Coffee Shop AU

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Trope · Genre
Synonyms: Barista AU
Related: Bakery AU, Alternate Universe, College AU
See Also: Food in Fanworks
Tropes · Slash Tropes · Tropes by Fandom
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The Coffee Shop AU is an alternate universe fanfiction trope that became popular in LiveJournal fandoms, then migrated with fans to other platforms.

The trope was originally known as Barista AU and is closely-related to the Bakery AU.

In most cases, one half of the main pairing is the barista and the other is or becomes their favorite customer; in some stories the whole cast works at a coffee shop.

This trope is especially popular in fandoms where one character is very attached to coffee, either in canon or in fanon, or is frequently stressed.

History and Popularity

The earliest example of a coffee shop AU may be a popslash story, Café de l'Amour, by NSyncGrrl, written no later than 2001. In the author's note, she speculates that the story started a trend in popslash.[1]

The trope spread out and had become very popular by the end of the aughts.[2] In 2011, thefourthvine stated "I think we can all agree that the barista AU is a fine and honorable tradition in fandom."[3] In the header of her own Suits barista AU, friskaz said "Every fandom needs a barista au."[4]

Coffee shop AU fanworks are nearly ubiquitous in pan-fandom.

Fandom has always inspired this memetic spread of popular tropes, but it’s much easier when everyone posts on the same platform. When a particular idea starts appearing everywhere, it illustrates something fundamental about the fanfic ecosystem: People aren’t just in Star Wars fandom or Sherlock fandom, they’re in “Fandom,“ period. They’re part of the overarching fanfic community, and while individual fandoms come and go, tastes remain the same. A coffee shop AU is the same whether it’s based on Supergirl or Voltron, because it caters to a different desire from the source material.

Like many popular fanfic genres, coffee shop AUs are very repetitive. Their formulaic plots hold the same reliable appeal as procedural crime shows, sitcoms, and tropey romance novels. The phrase “coffee shop AU” conjures up a specific brand, promising a love story where conflict is restricted to romantic misunderstandings and workplace stress. Speaking to fans of the genre, the same words crop up again and again: “comforting,” “warm,” “familiar.” And crucially, it’s a rare way to see queer romance depicted with zero risk of a tragic ending.

In the words of one reader, “As a lesbian, there aren’t very many comforting romantic comedies about gay characters I can watch, so coffee shop AUs are a way of seeing myself represented in those since they’re normally about gay couples.”

- Millennials can’t stop writing fanfiction about coffee shops by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw[5]

As of February 2019, works tagged "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" represent 14.8k+ of the 905.4k+ the works more broadly tagged as AUs.[6]

"The AO3 Tag of the Day is: Bring on the coffee shop au!"[7]

In the Fansplaining Fic Preferences Survey of 2016, conducted by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel of the Fansplaining podcast,over 7,500 respondents ranked coffee shop AUs as the tenth most popular AU trope, and the fifty-third overall most popular trope, suggesting that coffee shop AUs may not be quite as astronomically popular as more commonly reported.[8]

Regardless of how popular or ubiquitous the coffee shop AU is according to quantitative analysis, the trope certainly looms large in common conceptions about tropes in fanfiction. Katharine McCain, a PhD candidate at Ohio State University researching contemporary fanfiction with a focus on coffee shop AUs, discusses the popularity and conventions of the trope in a 2017 essay titled "Fans Love It a Latte: The Rise and Participatory Nature of Coffee Shop AUs." She writes:

Not much is known about the coffee shop AU’s origins. Like many practices, jokes, and memes that originate online, the creators and perpetuators of this trope were likely unaware that it was becoming a convention worth tracking until much of the original material was already lost. The lack of historical information has become something of a running gag, epitomized by one Tumblr user’s post asking, “But really, who was the first person to take two characters from a fandom and be like, ‘Yeah, right, but get this; what if one of them is a barista,’” thus highlighting the seemingly inexplicable desire to take characters out of what are usually dynamic, action-packed environments and replace them in a presumably—boring coffee shop (Radio-silents, emphasis original).[9]

Nick Lowe's 1980s article The Black Wine of Thentis, which unfortunately does not appear to be online, suggests that many appearances of coffee in fiction are inspired by writer's block - the author is trying to come up with an idea, takes a coffee break, then proceeds to write coffee or something like it into the story in some form - see e.g. the Uncoffee article on TV Tropes for many examples. This may possibly be an explanation for part of the appeal of the coffee-shop AU. Katharine McCain presents a related claim in her essay "Fans Love It a Latte," writing: "The first thing we need to acknowledge is that the link between authors and coffee shops (or even just coffee in general) is quite old itself...Coffee shops have always been tied intimately to fiction, but they are tied even more closely to the writer herself. Theyare a part of our cultural understanding of what a writer is—or rather, what they are supposed to be.[10]

Writing for the Daily Dot, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw suggests that the coffee shop AU is likely "a fan-created genre," and so the appearance of coffee drinking or even coffee shops in other forms of popular media may have little to do with the coffee shop AU as a genre.[11]

In a 2011 thread on fail-fandomanon, nonnies presented a variety of explanations for the trope's popularity. One nonnie wrote:

1) fandom is a caffein and cake addict.

