The means is also the end

I used to get baffled by the price differences between local cuisine and foreign cuisine in Taipei’s restaurant scene. I may enter a noodle shop (麵 in Chinese term), have a delicious bowl of beef and tomato noodle, and pay 80NT (= US$3). Add “Italian” to the name (義大利麵, meaning pasta), mince the beef and tomato and garlic, make it soup-less, and wow—the price has doubled (while the flavor, as well as my appetite, has been halved). Tripling the price by adding some coffee, salad, and dessert is optional.

I blame our Asian mindset, the automatic admiration of anything that comes from the West. But soon I realize: why aren’t everybody converting from beef noodle into pasta business? Beef noodle is a tough business. The margin is low and the customers are fussy—every Taiwanese knows what a great beef noodle is, and everybody has a different opinion on that topic. Isn’t it logical to convert your stand into a pasta joint and enter the blue ocean?

But if I add time into equation, a different story emerges. In a Taiwanese noodle stand, it takes less than 5 minutes to prepare a dish. Since I will be sitting on a tiny chair with no back rest, the food will be consumed quickly within 15 minutes: 20 minutes total. In a Western restaurant (or a pasta joint), if I order a set menu, I will be spending an hour. 60 minutes in total, which is equal to three Taiwanese beef noodle customers.

Therefore, from the point of the restaurant, serving a beef noodle with 80NT or a pasta course with three times as much price (240NT) might not make that much of difference—provided that customers flow in at the same rate. Both options make sense.

From the paying customers’ point of view, the choice comes down to cheap & fast or expensive & slow. Take the fast-food course to appease your hunger quickly and get back to work, or go for the expensive and slow one to throw sales pitches to your clients or persuade a girl or bond with your family. Again, both options make sense.

For us consumers, it goes down to the choice of how our time is going to be spent. If it is just for ourselves, why spend our time on it? We got to consume time, the most important resource in our life (more so than money), on something that counts—to build relationships (關係).

And therefore, although we are eating in one of the greatest mix of cuisines in the world, food isn’t the center of our attention. What we should achieve at the end of the dining ritual is what matters, be it efficiency, contract, love, or family bonding. Eating is an investment. Is this worth spending xx hours and xxxNT? There goes the fast/cheap or slow/expensive matrix.

However, recently I have been seeing changes in Taipei’s eating-out scene: the rise of casual café. Elegantly designed, modern, and relaxing coffee shops are popping up everywhere. People sit down to drink, talk, or browse Internet on a porch facing the street.

The new wave of coffee shops are different from the previous generation in two fronts: 1. They are inexpensive. A quality brew costs only 60 to 120 NT, far lower than 180 a cup at—yes—Starbucks. 2. They are catered for individuals. Most tables are equipped with two seats, which often translates into one person + his/her bag.

Finally, we have a new combination in the matrix: cheap & slow. (What about expensive & fast? It exists, and it is called sushi. Let’s get over it, shall we?) We order inexpensive food (drink) and spend a long time with it. People sit down idly, chat or browse or do nothing over a cup of coffee. There aren’t many “goals” that have to be accomplished. Customers are enjoying just being there.

From an old person’s point of view, they might look “isolated.” I do not disagree. We are well aware of our separated modern lifestyle. But I think we are also finally getting back our lost treasure: time. We aren’t necessarily drinking coffee and sitting idly to reach somewhere, where it is our office or a give-and-take agreement. We just want to be there, be ourselves. The means is also the end.

When we talk about the emerging individuality in Asian cultures, the rising social positions of women or X-generation millionaires does not pop into my head. What I see is people taking back the most important resource, the time, into their own hands, on busy streets. That might not be efficient, but is humane.