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Gimme a (coffee) break

With the opening of more and more coffee houses downtown, some people wonder if Buffalo is really a coffee town. Buffalo is the original coffee town!
The “coffee break” which is taken for granted as a standard part of any work day has only been around for about a hundred years. Coffee culture has continued to flourish in this country and the espresso boom of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s has seen to it that every other gas station in America now has a barista on staff. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but not farr off. The phenomenon of the coffee break is credited with being invented and promoted first in Buffalo, NY. While Seattle has the Starbucks HQ and endless street corner vendors of mud, Buffalo may well have started the slow and steady need for coffee refills to get us through the day. According to this NPR story of 2002, the coffee break was invented around 1901 in Buffalo either at the Larkin Company (no doubt an Elbert Hubbard scheme to get workers hopped up on caffeine, thus increase productivity without their overt knowledge) or at the Barcolo Company (maker of the Barcolounger)

Wayne Stephens makes this claim: “In 1902, the Barcolo Manufacturing Company in Buffalo, N.Y., started giving its employees coffee breaks. To our knowledge, that was the first time that had ever happened in American industry,” says Stephens, CEO of Barcalounger, the company (now based in North Carolina) that began as Barcolo.
Though the company’s historical records are somewhat sketchy, Stephens cites old newspaper reports quoting a Barcolo executive as saying, “The employees felt like they needed a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break… and one of the employees volunteered to heat the coffee up on a kerosene-fueled hot plate. The employees paid for the coffee… and started taking, obviously with the approval of management, about a 10- to 15-minute, mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee break.”
But elsewhere in Buffalo, historian Stanger makes a coffee break counterclaim. In the ledgers of the now-defunct Larkin Company — a Buffalo firm that started by producing soap, and ended up as a big mail-order house — Stanger found a 1901 entry on free coffee to employees. Larkin and Barcolo did business together, Stanger told Stamberg, so it’s possible that Larkin gave free coffee to workers, but didn’t give them time out to drink it. And it’s possible that someone at Larkin mentioned the free coffee to someone at Barcolo, and Barcolo turned the idea into a coffee break.

Either way, Buffalo invented the coffee break.

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