Do yourself a favor when you speak to Bill Levey about takeout coffee cup lids: begin the conversation only after you’ve finished your morning cup, and savor every last sip of it. Because it will be the last you drink with your innocence intact.
When Levey tells you that “coffee lids are one of the main exposed and mishandled food service item out there,” and that a 2010 study by the University of Arizona found up to 17% of the lids stacked by the sugar and milk in coffee shops everywhere are already contaminated with fecal matter, he does so with enthusiasm of a bottled water vendor anticipating a natural disaster. As Levey talks about flu season and even Ebola, you will find yourself staring at those stacks of coffee cup lids, so recently an innocuous part of your daily landscape, and see danger. And then, like Levey, you will see opportunity.
For the past seven years, Levey has been working to invent a hygienically sealed takeout coffee cup lid that he calls Clean Coffee. In essence, it is a standard plastic takeout lid with an adhesive seal covering the drinking hole and part of the rim, which can be peeled off like a sticker once the user is ready to drink from it. “This is the simplest way to accomplish that objective,” Levey says of his patented prototype’s design, for which he’s currently working to secure a manufacturer.
Though he grew up tinkering with radios and other home electronics, Levey was working as a corporate lawyer in New York when the idea came to him. “I was taking my coffee up to the office every day,” he recalls. “People at the milk counter were sneezing, handling money, and then handling the lids in the stack, taking two or three accidentally, then putting those back. The baristas would honestly hold their hand on top of the lid to slide the cup of coffee over to me!”
Levey doesn’t consider himself a germaphobe. He washes his hands before eating, but he doesn’t carry hand sanitizer and admits his apartment’s “shoes off” policy is loosely enforced. The awareness around food came from years worked as a waiter in restaurants, where safe food handling practices were drilled into him. “You don’t really forget that,” he says, noting that in a restaurant it would be a unthinkable for a server to deliver a customer’s drink with their hands touching the rim. Levey wondered why coffee cup lids were the exception in an age where nearly every other plastic takeout utensil (cutlery, straws, bottled water lids) were mandated to be hygienically sealed.
The modern coffee lid market began blossoming in the 1980s, when America’s coffee shop and takeout culture grew quickly. Consumers wanted to drink their coffees on the go, and with the rise of Starbucks these drinks evolved from a simple cup of joe to elaborate espresso concoctions with layers of frothy, foamy milk. “It’s a hard thing to design, because it has to solve a lot of different criteria,” says Louise Harpman, an architect who, along with her partner Scott Specht, has the largest collection of coffee cup lids (260 so far) in the world. It is a remarkable piece of design for such a small surface; a light, malleable plastic object that perfectly affixes to a cup of scalding hot liquid, is food safe, and ergonomically designed to not only deliver the perfect flow of coffee (or tea) to the drinker through a small hole, but to do so while regulating temperature, channeling spillage, preserving aroma, and allowing the mouth feel of something like the fluffy peaks of a double latte to remain intact.
While some models, like the Solo Traveler (the one used by Starbucks, designed in 1986) are market leaders, there is no standard lid. “Has anyone reached design authority like a paper clip?” asks Harpman, rhetorically. “No, we have not.” Harpman says there are dozens of backyard, kitchen, and basement tinkerers like Levey constantly trying to put out the next perfect lid. One of the latest, and most high profile, is Seattle’s Viora lid, founded by a Microsoft veteran, which pulls a large amount of liquid into the cup’s rim, to open the aromas for the drinker, and provide an experience similar to drinking out of a mug.
Levey’s design process focused on the most effective way to protect existing lids, which he pilfered from anywhere that sold coffee. For more than a year he would put in 12-hour days at his law job, return home, and tinker with coffee lids and other materials until two in the morning. He experimented with everything from paper and milk cartons, to the foil from cream cheese packages, and the little stickers on bananas, on over a hundred lid designs. He invited friends over and handed out bright lip-gloss and lip stick, then asked them to drink from different lids, to see where there mouths made contact.
After enduring a patent process that he estimated cost him $30,000 in fees, plus more for a second patent he withdrew (for a different lid), Levey’s utility patent was awarded in 2012. That turned out to be the easy part.
Manufacturing lids at a scale large enough to enter the market, even as a prototype big enough for small coffee shops, has proven more difficult. The industry is dominated by a handful of lid makers, and they control distribution to chains big and small. While Levey’s preference is to license the Clean Coffee design to one of these companies, he has also explored the option of manufacturing and selling them himself, though he’s yet to find the right factory to make them, and he estimates an initial run would cost him upwards of $100,000.
“It seems simple to add a sticker to a coffee lid,” Levey says. “But they don’t seem to be able to get it done. You’re adding a step to the process, and some of the machines press a million lids a day, so you’re slowing it down. The alternative is two separate factories and shipping, and the cost is prohibitive for a lid,” which needs to cost between two and six cents, he says.
Experimenting with lids is also a risk few coffee shop owners find worth taking. David Ginsberg, who owns the successful White Squirrel coffee shops in Toronto and goes through 50,000 to 75,000 lids a year, had to switch to the Solo Traveler a few years back, after a lid made by an independent, local manufacturer suddenly declined in quality, and started causing coffee to leak onto customers. He’s skeptical the demand is there for Levey’s hygienic lid.
“I have yet to hear anyone say to me ‘Oh these lids are dirty,’ or ‘I’m concerned about the sanitaryness of lids in general,’” Ginsberg says. “It would take a consistent demand by customers only, and one that I could not beat back. The potential for fear mongering with this thing is potentially large. But if he gets the word across that lids are dirty and scary, who knows?”
Lid-loving Harpman has a different take. “The best designers solve problems that we don’t know we have,” she says. “He may be onto something.” Harpman says she personally understands this. Her grandmother’s company, Dial-a-Pik, was once one the largest supplier of toothpick dispensers in the country, until regulations changed, requiring toothpicks to be individually wrapped. The wrapped toothpicks didn’t fit in the machines, and the company’s business disappeared.
Levey is petitioning for legal changes that would foster demand. This past spring he asked New York’s commissioner of health to consider a change to the health code, requiring that drink lids be sealed in the same way that straws are. “If the Health Department thinks there is a public health risk/issue with the service of straws,” he says, “then the risk is exactly the same with coffee lids.” He hopes the Commissioner will propose some sort of rule to the Board of Health by year’s end, though he’s patient, after nearly seven years in pursuit of his dream lid.
“I didn’t expect this to happen very quickly,” he says. “This is not a fad product. It’s about changing an industry standard, which can take time.” When (or if) that time ever comes, Levey looks forward to the first cup of coffee he’ll be able to drink from the first Clean Coffee lid off the line. “I don’t think I’ll ever smile bigger.”