To try to survive the pandemic and its crushing blows on all sectors of the hospitality industry, including coffee shops, Wolter has already cut back the store’s hours and laid off the last of her eight-person staff. She recently pulled several all-nighters to add a shopping cart to Sweet Science’s website, which now allows customers to order anything on the menu for takeaway or even curbside pickup outside the shop at 35 N St. NE in the NoMa neighborhood. Better yet, customers can schedule a pickup time, so their coffee is still steaming and hot on first sip.
“I had never really set it up [before] because I always felt bad that, by the time someone picks up, the coffee’s flat and the latte is half-cold,” said Wolter, a native of Germany whose introduction to the coffee business came via her family’s cafe and roastery back in the home country.
Coffee shop owners are going to great lengths to keep Washington caffeinated at a time when their sales are plummeting and the risks of spreading the coronavirus are rising. Wolter has transitioned to a one-woman operation, hoping she can keep up with orders without losing her sanity or losing the proper temperature on her drinks. Other proprietors have pivoted, too: Peregrine Espresso, with three shops in the D.C. area, and the Wydown, with two, have moved to online ordering systems with no-contact pickup options, too (in which employees will leave drinks on a counter for you to grab). Peregrine (660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 1718 14th St. NW; and 1309 Fifth St. NE at Union Market) uses the Joe Coffee app; the Wydown (1924 14th St. NW and 600-B H St. NE) and Sweet Science rely on Square.
Zeke’s Coffee has closed its downtown location but still sells beans and drinks from a table outside its shop at 2300 Rhode Island Ave. NE. Owner John Kepner is working to update his website to include online drink orders, but for now, you can call ahead and a barista will bring your coffee to the outdoor table. Likewise, the owners of Compass Coffee are working to add online ordering, which they expect soon, but for now, they’re selling beans and drinks for takeaway at six cafes, including four in Washington (1535 Seventh St. NW; 1921 Eighth St. NW; 4850 Massachusetts Ave. NW; and 1351 Wisconsin Ave. NW) and two in Arlington (1201 Wilson Blvd. and 4100 Wilson Blvd.)
Swing’s Coffee Roasters has shut down its two D.C. locations, but it is still selling drinks and beans for takeaway at its Del Ray Coffee Bar in Alexandria (501 East Monroe Ave.). Owner Mark Warmuth, like others in his position, has had to rush to add an online ordering system, his via Square. The Del Ray shop, he emphasizes, does not accept cash.
Qualia Coffee is trying to remain open but has been struggling with a staff shortage at its Eckington shop (at the corner of Eckington Place and Harry Thomas Way NE in the Gale Eckington apartments); both that location and the Petworth store (3917 Georgia Ave. NW) are open for takeaway drinks and beans, but only the beans can be ordered online. Social distancing hasn’t been much of a problem at the stores, says owner Joel Finkelstein.
“To be honest, our traffic isn’t that much,” he says. But just to be safe, Finkelstein has marked spaces outside the busier Petworth shop, “so people can know that they’re six feet apart,” he says.
One business, however, has decided to lock the doors for now: Vigilante Coffee, the small roastery based in Hyattsville, is only selling beans online. Founder Chris Vigilante opted to shut down his two cafes, no takeaway, no customer interactions.
“What if somebody’s working at my shop and they get sick because they’re at work?” Vigilante says. “How am I going to feel? I didn’t think that was a pill I wanted to swallow.”
Sanitation and social distancing are a priority with all the shop owners I contacted. Take, for instance, Peregrine. Co-owner Ryan Jensen has borrowed an idea from Nick Cho, the third-wave pioneer who used to operate Murky Coffee out of the Capitol Hill storefront where Jensen now runs one location of Peregrine. At his Wrecking Ball cafes in San Francisco, Cho converted his front doors into takeout windows, using a table and a sheet of clear polycarbonate plastic to separate employee from customer. The dark irony here is not lost on me: Takeouts used to install bulletproof glass to protect operators from robbers. Now they have shields to protect them from an invisible invader.
“I think customers get it,” Jensen says about the barrier. “I had one of my staff members who just said, straight up, ‘I feel 100 times better being at work.’ ”
Coffee shops long ago morphed into something separate from their origins as places where locals gathered to share news, gossip or conduct business. In recent years, they’ve behaved more like caffeine stations and de facto WeWorks where latchkey freelancers plug in their laptops and treat the shop as a rent-free office. The pandemic has forced owners to rethink their business plans: Many stores have turned into carryouts, a Yum’s for lattes, espressos and flat whites. Some have added household items, including that rolled gold known as toilet paper, serving as both coffeehouse and convenience store. One has even added new responsibilities to its to-do list: Compass now produces hand sanitizer for local governments.
All these pivots are ways to keep the wolves at bay, to recoup sales declines of 40 or 60 percent or higher. Some shops will, very likely, not survive this outbreak. But for the ones that do, owners hold out the hope that their shops will not return to the isolationism of the pre-coronavirus era when customers practiced social distancing even before they were required to do so. Wolter, for one, hopes all the forced isolation reminds customers of the importance of social engagement, perhaps right in her shop.
“In a way, it might bring us back to what coffee shops and hospitality are really about,” she says. “Hopefully something positive comes out of this. I don’t know if I’m right. That’s my hope.”