Ever since March, coffee shops and the café scene haven’t exactly been the same. Due to the pandemic, these once–perfect locations for a meetup with a friend or coworker have been given restrictions similar to all other facilities—limited capacity, drive–through menus, delivery and pick–up options, and temporary closures.
As one who personally mourns the closing of a local coffee shop I used to go to for a scone and hot americano in the morning with friends, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the perspectives of coffee shops, not just customers. So let’s take a closer look at two local coffee shops near Penn that shared their thoughts.
Rowhome Coffee, a favorite of many Street staffers, has actually been open for a few weeks despite the restrictions on indoor dining. In addition to coffee and other drinks, Rowhome serves “quick to–go sandwiches and traditionally low–priced comfort food on a reformed menu,” says Hugh Morretta, co–founder of Rowhome Coffee.
Although now not allowing customers to sip their coffee indoors, the shop operates at 50% capacity for picking up orders. Masks are required for staff and customers alike, in addition to the face shields used to protect employees.
Unfortunately, with all the precautions, the true café atmosphere isn't present. From his experience with La Colombe and others in working during the pandemic, Morretta believes that following similar precautions will allow the shop to operate successfully. However, he expressed concerns over coffee shops now losing significance as integral meeting places and centers to many communities by becoming more of a sandwich and coffee take–out type of corner store.
In addition to the coffee shops’ limited functions, many baristas and short order cooks have seen impacts on their earnings. But according to Morretta, unlike many of their peers, Rowhome Coffee pays employees an exceptionally high hourly rate to ensure that they are able to still take care of themselves without the tips that they normally receive.
Surprisingly, when asked for thoughts on the change in sales from the pandemic, Rowhome found that customer sales were actually higher than expected. “People want to go out and try new things because they were on lockdown for so long, and with very little else to do, many explore restaurants and try new places to eat,” says Morretta.
With COVID–19 precautions in place, he doesn't believe the coffee shop’s functions are unsafe. He expressed that “the team discussed all matters carefully before deciding to reopen from having been temporarily closed.” He asserts that precautions are followed very closely, so the risk of getting sick from your daily dose of caffeine is minimal.
After dining moved indoors, High Point Cafe installed pick–up windows to allow for phone and online orders. Essentially, their motto for the time being is that “everything only goes out the door, instead of in,” says Meg Hagele. Staff still strictly adheres to health guidelines inside the coffee shop by wearing masks, washing hands, using single-use items, and more.
However, due to the small size of the shop, employees must be in close proximity with each other as they are unable to maintain the recommended 6 foot distance.
This coffee shop has also seen a 17–20% reduction in revenue because it was normally a “daily routine kind of place,” although Hagele acknowledges that it is not as dramatic of a drop in revenue that other restaurants have been experiencing. However, losing thousands of dollars every month still makes it difficult to operate.
Hagele also worries about bad weather discouraging customers from coming to their shop. In response, High Point Cafe has taken matters into its own hands by reaching out to its usual customer base. Luckily, 95% of customers tend to be everyday regulars—allowing for somewhat steady patronage.
Budgets were slashed, Facebook and social media presence was upped, and menus were revamped with extra glitz and glitter. The cafe made changes to draw in more customers, such as introducing ice cream in the summer and warm soup in the winter. This coffee shop has also asked their local community for help in recognizing their precarious situation, and they have encouraged use of their app as a form of payment. Although they can't cut prices, they've developed a robust reward system: two free drinks just for signing up.
But even as restrictions on indoor seating are gradually being lifted, the small size of High Point Cafe will force the continuation of the window system to customers’ detriment. Until it is safe for people to be going in and out of the shop, Hagele says that there will still be “a lot of unknowns [with health] despite wiping down areas, sanitizing lots, and more. For the most part, things are as safe as can be, especially since it is safer than customers going in and out of the store.”
Staff also follows strict guidelines by getting tested weekly, self–isolating after any visits, and being very careful to keep a sanitized workspace as they cannot maintain the recommended 6–foot distance when working. Overall, Hagele expresses appreciation of a strong commitment among employees to keep themselves and others as safe as possible. “The pandemic shines light on the community, allowing us to recognize places and businesses important in our lives.”
With coffee shops clearly facing many setbacks in customer sales and cafe operations, it truly does seem like a difficult decision to continue operating during these times. Especially with COVID–19 being transmissible, opening any businesses does come with health concerns.
If you’re ever in need of a socially distanced coffee or a snack, try out Rowhome Coffee for a pretzel sandwich or High Point Cafe for a crepe or a twist on a croissant. If you do decide to purchase from these shops, please be responsible in following social distancing guidelines, wearing your mask, and being mindful of the impact you can have on others’ health and wellbeing.