Young man sits at outdoor table with laptop and coffee drink
Hospitality Marketing

Embracing the Third Place

Three young women sip iced coffees at a shaded picnic table, each absorbed in their respective laptops and textbooks. A mother walks her toddler over to the bubbling waterfall, pointing out the bright orange koi fish in the pond below. 

Nearby, friends laugh over midday beers and baskets of wings, fingers stained orange from hot sauce. Chickens scratch in their coop, looking for tasty grubs. And I sit at my own table, americano at my elbow, while I write. 

I’m at Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden, a place in South Austin that defies an easy definition. They serve coffee, beer, and cocktails. There’s an indoor cafe and a big garden patio. There are food trucks for all-day noshing. People gather with workout buddies after a climb at the bouldering gym next door. They meet up with other couples. They gossip over beers. They work. They read. 

It’s a “third place,” a term coined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place (1989). In contrast to home (the “first place”) or work (the “second place”), third places are community builders that support social connection. These spaces are sometimes free and sometimes not, but they are accessible for informal gatherings outside of the realms of home and work. 

Where have the third places gone?

In Paris, the streetside cafes are infamous third places where you can enjoy a coffee or a glass of wine all day long. In Barcelona, people bring their families to open squares where the kids can play while the adults chat with friends. In Munich, 100+ beer gardens even have shared tables to create a group experience and foster connection (and yes, kids are welcome). 

Streetfront cafe in Paris with red awning and sign that reads "Aux Tours de Notre Dame"
Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz

But third places have long been dwindling in the United States. Oldenburg blamed zoning restrictions, which prohibit commercial businesses like cafés in residential areas. Another factor is suburban car culture, which discourages the kind of casual come-and-go vibe of the third place. When you have to pack into the car and find parking, the third place becomes a “destination” rather than somewhere to breeze in. Combined, these cultural factors discourage the unplanned gatherings that third places are meant to encourage.

Still, we do have some third places here in the U.S. Churches can fulfill that need, but they are by nature exclusionary of anyone who doesn’t share the same beliefs. Public parks are a more “all are welcome” option, as are public libraries and gyms. (Although in these days of podcasts and playlists, very little connection is happening at the gym as we all work out in the bubble of our respective headphones.)

Perhaps the best-known third place is the coffee shop, where you can work, write, read, or meet friends for the nominal fee of a $3 cup of coffee. All-day cafés go further, offering coffee at 7:00am or a cocktail at midnight. Where I live in Austin, these spaces are popular and proliferating. 

I also consider my coworking space in South Austin to be “third-place adjacent.” Yes, I go there to work. But I also go there to be in my community. We gather at long, shared tables, each of us engrossed in our own respective projects. We know each other by sight, say hello in the kitchen, get used to each other’s habits, joke about how there are never enough power strips. It gets me out of the house and into real clothes, and it’s done wonders to help me feel more connected to the city around me. 

Does your space have “third place” appeal?

In South Austin, Cosmic is far from the only thriving third place. Radio Coffee and Beer is another, offering coffee and booze in a wood-lined bar area with a roomy outdoor patio and food trucks. And Meanwhile Brewing positions itself as a family-friendly third place with food trucks and beer, live music stage, soccer fields and even a playground. 

But your space doesn’t have to sprawl to fit the bill. It’s more about the welcome than the square footage. 

Places with food trucks rather than in-house kitchens tend to do well as third places, because there is no expectation that customers will order a meal. Part of the third space appeal is that it doesn’t have to be costly. 

This can be difficult for restaurants to navigate, as they don’t want to lose tables to people who aren’t ordering food. A possible solution? A seating area that is not full service. This could be a living room-style space with sofas and lounge chairs, or a drink rail against a wall or on a porch or patio. 

If you have an event venue, can it double as a community hub? This may require some investment, as you do need to offer people something. My coworking space, for example, has hot coffee, sparkling water, and snacks available, all included in our monthly fee.

Of course, it’s also important that your gathering place be available. My coworking space has two separate rooms and a backyard. Even if one room and the backyard are rented out, the coworking room is open 24/7. Your third space loses that welcoming vibe if it’s closed several times each month for private events.

overhead shot of three women working on laptops on a shared wooden table
Photo by CoWomen

Being outdoors is not a requirement of third places, but it does seem to be a common feature. The cafes of Paris usually have tables spilling onto the sidewalk, and the plazas of Barcelona are open-air. Here in Austin, many third places have large beer gardens and patios. These outdoor spaces blur the line between private and public, encouraging passersby to join in the fun. 

You do more than serve food. You serve the community.

Working online and mostly from home, I find myself thinking more about community these days. 

When you’re young, you usually attend school and may have social extracurriculars like sports or the arts. Spending this time with your peers creates a sense of community without much effort. 

When we get older, our community may shift to the workplace. But the social norms at work are far different from those in school, and it can be difficult to make connections in a place where you have to stay professional. Plus, as more and more of us work online and/or from home, the opportunity to gather is further restricted, and we feel increasingly isolated. 

The hospitality industry is uniquely positioned to be a force for good in the search for community. You don’t just serve food or drinks, or rent space for weddings and events. You create a third place, a much-needed in-between that lets us get out of our bubbles and into the world. And the more we live and work in the isolation of the technological world, the more and more important those spaces become. 

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