2) almost unrivaled opportunities for schmoop: cinnamon scents, coffee bean metaphers, yenta or intended lover regulars, small enough that an OTP running it could work

3) write what you know; the 16-year-old anime fans write high school AUs, the 20+ media fans write coffee shop AU

4) for the same reason every second hipster wants to open a cool little latte place and serve organic cupcakes, they think that working in a coffee shop is as much fun as being served in one (thus, reading about it, is like emotional chai tea or something...)[12]

Fandom-specific popularity

Stargate Atlantis also saw an explosion of Barista AUs, due to fans interpreting Rodney McKay's canonical love of coffee as caffeine addiction. Wank ensued around a story in which Ronon Dex was a barista, while the rest of the cast had positions of higher status;[13] this coincided with a general discussion of the roles Ronon and Teyla often had in SGA AUs. [14]

Barista AUs are especially popular in Bandom, in part because Jon Walker of Panic! at the Disco had actually worked as a barista prior to joining the band. He and other characters are often depicted as working in coffeeshops in College AUs.[15] Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance also has a well-documented love of/addiction to coffee, causing him to be frequently cast as a coffeeshop customer.

Mundanity is an aspect of the trope that may be related it its appeal.[16]A common additional tag for coffee shop AU works is College AU. As such, there seems to be correlation between a fandom having a large amount of College/Mundane AUs and coffee shop AUs.

In a 2019 thread on fail-fandomanon, nonnies speculated about canons in which coffee shop AUs are noticeably absent.[17]

As of February 4, 2019, there are 14,640 fanworks in the "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" tag on Archive of Our Own. The most common fandom in the tag is BTS, with 1,007 tagged works, followed by Supernatural with 758 tagged works and Teen Wolf with 583 tagged works.[18] Other tags are often used by fanwork creators on AO3 for coffee shop AUs, including "Coffee Shops" (which has 18,870 tagged works as of February 4, 2019), and so the number of works tagged "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" does not necessarily represent the total number of coffee shop AUs on AO3. Additionally, coffee shop AUs are often published as short fic and bullet-point lists on Tumblr, where the trope is also quite popular.[19]

Trope Conventions

Writing for Vox, Aja Romano describes the coffee shop AU as a popular AU subgenre: "the "coffee shop AU," in which characters are taken out of their existing storyline and placed in the context of meeting randomly in a coffee shop (usually one half of your OTP is a barista, and the other half is an annoyed, harried, caffeine-addicted patron)."[20]

On AO3, the overwhelming majority of works tagged as "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" are rated General Audiences (5.5k+ tagged works, as of February 4, 2019) or Teen And Up Audiences (5.3k+ tagged works, as of February 2019).[21] The majority of these works are slash, with 10.9k+ categorized as M/M as of February 2019.[22] The most common additional tags as of February 4, 2019 are fluff (5k+ works), Alternate Universe - College/University (2.4k+ works), and Alternate Universe - Modern Setting (2.1k+ works).[23]

Coffee shop AUs are often equated with fluffiness. While for some fans that is a drawback, for many others it is a main draw. Katharine McCain hypothesizes that the coffee shop AU lends itself particularly to fans seeking an idealistic representation of romance and affinity, writing: "It is a fantasy for any non-conforming individual, particularly the young adult, that we can exist freely as we are in comfort and safety, yet still make that existence into a form of activism by broadcasting it in a space as public as a coffee shop."[24]

In an essay published by The Mary Sue, Samantha Puc describes the pleasures of a good coffee shop AU:

Coffee shop AUs are one of the pillars of a fanfiction community, to be quite frank. Every time I dive into a new fandom, one of the first things I look for is the token coffee shop AU. Usually, I find several; that’s how I know I’m going to be in a fandom for the long-haul. Reading coffee shop AUs as a young person convinced me of something that turned out not to be true for me, but has definitely proven to be true for people I work with: true love can always be found in a coffee shop.

...

