When Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke arrived for a campaign stop at Beancounter Coffeehouse in Burlington, Iowa, he hopped right up on the shop’s counter and addressed the masses below. During a visit to Narrow Way Cafe in Detroit, Michigan, O’Rourke grabbed a microphone and scrambled up onto the counter. At Sing-A-Long Bar and Grill in Mount Vernon, Iowa? You bet he got up on that counter.
Critics have accused O’Rourke of running on a vague political platform. But there’s one platform the Democratic hopeful openly stands on: the sturdy countertops of Midwest cafes. After a week of stump speeches from a perch next to the cash register, Beto’s countertop habit has become a meme. And some of the nation’s baristas are asking him to please get down from there.
Josh Wilson is the owner of Cohesive Coffee in Greenville, South Carolina. He said he could envision himself voting for O’Rourke, but still wouldn’t want him standing on his counter.
“As a cafe owner, the way the picture shows doesn’t make sense,” Wilson said of a picture of O’Rourke squatting on a counter to listen to a woman standing on the ground. “I would understand standing on the counter because the crowd was so big, although organizing it would be better. But he’s kneeled down. It seems like a photo opp that wasn’t necessary. His feet are right by the cups.”
“I’m sure he had a reason,” Wilson continued. “But it seems like just standing would work. Beto seems to be trying harder and harder to find ways to show he’s an ‘Everyman.’”
Connor Finnegan, a Brooklyn coffee shop manager, said if O’Rourke comes to his cafe, he’s “definitely not” getting on the counter. “He can be heard and seen perfectly well standing on the ground,” he said, citing the 6’4” candidate’s height.
“I'd say it's safe as long as he keeps his balance,” Finnegan added. “Acoustics are fine, no cafe in NYC is gonna be too big for him.”
Part of the perch’s appeal might be its impromptu appearance. O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, recently lost a close Senate race against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, campaigning as an approachable dude who skateboarded in parking lots and played the air drums while waiting in the Whataburger drive-through. He took the casual approach to questionable lengths when he posted footage of his dentist appointment on Instagram. In his Senate campaign and his presidential campaign, O’Rourke focused his outreach efforts on social media, a theater that places candidates at risk of becoming memes.
The countertop stage also suggests an energy his would-be general election competition lacks.
“It's silly to me that Beto spends like half his waking hours hopping on the countertops of coffee shops across Iowa,” Deadspin writer David Roth tweeted Monday, “but—and I assume this is part of the point—I am enjoying the mental image of Trump wheezily humping himself up onto a table at a Ruth's Chris in Ottumwa.”
But stunts can lose their charm when they’re recognized as stunts. Erica Garbarini, who works in a Brooklyn cafe, said she worried about the logistics of a countertop speech.
“Buildings in old cities are old,” she said. “My counter hasn’t been renovated or reinforced in 15 years. Would it hold his weight? I have no idea! I would be worried about his weight literally breaking the counter the entire time.”
The countertop perch isn’t necessary, she said.
“As for acoustics, he would be better off to just get a megaphone and stand on a chair like everyone else.”
In days of old, O’Rourke might have stood on a soapbox. But with the dwindling of America’s true public spaces and the rise of smartphones, countertops have taken on a new role as a stage for class conflict and viral stunts. An entire microgenre of cellphone videos documents fast food customers losing their temper at workers across a register, sometimes hurling themselves across the counter barrier and collapsing the fragile order of the Taco Bell checkout line. When then-President Barack Obama leaned over a Chipotle counter to point at his desired burrito toppings, the nation erupted in bipartisan disgust. When an aggrieved Rick and Morty fan wanted to go viral, he stood up on a McDonald’s counter and screamed while employees studiously ignored him.
With the growing dearth of public spaces post-World War II, malls and coffee shops have acted as a stand-in for common areas, as discussed by Vox recently. It might come as little surprise, then, that major coffee franchise Starbucks has tried to brand itself as a public forum for difficult national conversations. In an ill-fated 2015 campaign, Starbucks’ then-CEO Howard Schultz suggested healing the nation’s centuries-old racist divide by writing “race together” on disposable coffee cups to inspire conversations about racism between customers and workers. Schultz is currently teasing a presidential run based on the notion that, as a centrist independent, he can unify the country. He has offered few concrete policy proposals.
O’Rourke has found himself facing some of the same criticisms as Schultz. His policy platform is sparse, but expected to fall considerably to the right of opponents like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But where Schultz has broadly failed to inspire, O’Rourke raised more than $6 million within 24 hours of announcing his campaign. In Mount Vernon, Iowa, where O’Rourke hopped up on a counter, voters praised his character, if not his policy proposals.
“I tend to agree with some of the stories,” Anne Phillips told BuzzFeed News of critical coverage of O’Rourke, “but I look at him and he’s the only one that gives me that hope.”
If push came to shove, Wilson would let O’Rourke stand on his counter. But it wouldn’t be his first choice.
“I think it would depend on the need. If it was a crazy busy meet and greet and it was needed, not a problem. But I’d rather rent a stage or something,” he said. “I’d have him closer to my point of sale register, not on my espresso machine.”