Amid Worldwide COVID-19 Shutdowns, Cafe Owners Speak Out

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The new normal is wild. It’s turbulent and unexpected and is going to test the strength of many around the world. COVID-19’s impact is not just rescheduled events or a temporary upheaval of our social lives. Government mandates that ask for businesses to close have a very real impact on coffee workers’ livelihoods. Cafes are historically community gathering places and with their closures (temporary or not), the ripple effect is still unknown.

In countries like the United States, where baristas aren’t often provided sick pay or health insurance, the brunt of the closures falls on them. Whereas in countries like the UK and Taiwan with universal health care available, at least one source of anxiety can be taken care of, but many questions remain.

In an effort to see how cafes were managing with the virus, I spoke with owners and managers around the world to see what was happening in their sphere. These interviews span the globe, from Singapore to the United Kingdom to China. Because the news is moving so incredibly fast right now, I’ve dated each interview. A few of these answers are already outdated in places, but the importance of these voices remain.

In the earlier stages of the virus infection, cities have either not issued guidelines or only given recommendations to be cautious. These interviews include:

Han Tran, Store Manager at Bosgaurus Coffee Roasters in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Interviewed on March 13.

Robert Chaffin, Director of Operations at Commonplace Coffee in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US but with locations elsewhere in Pennslyvania and Indiana. Interviewed on March 13.

Mat North, owner of Full Court Press in Bristol, UK. Interviewed on March 12.

Costa Arvanitopoulos, co-founder of Barker St in Sydney, Australia. Barker St is an online marketplace and is not as affected by the virus as a brick-and-mortar store is. Interviewed on March 15.

In the middle stages of the outbreak, we have city or country guidelines imposed. There have been cases of community spread and cafes have had to significantly alter either their hours and/or availability. These interviews include:

Jake Paulson, co-founder at Anchorhead Coffee in Seattle, US. Interviewed on March 14.

Pamela Chng, co-founder at The Bettr Group in Singapore. It has several components: a barista training academy, roastery, and retail bar. Interviewed on March 15.

JoEllen Depakakibo, owner at Pinhole Coffee in San Francisco, US. Interviewed on March 15.

And finally, the advanced and recovery stages of the outbreak are where the government has made decisions to close the country or several cities down. Cafes have also been closed. These interviews include:

Chuck Chan, founder of Lock Chuck Coffee in Guangzhou, China. Interviewed on March 14.

Elisa Urdich, owner of Taste Coffee & More in Treviso, Italy. Interviewed on March 15.

Interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for grammar and spelling.

What are the current guidelines for your area?

Whether advised by the World Health Organization (WHO) or their respective federal health agencies, cafe owners took note of what was recommended. These are what they were told by their government. Be advised that these answers are current only at the time of writing this article.

Han Tran: Most buildings, complex housing, gyms, and cafes encourage citizens to sanitize their hands before entering. They frequently use Chloride to sanitize the place (doorknob, table, …).

All of the citizens are encouraged to access to tokhaiyte.vn or download app NCOVI to update current health conditions, to sanitize hands frequently, to wear masks in public, to keep a safe distance while communicating. Hotlines for an emergency is everywhere in case of any suspicion of symptoms. Self-quarantined if we have been in contact with any positive patient

JoEllen Depakakibo: We aren’t quarantined yet, but it seems like a lot of people are putting themselves in quarantine. Bars and wineries were told to close today.

Elisa Urdich: All Italy was considered a red zone from last week… all the cafes, restaurants, and shops are closed and we can go out only to the supermarket, or for medical or work reasons.

Chuck Chan: The government took the most severe measure to contain the spread of the virus. In February, all the restaurants in town were instructed to suspend dine-in service, which was another big hit to our already affected business. The citizens were encouraged to stay at home and very few customers were out. Now the situation is getting better, dine-in is available. Our regulars are coming back.

How has the virus affected your business and operations?

In the early stages, customers are encouraged to support their local businesses and maintain social distancing. As the outbreak progresses, we see more cafes transitioning to to-go cups only and eventually, closing for business. Depending on location, businesses may see support from their government.

Han Tran: For our store in HCMC, everything is still good since most of the customers are local. Everybody wants to save money at this time for living. As for operation, we have to postpone many projects, events, or workshops so we need to allocate the expense and human resource. Many plans are canceled. Purchase orders from overseas are affected and we need to change lots of things to keep stock under control.

Mat North: At this stage, we have seen little change to sales, but I expect that to hit in the next 7-14 days. I personally expect some of the changes we put in place over the next few weeks to last many months.

Jake Paulson: It has affected us in more ways than we could have ever imagined. Our sales dropped 85% within a week forcing us to put 90% of our staff on standby. This is a temporary solution, but it was the only way we could make sure our staff received as much money as possible while we dealt with what was happening. We have also cut hours and will have to close till this blows over if things keep trending downwards. We are hoping that this is all temporary, and we will be moving everything and everyone back to a normal schedule once this is passed.

JoEllen Depakakibo: When people were initially told to “Work from Home” our sales spiked.

Chuck Chan: We depend on face-to-face service, which was not recommended during the spreading of viruses by the government. We were forced to close our dine-in service for more than two weeks. What hurt badly is the confidence of the consumers, including our loyalties. It is estimated to need more time before they feel comfortable to hang out in a cafe.