Some of my favorite coffee shop AUs stand out because they seem so normal in the grand scheme of the fandom. Draco Malfoy working in a muggle coffee shop after the war, for example, stands out because it’s hilarious to imagine Draco Malfoy as an everyday muggle barista. Clarke Griffin having a kid with her platonic life partner, Wells Jaha, but falling for the new regular at her coffee shop and creating a new kind of unconventional family with that regular’s friend and ex-girlfriend fits the themes of The 100, but with the added bonus of coffee and a cute kid.

Coffee shop AUs create interesting spaces to explore social issues (like blended families, in that The 100 fic), romance, and more. There’s even a coffee shop AU for Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Max works at a coffee shop while he learns to cope with PTSD, and Furiosa runs a mechanic shop and a shelter for abused women.[25]

Tumblr user cheezygoddess compiled a masterpost of coffee shop AU prompts, which highlights many of the themes and tropes commonly found in coffee shop AUs.[26]

Criticism

"The AO3 Tag of the Day is: Coffee shop AU"[27]

Coffee shop AUs are sometimes criticized by fans as being unrealistic[28] or overly ubiquitous. Coffee shop AUs are often criticized as rampant with OOC characterizations, or overly mundane.[29]"The "sameness" of coffee shop AUs - which can, at times, feel divorced from their canon source material - is another point of criticism for some fans.[30]

From the article Fandom Is Broken by Devin Faraci, about fandom entitlement, coffee shop and bakery AUs are mentioned in relation to criticism of fans who want fan service:

[...] There are new wrinkles for younger fans, a group that seems uninterested in conflict or personal difficulty in their narratives (look at the popularity of fan fics set in coffee shops or bakeries, which posit the characters of a comic or TV show or movie they love as co-workers having sub-sitcom level interactions. I had an argument with a younger fan on Twitter recently and she told me that what she wants out of a Captain America story is to see Steve Rogers be happy and get whatever he wants - ie, the exact opposite of what you want from good drama) [...]

For some fans, coffee shop AUs normalize workplace harassment. From a tumblr post by g-taire:

whenever i read coffeeshop aus i know immediately that the writer has never worked in a coffeeshop because it is not fun when characters like grantaire come up and starts harassing flirting with the baristas. it is not funny or amusing in anyway, it’s clenched teeth around tight smiles, and praying that the customer doesn’t come in on your shift, praying you can escape into the back before he sees you. it’s making eye contact with a fellow barista (if there’s another one on shift, i’ve worked many shifts completely alone) begging them to come save you but they don’t want to deal with that customer either. it’s hoping the customer isn’t waiting until your shift finishes to corner you, it’s them stalking following you along the bar so they can keep an eye on you and keep talking while you hum the barest of responses and make their shitty 4$ latte [...][31]

Still, other fans use their own experience working in coffee shops as further inspiration for mundane AUs with realism.[32][33][34]

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw addressed this aspect of coffee shop AUs in her article on the trope, writing:

Of course, perhaps the most fantastical aspect is the way coffee shop AUs romanticize workplace flirtation. Fanfic audiences are majority-female, and if you’ve ever worked in customer service, you’ll know that sexual harassment is a given. Barista crushes are relatable, but so is the awkwardness of a creep hitting on you at work. Coffee shop AUs provide an idealized view, where characters find love without having to deal with unwanted attention. And judging by the messages I received from fans who have worked as baristas, the genre does actually reflect the right atmosphere.[35]

Various criticisms and opinions about coffee shop AUs were recounted by nonnies in a 2017 fail-fandomanon thread titled "Disruptive And Provocative Opinions About Coffeeshop AUs."[36]

Notable Fanworks

Fanfiction

Ace Attorney:

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Bandom

Dresden Files:

Fire Emblem:

Fullmetal Alchemist:

Hawaii Five-Oh

Harry Potter:

Inception:

Mad Max: Fury Road

Merlin:

Naruto:

One Direction:

Popslash:

Sherlock:

Stargate Atlantis:

Stargate SG-1:

Suits:

Voltron: Legendary Defender:

X-Files:

