One afternoon in June, three schoolboys wearing gray uniforms with thin black ties walked into Viva Café, a small coffee shop tucked away in La California neighborhood of San José, looking for a glass of water.
“When they asked for water, the barista told them that we had a new program called ‘Café Pendiente’ and that they were welcome to have a coffee instead,” said café owner Leda Sánchez.
Café Pendiente, or “pending coffee,” is an anonymous act of charity where someone buys a cup of coffee for someone else who cannot afford one.
A few days later, the boys returned and bought their own pending coffees to pay it forward.
This small gesture of kindness is gaining steam in Costa Rica as a movement dedicated to lending a hand to those in need while promoting locally owned businesses.
The group celebrated their first three weeks handing out drinks to thirsty passersby on Tuesday. At this writing, there are six participating cafés in the country from San José to the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
The tradition originated in Naples, Italy, over 100 years ago where it is known as caffè sospeso, according to National Public Radio, but the century-old tradition made a comeback during the recent Eurozone debt crisis. From there, the idea caught on across Europe as a sign of social solidarity. In Spain, the term “café pendiente” became popular and made its way across the Atlantic to Argentina, Colombia, Chile and now Costa Rica.
Café Pendiente Costa Rica organizer Margarita Durán said in a telephone interview that she and several other friends heard about the program in other countries and decided to bring it here.
Alberto Chacón, a barista at Ecomercado in San Pedro, east of San José, said that people are always surprised when they hear about the offer. One woman who has been selling small wears, like powdered-drink mixes, in the neighborhood for 13 years came in one afternoon to sit down for a while and enjoy a cup of Joe.
“I try to make them feel comfortable, sometimes they’re very timid,” Chacón said in a phone interview. “They don’t have someone to sit and drink coffee with so I talk to them. They’re people like anyone else. I tell them to come back any time.”
Chacón added that two weeks ago a woman called in an order of 16 pending coffees.
Sánchez said that her participation in the movement has been a boon for business. The café owner said that Café Pendiente’s promise of small-scale social impact has bolstered traffic at her recently opened café, the first in Costa Rica to participate in Café Pendiente.
Durán noted that no one would have to prove their need to receive a pending coffee but hoped that they were going to people who really need it.
“No one is going to ask for I.D.,” she said.
When asked about whether or not businesses would just pocket the pending coffees, Durán said that the program is, in part, about building trust and good will between people.
“Ticos aren’t very trusting,” Durán observed, “but deep down, they have a good heart.”
While they put a premium on trust, Café Pendiente Costa Rica is also selective about which businesses they accept. Durán said that there has been such an outpouring of interest, with more than 20 businesses lining up to join the movement, that some have adopted the charitable act on their own.
Despite strong interest, however, the group is moving slowly with its expansion. Café Pendiente Costa Rica is a brand of sorts and organizers want to be sure that cafés that sign up reflect their goals and ensure fair access to donated beverages.
“Obviously we don’t have a monopoly on other people’s generosity but there are certain benefits we can offer” those who officially participate in the program, Durán said, including publicity and a seal of approval for those looking for quality local businesses.
The ideal Café Pendiente establishment is locally owned, artisanal and must be willing to allow people of all walks of life into their establishment for drinks.
Durán said that as they slowly expand and build the program’s brand they are reaching out to community groups that work with the homeless and other vulnerable groups to promote Café Pendiente and its red-and-blue coffee cup logo as a place where they can rest and enjoy a hot drink.
While coffee is the most popular item shared, participating restaurants offer alternatives like lemonade, soda or water.
Durán said that they are working on ways to expand the giving to food, too.
One bakery in Alajuela, north of San José, expressed interest in setting up a similar program for their baked goods. If the program continues to thrive, the next one might well be “Cupcake Pendiente.”