” Oh honey, this is New York City. If everyone’s sheer cheekiness threw me off balance, I’d spend most of the day on my back. We’ll sum the Slate article up by saying TL;DR. But let us rant for a sec, too, because there’s a fair amount of barista dignity at stake here.
In an otherwise fairly rote café environment, sandwich boards are among the few surfaces on which coffee shop baristas—few of whom consider their jobs a long-term career—are able to express themselves. Baristas are part-timers, and usually have a background in the arts (much like many service professionals). Having worked in coffee for a number of years myself, I can say that my talented, design-educated coworkers took great pleasure and pride in creating stunning chalk visuals to set up outside.
A good sandwich board adds personality to a business. Just because the humor isn’t your humor, it doesn’t mean that someone else won’t appreciate it. Also, the board has the capacity to comfort. Specifically, I remember seeing Leonard Nimoy’s face etched onto sandwich boards around the city the day after he died. And you know, that was pretty comforting.
Sure, it’s true that the “art” we’re talking about is occasionally reduced to a less than, five-word sentence by a comatose barista who got up so early for the commute to work that she couldn’t think of anything funnier to say at 6:30am. But we have our own three-word sentence for that: get over it (unless the sign in question is racist, in which case you should absolutely make a fuss about it). These signs aren’t getting up and waving their wooden arms at you, they’re fucking inanimate objects with words on them. It’s not “aggressively unnecessary,” nor is there “overfamiliarity” at play. Those words might better be used to describe Schwedel’s general overreaction to the topic as a whole, and her attempts to rope in celebrity writers to rally for the cause. And don’t even get us started on the fact that a BuzzFeed writer was selected to weigh in on how “tiring” the signage could be. Yeesh.
You know, I once saw a sandwich board outside the Hungry Ghost on Fulton Street. It was a pretty solid rendering of an alien talking to a ghost, saying, “What if soy milk is just regular milk, but it’s been introducing itself in Spanish?” I went inside because that made me laugh so hard that I got thirsty. And I still quote that board in conversation.
Follow Sam for more defenses of baristas at @ahoysamantha