Fanart

Fan vids

Reclists

External Links

Further Reading

Meta

References

  1. See Fanlore's entry for her fansite Forever.
  2. See these 2008 examples from LiveJournal - primarily popslash - here, here, here and here. Additionally, refer to this search on Fanfiction.net.
  3. 25.10.2011, The One That Left Me Twitching with a Need for the Recipes, Damn It, the RECIPES. from 221: Wish I Could Be Part of Your World by thefourthvine, accessed 29.10.2011
  4. 17.10.2011, Grande Soy Triple Dirty Chai by friskaz, accessed 29.10.2011
  5. Millennials can’t stop writing fanfiction about coffee shops by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. Published at the Daily Dot on September 28, 2018. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  6. "Alternate Universe" tag on AO3. [https://archiveofourown.org/tags/Alternate%20Universe%20-%20Coffee%20Shops%20*a*%20Caf%C3%A9s/works/ "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" tag on AO3. Accessed February 2019.
  7. ao3tagoftheday, February 2019
  8. Five Tropes Fanfic Readers Love (And One They Hate) by Flourish Klink. Published on October 27, 2016. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  9. Fans Love It a Latte: The Rise and Participatory Nature of Coffee Shop AUs by Katharine McCain. Published in The Phoenix Papers, Vol. 3, No. 1, August 2017. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  10. Fans Love It a Latte: The Rise and Participatory Nature of Coffee Shop AUs by Katharine McCain. Published in The Phoenix Papers, Vol. 3, No. 1, August 2017. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  11. Millennials can’t stop writing fanfiction about coffee shops by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. Published at the Daily Dot on September 28, 2018. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  12. Comment on fail-fandom anon. Posted on December 3, 2011. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  13. George Bush hates...baristas in Atlantis?; webcite (Accessed Oct. 29, 2011); The more you know...; webcite
  14. see String Theory, A Concerto for Violin in D Minor, Atlantis meta: time to stop and think about things, Race and Fandom
  15. Many bandom fics use the barista trope without specifically being about the coffeeshop. See, for example, Tell Me to Stop by airgiodslv, a D/S kink fic in which Jon's coffeeshop is only a secondary location. 15 January 2008. (Accessed 2 April 2012.) Another variation is the bookstore AU; see foxxcub's ?Jon's Bookstore (A Few of My Favorite Things), in which the various employees of the bookstore convince Jon to open a coffeeshop inside the store. 23 December 2007. (Accessed 2 April 2012.)
  16. "don’t you think it’s kind of funny that we have these characters with magical powers that go on incredible adventures and do amazing things and that’s really impressive but after a while we’re like “okay so what if they just owned a coffee shop. imagine them filing their taxes” - post by killuangel 2015
  17. Fail-fandomanon thread. Posted on January 15, 2019. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  18. "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" tag on AO3. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  19. Coffee shop au tag on Tumblr. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  20. Canon, fanon, shipping and more: a glossary of the tricky terminology that makes up fan culture by Aja Romano for Vox. Published on June 7, 2016. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  21. "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" tag on AO3. Accessed February 2019.
  22. "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" tag on AO3. Accessed February 2019.
  23. "Alternate Universe - Coffee Shops & Cafés" tag on AO3. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  24. Fans Love It a Latte: The Rise and Participatory Nature of Coffee Shop AUs by Katharine McCain. Published in The Phoenix Papers, Vol. 3, No. 1, August 2017. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  25. Please, Please, Please Give Me More Coffee Shop AUs by Samantha Puc for the Mary Sue. Published on July 30, 2018. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  26. Coffeeshop AU Masterpost + AUs by cheezygoddess. Posted on Jult 6, 2015. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  27. ao3tagoftheday, 2018
  28. Twitter user cynicalpie tweeted a thread of advice on how to make your coffee shop AU more realistic, pointing out many of the common misconceptions about working in a coffee shop that frequently pop up in fic. Some fans, though, pointed out that the unrealistic nature of these "mundane" AUs is exactly the point - as discussed in this fail-fandomanon exchange.
  29. Fail-fandom anon thread. Posted on August 26, 2017.
  30. [They're a decent enough premise for fluffy shipfic, but I wish they weren't so same-y across multiple fandoms. It's always either "poor stressed customer who is wooed by someone out-of-this-word amazing at making coffee/possibly baking" or "barista is also a college student and then they crush on/banter with one of the patrons," wrote one nonnie in a fail-fandomanon thread.
  31. Tumblr post by g-taire. Posted on July 11, 2017. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  32. Coffee Shop AUs I need as someone who works in a coffee shop by melissanelissa, 2017.
  33. I actually work in a coffee shop and I came up with some prompts based on my experiences at work (or what I would wish would happen to me at work) by izupie, November 2017.
  34. Im so sick of these fake coffee shop AUs that aren’t rooted in reality so here’s some situations more likely to happen by offbrandbarista, March, 2017.
  35. Millennials can’t stop writing fanfiction about coffee shops by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. Published at the Daily Dot on September 28, 2018. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  36. Fail-fandomanon thread. Posted on May 21, 2017. Accessed on February 4, 2019.
  37. Artists asks not to repost their art works
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