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Tired of leaky lids, coffee guzzlers seek the perfect fit

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Prospect Perk coffee shop in the the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn offers the dome lid and the flat lid. (Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman for CNS)

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Different lids have proliferated in the coffee carrying industry. (Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman for CNS)

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The classic flat pull-back lid. (Photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman for CNS)

When Robin Warshaw goes to Dunkin’ Donuts for a caffeine fix, she never gets the small coffee, even if she’s only hankering for a petite-sized wake-up call. Instead, Warshaw has to order a larger size to get a dome lid instead of a flat one.

“I will buy a medium to get the lid I want,” says Warshaw, who goes so far as to boycott establishments that serve coffee topped with lids she can’t stand, among them the flat lids with a flimsy peel-back tab. Warshaw complains that they scratch her lip, making for an unpleasant drinking experience. “I don’t know whether it’s the shape of my mouth or whether it’s sensitive,” she says with a measure of exasperation. That lid, she says, “was only created by sadists.”

With nearly half of American adults drinking on average more than three cups of coffee daily, the search for the perfect cup of joe often boils down to the lid, and retailers seem to be taking notice with ever growing options—flat, dome, tear-away, lock-back, twist and slide. These days, it’s not uncommon to find lids with strategically designed grooves where overflowing coffee can pool, and interlocking, moving and removable parts.

“If I’m gonna pay someone for my coffee, I want the experience to be pleasant,” Warshaw insists. Not even a recession can deter her. “It’s a measure of our culture,” she says. “Everything’s crashing around us,” but it’s OK to complain about the coffee.

Alison Blackman, a freelance writer who professes that she can’t live without coffee, thinks of her daily encounter with coffee lids as a never-ending battle. The flat peel-back ones never catch properly, she complains, and they invariably end up chafing her nose.

“I don’t like being attacked by my beverage,” she says. Once, while covering fashion Week in New York City and after being on her feet all day, the only thing she wanted was a rejuvenating liquid jolt of caffeine. But when she grabbed her cup, “the lid just popped off like it was possessed,” Blackman says, spilling all over her. She ended up having to buy a new skirt.

Even with all the lid options available today the ideal coffee-to-go experience can still be peppered with potential land mines. So the tinkering continues. An Australian company recently invented a smart lid that changes color from red to brown when the beverage beneath is cool enough to drink. The medium and large coffees at Dunkin’ Donuts come secured in a dome lid featuring a plastic locking arm that allows for a re-closeable spout.

The plastic arm can be popped out and removed from the lid entirely. Other elements, according to McCall Gosselin, a Dunkin’ Brands Inc. spokeswoman, include an “elevated platform,” a “three-dimensional lip relief, designed to make sipping easier,” and a snugger fit around the cup. Last year, little green swizzle sticks started to appear on Starbucks counters. Known as splash sticks, they plug neatly into the small sip hole on Starbucks’ dome lids.

Los Angeles resident Kathryn Alice says that when she discovered the sticks, she was thrilled. The devoted Starbucks drinker used to regard the signature dome lids as a necessary evil. She blamed the lids for a stained stroller, a sticky diaper bag, even a near-ruined BMW transmission (when coffee spilled into the gear shift), not to mention an untold number of garment stains.

“Coffee lids are inherently poor design,” says Bill Shadrach, who has worked in product design and marketing for companies such as Coca-Cola and Sunshine Biscuit, where he patented the “flap coupon,” a coupon printed onto a hinged flap of a carton.

As a longtime coffee drinker, Shadrach concedes that some recloseable lids do a decent job of preventing spills, but he says they require a lot of fumbling if someone has only one free hand or is driving. The same goes for the harder-to-come by rotating lids.

Shadrach complains that it’s never an intuitive decision about which direction opens and which closes.

“The problem with those,” he says, “is that in order to get them to work, you have to look at them. If you’re driving in a car, that’s not a good thing.”

Shadrach, 57, of Salt Lake City, says he was tired of having coffee slosh down the console of his car every time he hit a pothole or speed bump, so he decided to design a lid that he thinks could be the end to coffee-guzzling woes. He has a patent pending on a plastic lid design that imitates traveler mugs, with a sliding push-pull nub to open or close the lid. The prototype features indentations that catch in the drink and vent holes, which allows pressure to equalize and prevents what he calls the “geyser effect” of the sort Blackman experienced.

“The lid is an important part of the overall brand experience,” says Andrew Hetzel, a marketing consultant to coffee roasters and retailers. Though many coffee lovers claim that the brew is paramount, while others cite the location of a cafe as key, Hetzel maintains that the most important elements of a consumer’s experience are the ones they aren’t thinking about. “It’s the little things,” he says.

But the little things can come at a cost. The convenience of a dome lid means an extra few cents, an expense that gets passed on to the consumer, according to retailers.

There’s also the environmental toll of dumping all those oil-based plastic lids to consider. Americans go through more than 17 million disposable coffee cups a year, according to International Paper, a leading paper and packaging product supplier. Eco-Products, the nation’s largest distributor of compostable food service items, is expected to introduce the first-ever biodegradable coffee lid this spring.

But all these new bells and whistles don’t mean the classic flat lid, still the standard for many vendors, will disappear. On a recent Sunday at Champignon, a cafe in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, Bobby Rivers, a television actor and local talk-show host, popped in for an afternoon coffee on his way home. Champignon offers customers the option of a flat or dome lid, but Rivers, who likes his coffee black, opted for the flat one.

“Coffee’s getting too fancy,” he says. “When the economy gets as bad as it is now, you want to go back to basics.”

Besides, “I grew up with this lid,” Rivers says. “It reminds me of my dad.”

E-mail: jct2136@columbia.edu