What precautions have you implemented in your cafe to protect your staff and customers?

You’ve likely seen the posts and emails by now. Cafes have increasingly taken on more sanitizing protocols to maintain a clean environment. For some, staff protection includes sick pay if not covered by the government, face masks, mandatory distance from customers, and to-go cups only. Repeated often by many of the interviewees is the need to clean high-touch areas often, educate customers of new house rules, and minimize as much contact as possible.

JoEllen Depakakibo: Our first main thing we did was make a checklist of all the things to wipe down and sanitize. As things got more serious we implemented no outside personal cups allowed. Then no for here cups and pastry plates. We next moved half ‘n’ half behind the counter where baristas poured it into people’s cups and we switched to sugar packets rather than a more environmentally friendly sugar container. As of today, we added no cash allowed and no access to seating… encouraging everyone to take their drinks and go. It seemed like I was making new signs for a new precaution each day.

Costa Arvanitopoulos: For our staff as we are an online business, we have everyone working remotely and are getting all staff to follow the guidelines the Australian government is issuing on a daily bases. We are also emailing all staff the updated guidelines from the government once they are issued so they are all on top of what is required.

Robert Chaffin: At this time, we have made the decision to go take-out only, and not allowing anyone to spend time in our cafes.

Pamela Chng: [For students at the academy] Travel declaration before coming for classes. Before entering premises – Sanitising + Temp checks twice a day + Contact Info collected for contact tracing. Anyone who is sick or returning from countries in travel advisories is not allowed into our premises. [For cafe staff] Staff from different outlets are not to meet each other during/outside of work to minimize contact. [For customers in the cafes] As our bars are all in workplace communities, customers would have had their travel declarations, temperature taken and contact details recorded before entering an office building. Cashless payment strongly encouraged.

Elisa Urdich: Now we are close… but till last week we had to serve only on the table and all the people have to stay 1 meter far from other people. Our coffee shop is really small and we could serve only six people.

What is/was your plan for if/when the virus affects your area?

The best thing you can do if you have not been severely affected yet is to plan and plan well. Look to other countries and cities that are further along than you and see what their actions have been. This is the time for collective action and to do our part in flattening the curve.

Mat North: Plan now, seek advice and guidance from local health services where you can, don’t be afraid to act in a measured way, you can quickly ramp up your measures, maintaining them at a high level is hard. Avoid large expenditures as you may need the capital to fund staff cover.

Jake Paulson: Do everything you can to practice social distancing, and consider how you will help your employees once sales drop and hours need to be cut. Also, depending on how bad things get, consider closing completely. As an owner, that’s a super scary thing to think about, but if it helps get past this quickly, it could be a good option.

Pamela Chng: Take this seriously! Implement measures now and start being individually responsible for our behavior and actions—practice personal hygiene, social distancing, stay home if you are sick. Help slow down the spread to give your healthcare system a chance to treat the ones who really need it. Businesses need to start controlling and cutting costs and taking care of your staff’s well-being.

Chuck Chan: A lot of ingredients may be harder to order. So get well prepared.

Elisa Urdich: I would say… wash your hands… stay at home… stay safe because it’s not a joke… my husband is from Bergamo and many people die every day… 146 people in the last four days.

Final Thoughts

This pandemic has a global impact. Everything from manufacturing to stock markets to sourcing will be affected in the months or years to come. In the hardest-hit areas, we’ve seen mandated closures of cafes and staff layoffs. It will certainly be a test of the community, industry, and governments to see how responses are handled. Will personal cupping spoons no longer be used? Will sick pay and health insurance be prioritized by the US government? How will events change as travel advisories continue to be in place? We leave you with these last thoughts from our interviewees:

Robert Chaffin: The reality is, we’re not sure how long this will last. We employ a significant number of hourly workers, who could be hurt financially if we end up having to close on a temporary basis. We’re evaluating what support we can offer and any available resources for our staff should it come to that, but as a small business, our resources are limited, especially if closures last multiple weeks.

Mat North: It’s hard not to panic, but it may be that extended time of living with this pandemic is before us, this will change our norms and we have to be prepared for that to happen. The big thing to remember that it’s not about you getting ill, that will probably happen, it’s about keeping the most vulnerable as safe as possible, act for them, not for yourself.

Jake Paulson: I feel like people aren’t taking this as seriously as they should. This virus is spread by breathing, which is why they are suggesting 6 ft of distance between people. I absolutely love the community that has come out to support small businesses in this time of need, but I do worry about people getting together and congregating at restaurants and cafes.

Pamela Chng: We were one of the first countries outside China that had to deal head-on with COVID-19 starting end-Jan, and we are very grateful for a firm, clear, transparent government that took quick decisive action on so many fronts, and a populace that was cooperative in helping to contain the spread. We had our panic moments that the US and Europe are experiencing now, and it is critical that we all play our part to work with our communities and government to tackle this.

Chuck Chan: Challenges are never less. We’ve kept being busy. For example, we tested new recipes for brownies and carrot cakes, which is going to be launched in April. We prepared for our next upcoming exhibition in-house.

Elisa Urdich: Italian government is doing a good job with all these restrictions..maybe it would’ve been better to start with it 2 weeks in advance and not wait so many people infect and I think all the world has to do the same!!!

Jenn Chen (@TheJennChen) is a San Francisco–based coffee marketer, writer, and photographer. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.

 


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