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Food ticket exhibit captures the culture of a coffee shop

Nearly 2,000 food order tickets cover the wall at Butterfly Herbs coffee shop. When the back door opens, the wind often makes them flutter, giving the illusion that the wall itself is moving. Each ticket documents an order—bagel, salad, soup—and gives a short description of the customer so servers know to whom they should deliver the order. The descriptions are brief and curious, like "Red lipstick," "multiple green coats," "the sleepy girl," "dark blue Waldo" and "French girl." Some display actual names, like "Cindy, et al," indicating regular customers who've established a first name basis with the employees.

The wall of tickets is an art installation titled Butterfly Herbus Regularis created by local artists and partners Nathan McTague and Natalie Christiensen. Aesthetically, the pale green and white tickets add subtle color to the wall, while the sheer quantity of them provides a stunning effect. The information on the tickets themselves gives a sort of forensic study of a coffee shop that's known for its diverse customer base. In fact, it could be argued that there are few places in Missoula besides Butterfly—the oldest coffee shop in town—where this kind of installation would make sense.

click to enlarge Nathan McTague and Natalie Christensen’s art installation, Butterfly Herbus Regularis, consists of close to 2,000 food tickets collected over the last two years at the downtown coffee shop. “It’s very much a thank you to this place, and it’s sort of a mirror,” says McTague, who has worked at Butterfly Herbs since 1998. “It catalogs interactions of people—employees and customers—who make this place eclectic.”
  • Nathan McTague and Natalie Christensen’s art installation, Butterfly Herbus Regularis, consists of close to 2,000 food tickets collected over the last two years at the downtown coffee shop. “It’s very much a thank you to this place, and it’s sort of a mirror,” says McTague, who has worked at Butterfly Herbs since 1998. “It catalogs interactions of people—employees and customers—who make this place eclectic.”

"This show catalogs the community hub that this place is," says McTague. "It's an eclectic group in the largest possible sense. It's almost like a safe zone where the 19-year-old grungy punk can be sitting down playing chess with the 78-year-old conservative guy. That's sort of expected, that intermingling."

McTague and Christensen acknowledge the culture with a tongue-in-cheek artists' statement, which reads like a government letter from the fictional department of the "United States Federal Government of Cultural and Sociological Awareness." It states: "The following is a sampling of data and material collected between September 2006 and January 2010. This material clearly indicates Butterfly Herbus Regularis' primary goal: to attain nourishment, both social- and substance-based. Butterfly Herbus Regularis commonly drinks coffee and eats bagels. The feeding grounds are often quite populated."

The Butterfly project started two years ago when McTague, an on and off employee of the coffee bar since 1998, began saving order tickets in the hopes that the paper waste could be used in some artistic manner.

"I didn't know what I'd do with them," McTague says, "whether I would use them as a canvas or make paper mâché out of them."

Christensen, on the other hand, watched as the tickets piled up in the couple's already stuffed house; Christensen and McTague have three young children. She wondered if it was worth it.

"He was bringing home stacks to our tiny house," she says, laughing, "and I am not a collector. I'm like, 'What are you doing?' But then I read a guerrilla art book about art that you do with what's available, wherever you want to. So then I started to get on board."

They decided not to alter the tickets, except to stamp them with a few symbols—a bagel for bagel orders, "stay" if the customer eats at the shop, and a mark for whether the customer was male or female.

"We realized what we're stamping is actual relationships and interactions," says Christensen. "It's like people watching through their food orders. It's a shred of evidence you're trying to work with."

They didn't come to exact conclusions about people through food orders, but patterns did emerge. They found that women tend to order skinny lattes and cucumbers and that it's rare that two men order together even if they're seated together. They could tell the season and even the day sometimes by how a customer is described. A "plaid scarf and parka" probably means winter and "girl with flowers in hair" often indicates someone who's just visited the summer farmers' market.

The tickets sometimes hint at relationship changes when, for instance, a regular customer appears alone for several orders and then, suddenly, begins showing up with a companion.

A ticket can also hint at the personality or mood of an employee; describing a customer in just a few short words is a subjective matter. "Cute guy Nicaragua blue" and "Hot guy with glasses," perhaps gives away temporary attractions or secret admirations of employees for customers.

There are just a few negative descriptions, but nothing out of line. If a customer's consistently stingy, he or she might be described as "Non-tipper."

Part of the installation also includes a tally of names that appear most often on food orders. Some common names like "Dave" (which shows up 43 times) and "Steve" (23 times) actually refer to six different regulars with those names. Variations on other names—"Janine/Jeannine/Genine"—are also lumped together, whereas there's only one "Bjorn" and one "Wally." It's not a science, but McTague says it was another way to share data and, in part, pay tribute to at least some regulars.

As a longtime employee, McTague also recognized that some regulars wouldn't show up on tickets because they only get coffee or they're such institutions at Butterfly they don't need a ticket. For them, the artists' statement offers this tribute: "There is a subset of Butterfly Herbus Regularis that appears with such frequency as to find no need to officially order. Their movements go undocumented."

McTague say they've gotten a wide range of reactions to the installation. Art seekers sometimes look puzzled as they peruse the wall, not quite sure what they're looking at. Frequenters of the coffee shop often scan for their name to verify their history with the place. Meanwhile, the employees continue to collect tickets out of habit.

"And, in fact, I can't turn them off," laughs McTague. "I told them that we're done, but they're still piling them up. It makes me realize though, Natalie and I take credit for the show but it's obviously—with employees and customers—a total collaboration."

Butterfly Herbus Regularis continues on display at Butterfly Herbs through the end of January. Free.

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