Starbucks Tables Are Round to Make Us Feel Less Lonely

I didn’t see this one coming


For years, coffee shops have been like a second home to me. Before I got my co-working hub membership a few months ago, coffee shops used to be my primary office.

Being a regular, I wouldn’t just get to know the baristas on a first-name basis — I would properly befriend them. We would take breaks together, and actually talk. It wasn’t a particularly convenient workplace — but it was a home.

Having sat over 1,000 hours behind a laptop in coffee shops, I never questioned the design of the tables. Turns out, there is an ingenious reason why most Starbucks tables are round.

Round Tables Make Solo Coffeeholics Feel Less Lonely

So it’s a well-established psychological fact that food is often the least important thing when choosing a restaurant. The feeling of the venue — the lighting, the smell, the sounds, the tan on the waiter’s cheeks, even the location — plays a much larger role.

As usual, however, the biggest revelations are hidden in plain sight. There’s a plethora of research showing that round tables are much more “friendly” than square ones.

In her book, Grande Expectations: A Year in the Life of Starbucks’ Stock, Karen Blumenthal, a Wall Street Journal veteran, reports that “round tables are more welcoming than those with square edges, and people look less alone while seated at a round table.”

That is a very interesting sequence of words. Restaurants — Starbucks included — are purely social venues. We always think about what to wear to a particular restaurant, and we always scan the room to see if we fit in.

If you’ve ever tried getting a coffee at a small square table at a traditional restaurant, you know how weird it feels. Some engaged couple three feet away from you is having lunch. There’s a group of elderly tourists drinking wine, laughing. You just don’t fit in.

It’s not just about the feeling or appearance of loneliness, though. Starbucks’ trademark atmosphere is informal and democratic, and round tables achieve just that.

First of all, round tables don’t promote a “social hierarchy.” There’s no head of the table, and everyone’s default position is “equally as important.”

But more importantly, round tables foster interaction between people. Square tables offer more capacity, but it’s precisely this lack of space that creates a more informal, intimate setting. Square tables subconsciously build a rigid structure of etiquette and distance between the two people, whereas round tables invite play and flexibility into the conversation.

Uncomfortable Round Tables Are Also Good For Business

One of the more obvious connections between round tables and profit margins is the amount of space they take up, and how they take up that space. There are only so many things you can do with square tables within any given room, whereas you can rearrange small round tables in a surprising number of formations and still make it work.

But there’s also a more Machiavellian reason why round tables are good: they’re uncomfortable.

See, Starbucks doesn’t want you to buy one Latte Grande and sit there for four hours. They want you to drink your drink and get the f*ck out 15 minutes later. They don’t make money off you sitting there — they make money off selling the same Latte to the next Instagram addict.

If you’ve ever tried to work at a low-height, unstable, small round table at Starbucks, you know the struggle. One hour in, you start questioning whether you should change your profession. Three hours in and you feel like your grandfather.

Unlike restaurants — where you’re guided by waiters from the entrance to checkout — Starbucks coffee shops don’t really have mechanisms to make you leave and free up space for the next customer. Except they do: they simply make your back hurt.

How Much of It Is Really About the Coffee?

We don’t have Starbucks where I live, but we have two chains competing for the title. They’re close — round tables, three/four coffee sizes, informal, plain atmosphere.

I love them. I love the unceremoniousness — you come in, get the same drink you get every morning, and walk out. I love the fact that I have my drink there, and that nobody else gives a damn about that.

And then there are other, smaller chains that try to outsmart the incumbents by niching down into hipster-y territories. They try to seduce the average coffeeholic with an exotic taste, exquisite preparation, and other sorts of fanciness.

I went to one of those places, once. I had to meet a former classmate there. We spent 30 minutes watching some hairy dude from somewhere south of the equator drip some magical brand of coffee into an equally magical glass dish. We also had to listen to the extended version of The History of That Particular Brand of Coffee. That was it. I’ll stick with my large Americano, thank you.

Thinking about this, I now see how the principle translates into other areas of life — or at least business:

  1. Do I really want the fanciness? I love coffee shops I can go to wearing sweatpants. I do not want them to feel like restaurants. Maybe my copywriting customers also don’t want to receive five A/B versions of the same article in three different extensions?
  2. Do I really want the extra care? I love the unceremoniousness of large coffee shop chains. I don’t want my coffee orders to turn into 30-minute presentations. I just want to get my damn latte and get out. Maybe my copywriting clients also don’t want to feel like embarking on a lifelong creative journey together?
  3. Maybe simpler really is better? If there’s one definitive characteristic of large coffee shop chains, it’s the simplicity of the process. Here are 15 coffee recipes, and here are four sizes for each. Maybe my copywriting clients don’t want a custom-tailored experience every time they call me, and just want to choose from one of four familiar options?

That last point makes me think of Apple computers and phones. It’s the simplicity. Everything just works. Sure, the Android phone allows you to do all kinds of things with it. But do I, a copywriter, really need all that functionality? Do I want to go under the hood?

The answer is a firm no. I don’t want to know how it works. I don’t want to know how the coffee is made. If I do, I’ll find out. Until that point, a smirk at my joke and an incorrectly spelled name on my Latte Grande is more than enough.

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In quest of understanding how humans work.

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