I’d Rather Be at Friendly Grounds
by Susan Long

I fell in love with the coffee house scene the first time I visited Friendly Grounds.  Friday and Saturday nights brought release from the week and I was able to spend my time congregating with friends, drinking white mochas, and listening to a local band.  When I left New Jersey I immediately missed the joy that Friendly Grounds had so often bestowed upon me.  I did eventually find haven in Clay Café and although it is located in Gastonia, North Carolina, it is always worth the drive.  I can no longer count the times I have been there but it never seems to give the same satisfaction that Friendly Grounds did.  When compared in terms of price, quality of the coffee, and atmosphere, Friendly Grounds is the most desirable location for any coffee experience.  
Clay Café was never more or less expensive than the average coffee house, but they recently raised the prices of all their menu items.  I learned from talking to the employees that the owner’s philosophy on making money when business is slow is simply to raise prices.  What someone used to pay for a medium drink they pay for a small drink and so on.  Unfortunately, this recent price change made their coffee more expensive than Friendly Grounds.  Since money is usually tight for college students, this does put us in a bind. Clearly, the owner does not care because he decided to cater his business toward the upper class population of Gastonia and this population has no problem with the drinks being more expensive.  I used to look forward to my half price crème brulée flavored coffee on Saturday morning, but weekly promotions such as these were recently put to rest.  However, Clay Café does have rechargeable gift cards and you receive a free coffee every time you add more money.  I hope the prices do not continue to rise so I can always enjoy excellent coffee without spending my entire pay check.
Although Clay Café keeps increasing prices, I have never seen Friendly Grounds change theirs.  They do not need to be as expensive, mostly because their coffee house is catered to high school and college students.  If the prices significantly increased, they would without a doubt lose a substantial sum of their business.  The coffee house does have daily specials, such as half price lattes and buy one get one free regular coffee.  Increasing ticket prices to see a band play is one of the most popular promotions they offer.  This might seem unfair at first, but this covers everyone’s first drink.  They also have frequent customer cards and every tenth coffee you purchase is free.  Although these things are small, Friendly Grounds realizes it is what the customers want and what keeps us coming back.
Along with price you also have to consider quality of the coffee.  My favorite thing at Clay Café is the Godiva chocolate and white chocolate powder.  The drinks are like silk from the second the froth touches your lips to the moment the last drop goes down your throat.  They have the perfect balance of espresso and flavor and of milk and froth.  Clay Café also uses DaVinci syrups that never taste fake or old.  Nothing jazzes up a dark roast coffee like a splash of vanilla syrup.  On the other hand, some consumers feel that it is a sin to add any flavor to the already perfect coffee.  The coffee beans are so wonderful because they come from Stockton and Graham, a more local, smaller roaster and they never taste burnt or bitter.  This foundation of every cup is absolutely ideal and it is really up to the barista to make it into a work of art.  There are a relatively small number of employees but I have found that, in general, two different employees don’t make any given drink the same.  When I visit Clay Café, I have to be extremely specific about what I want.  For example, I can not say I want an iced caramel macchiato; I have to say I want a caramel macchiato over ice with two shots of espresso and two percent milk.  It is good to use high-quality ingredients, but I feel that inconsistency defeats the purpose.   
Unlike Clay Café, Friendly Grounds uses chocolate and white chocolate sauces.  Sometimes these can enhance any burnt, bitter taste from the beans but at the same time they can make the drink taste more like sugar than the flavor you wanted.  My favorite beverage is a mocha nut latte.  I always thought it was the perfect balance of hazelnut and chocolate but I realized that this drink was very rich.  It is so smooth and silky, but I realized that it tasted more like hot chocolate than coffee.  Another factor that contributes to this is that the espresso alone is considerably sweeter.  During one visit, the grounds were not as friendly to me as I had hoped; they were burnt.  This has only happened to me once and I hope I am never that unlucky again.    One key advantage Friendly Grounds has is that the drinks are always the same.  I would expect this to be the opposite because there are many more employees there.  I imagine they have a better training program because everyone knows the right way to do things.  One thing I wish the baristas would do is remember my drink.  I used to go to Friendly Grounds at least three times a week and no one ever knew what I liked.  Remembering someone’s drink is such a small thing that can improve not only their day but their experience at the coffee house. 
Regardless of how excellent or terrible the coffee is, you can not enjoy it if the atmosphere does not meet your expectations.  When you walk into Clay Café, the first thing you notice is the abundance of lighting.  This one minute element makes the café look very uninviting.  No one wants to be blinded before their vital, first morning cup of coffee.  When I go somewhere I want to see friendly, smiling faces but everyone sitting in the café keeps to themselves and always looks so stressed out.  This is because most of the customers spending the afternoon in the café are business professionals who are so focused on their cell phones and laptops that they don’t even recognize a friendly smile or salutation.  These people send such an tremendously negative vibe into the air.  One of the best places to get away from that is on the big, comfy, blue couch in the corner.  There you can view paintings from local artists hung on the orange and yellow sponge painted wall.  The café does break from stress on Friday nights when there is a band performing and seats are filled with college students.  Although these nights are limited, when they do happen, they are a lot of fun.  Clay Café should really listen to their customers and find out what would work best for us. 
Unlike Clay Café, Friendly Grounds always creates the perfect atmosphere for any college student.  As soon as you walk through the doorway you can tell that it’s a lot more warm, comfortable, and inviting by not only the dark, red wood of the walls and ceiling but the soft vocal murmur as well.  The muted lights hanging from the ceiling create a mood to make you feel like you are at home in your living room.  Along with the many tables there are big couches and chairs for customers to relax in.  There is a stage area next to the doorway where local bands perform at least three nights a week.  Usually there is an abundance of friends to hang out with so you would not want to go anywhere else.  If there is not a band performing, there is never a shortage of musicians playing around on the piano or writing songs on their guitars.  Anyone could literally spend hours their doing homework, playing board games, socializing, or simply relaxing and reading a book.  Another nice element is if it is a regular, steady night, the baristas will wait on you at your table.  There are also seats at the bar that allow you to really get to know the baristas.  They are all very personable and love to both listen to and share stories and advice.  With every piece of the environment in Friendly Grounds put together, it becomes a wonderful, friendly, and inviting place to spend your time. 
Both Clay Café and Friendly Grounds are independently owned coffee shops that have the potential to be very convenient and pleasant places for college students to not only enjoy their new coffee creations but relax and get away from the many stresses of school and work.  These coffee houses are two places that have had a big impact on my life in terms of meeting new people and having somewhere to go when I was over the edge with stress.  Although the coffee is superior at Clay Café, it tends to be inconsistent.  Friendly Grounds is the better choice of the two because it is not only cheaper but it has the most amazing atmosphere.  If you want every part of your coffee consumption to be filled with joy the visit Friendly Grounds because I promise you will not be disappointed.