I work at a local coffee shop. For the past month, the phone has been ringing off the hook at both of our locations. People are calling almost hourly with a variation of the same question: Are you guys open for indoor seating?
COVID-19 hasn’t robbed us entirely of life’s simple pleasures. Our coffee shop, with some modifications to staffing and hours, has been lucky enough to remain open for to-go orders throughout the pandemic. For me, our little coffee shops, centered on what is typically a bustling main street and thriving neighborhood, have been the lens through which I’ve viewed the coronavirus.
In early March, we began a subtle process of elimination. First went the mugs and dishes. Then, the self-serve coffee. In mid-March, we stowed away indoor seating and used chairs to barricade the rest of the shop. And, perhaps the most tragic of all for our customers, our bathrooms had to close to the public. With red duct tape, we marked off X’s 6 feet apart.
I used to close at Main Street on Friday nights. It was my favorite shift. Townies celebrated the advent of the weekend with well-earned meals, glasses of wine and, of course, our coffee. When COVID-19 hit, all of the hustle and bustle screeched to a silent halt. Our barstools were bereft, and our tables were void of first dates and study sessions.
Now it is May, and we’ve been at this social distancing thing for two months. We’ve all got a stash of masks and coping mechanisms. The parks and trails that surround our shops are popping on sunny days. We seem to be the official caffeine supplier of Colorado’s dog walkers and hikers. You can look out the window of our shop and see people sitting on benches, cups in hand. People have found ways to safely commune. Yet, there is still a pressing desire to sit across the table from a friend with a mug in hand.
Growing up, I always dreamed of working (and eventually owning) a local coffee shop. Something about the intimacy of having regulars and knowing the town on that level was charming. I grew up in a coffee culture. For many people, the modern coffee shop is a cultural watering hole. It’s simply where we go. People revere the beverage as a craft and a staple. There are serious debates about what constitutes good coffee. You can grab a cup at a gas station for a buck, or you can go to a gourmet shop and spend upwards of $6. There’s no right way to coffee, and everyone has a customized order. I’m talking to you, breve-extra-shot-light-syrup-half-caf-extra-hot-caramel-macchiato.
However, if this pandemic has taught me anything about the modern coffee shop, it’s this: It’s not about the coffee.
Sure, good product is important. Coffee (especially ours) is delicious. If it was trash, the people probably wouldn’t come. But I venture to say that the addictive liquid isn’t the main pull of our modern coffee shops, or any of our local businesses, for that matter. It’s the experience. It’s the people. It’s the town. It’s having a place to go.
In the grand scheme of things, small businesses might be just that—small. But to their local communities, they are BIG. And the customers are just as important to the employees. We talk about our regulars. We’re invested in each other’s lives. And when we don’t see them, they are truly missed. During a recent shift, one of my coworkers and I were taking note of the regulars we hadn’t seen since the pandemic hit. And it made us sad.
Understandably, business has gone down since the coronavirus. Inversely, tips have gone up. People just toss $5s, $10s and sometimes $20s into the tip jar. Not a shift goes by where someone doesn’t say, “thank you for working,” or “thank you for being open.” People intentionally tell us that they’re there to support local businesses because they know we need help. I’ve been so encouraged by how this collective trauma has pulled greatness, generosity and gratitude out of all of us.
Like the customer who spends her evenings off knitting masks for her grandma’s nursing home.
Like the Southwest flight attendant who gets a pumpkin chai after flying with sometimes as little as two people on the plane.
Like the two servers who have been out of work for months but still tipped us $5.
Like the smiling high school seniors in prom dresses and the photographer who took their photos for free since the dance was cancelled.
Like the nurse who comes in before her 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift—yes, we give her an extra shot of espresso.
Our town is a mosaic of stories, and each one has been affected differently by this virus. People have expressed their differing opinions, from hardcore mask wearers to people who think the entire pandemic is a hoax. People discuss all sides of the issue at hand. Even with a two-customer limit, somehow our store has managed to remain a hub for people to express victories, frustrations and emotions.
One evening I was closing the shop. Right as I was about to lock the doors, a man came in to order an Americano and two small pastries. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked him how he was doing. He paused. “Not too good. I had a death in the family today,” he let out. “I needed some comfort.” I didn’t quite know what to say, so I paid for his order and wished him well.
The likelihood that this man’s loved one passed away from COVID-19 is small, but possible. Nevertheless, through that encounter, the collective pain our world is experiencing hit me. We are fragile, and our earthly bodies are finite. There’s nothing quite like the sadness that comes from a story that ends in a way that seems unfinished. While we are here, we need each other. It’s a small thing, but I love that a coffee shop is a place where people can find temporary comforts and a reprieve from pain.
In addition to, “Are you guys open for indoor seating?” another big question is swirling around is, “Will things ever be the same?” There’s no definitive way to answer this question. There’s not even a consensus on what “the same” entails. But if I had to make a hypothesis, I’d say that our small businesses are here to stay. To-go and delivery won’t be the new normal. People want collective experiences, they want ambiance, they want culture, and they want connection.
And if you’re an entrepreneur who faced the devastation of having to close your business, you’re still an entrepreneur at heart. I am an hourly employee. I don’t claim to understand the stress of owning a business during this time. But, as an employee, I have witnessed how integral we all are to one another. Your community needs your gifts and talents, even if you have to adapt and reform. If you look in the right places, I know there are people who will support and champion you.
Coffee shops fuel communities, and communities definitely fuel coffee shops. I am humbled to experience the best of humanity in the microcosm of my main street. I hope you can go out and find yours, too.