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Kiyun Lee photo via Unsplash

Like the phoenix, cafes are rising again.

While the flight is far from smooth, it’s hoped that an influx of people thirsty for refreshment and connections — including remote workers — will fuel a comeback.

“The last 18 months have been hard for restaurants, but coffeeshops in particular have been hit hard,” said R.J. Hottovy, analyst with Chicago-based Aaron Allen & Associates.

In 2020, sales for the more than 37,000 coffeeshops in the U.S. dropped from $47.5 billion to $36 billion, according to reports from Statista. Before the pandemic, revenues had increased almost 5 percent between 2018 to 2019.

Chain coffee shops like Starbucks, Peet’s, Dunkin’ Brands and others saw sales drop 24 percent, but the number of stores declined by only 0.6 percent, according to research firm Allegra World Coffee Portal.

Still, Euromonitor International predicted a 7.3 percent drop in the overall number of coffee and tea shops by the end of 2020, Bloomberg reported.

Hottovy says the biggest reason for the large number of predicted closures is that more than 50 percent of local coffee shops in the U.S. are owned by groups with less than three units. These small businesses don’t have the flexibility of larger companies.

“Coffeeshops are looking to get as many people back again and are looking for a lot of creative ways to do that, so it’s not surprising that [there’s a] focus on remote workers,” he added.

The importance of ambience

Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters, founded by Bo Nelson, is a Kansas City, Mo., brand that rebounded in 2019 with four locations after its retail outlet at the Crossroads Art District closed at the end of 2018.

In addition to wholesale and online coffee sales, Nelson operates a Thou Mayest café at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and another two, both named Café Equinox, in greenhouses at two Kansas-based Family Tree Nursery locations in Shawnee and Overland Park.

He said customers “experience the environment first, the service second and the product third. Most coffee shops go for product, service and environment last.”

Remote workers choosing to bring their laptop to a coffeeshop may be particularly sensitive to a coffeeshop’s ambience.

“What those remote workers really care about is connecting with the barista who has their interests in mind and a space that is conducive to … being able to meet people or have a quiet place where they could hold a call, and strong, reliable internet,” Nelson said.

“I do prefer coffeeshops because they’re generally friendlier and more comfortable [than other public locations],” said Peter Hall, a reporter covering federal courts and justice for the Morning Call, centered on the Lehigh Valley, Pa., area. Pre-pandemic, he would seek out local coffeeshops in the locations where he was covering cases.

“The atmosphere of a coffeeshop in general is conducive to working,” said Hall, whose work-from-home arrangement is now permanent for him and his co-workers from the paper. When he has to cover stories in person, he’ll have to set up a temporary office in a cafe or other suitable public space to meet his deadline.

“There’s conversation and a little bit of noise or music, but it’s subdued and people tend to be respectful of other people’s peace and privacy,” he added.

Watching for the upside

Zakiyyah McKelven, who owns Kia’s Cakes and Café in Lansdowne, Pa., sells custom-designed baked confections, which have been keeping her afloat during the pandemic.

Now that things are opening up, she hopes to expand her hours to four days a week instead of three and put a new espresso machine into action, particularly since a nearby coffee shop shut its doors in the last year.

“We had some people who did work remotely” before the pandemic, she said. “But I haven’t seen them come back yet.”

She hopes the nicer weather that has been bringing other customers back will entice teleworkers to stop by.

“We actually are seeing a pretty decent increase in sales,” she noted. “Now we’re at the point where we’re just trying to be able to make enough to keep all of our customers satisfied. So I need more bakers and I need more staff.”

‘Be sure to tip big’

Reporter Hall’s favorite location has been the Quadrant Book Mart & Coffee House in Easton, Pa., which recently reopened after renovations. It remains on his go-to list for when he’s covering federal cases in that city.

Jo Moranville has operated the Quadrant Book Mart and Coffee House with her husband, Andy, since 1994. Their small but busy full-service breakfast-and-lunch restaurant is on the first floor of the two-story store, which also houses 60,000 volumes of used books.

“We’re reopening Wednesday [May 19], and people are being very generous about being glad we’re coming back,” Moranville said.

Throughout the pandemic, she said, people who could afford to eat out “have just been over-the-top generous. They wanted to make sure we stayed strong [during] whatever period of time our doors were open.”

Because tips and table turnover are critical for both wait staff and the cafe, Moranville suggests that remote workers come into a small establishment during quieter times in the afternoon, not take a four-top table if they are alone and keep an eye out if the table is needed for another customer during busy periods. And, most important, she suggests that people “tip big.”

Working from a coffeeshop or other public location does pose problems for some remote workers.

“My job requires too much focus for a busy locale like a cafe,” said Nancy M., a Philadelphia-area research analyst for a federal agency who asked that her full name not be used. She says her job involves confidentiality and security concerns, so working in small eating establishments isn’t an option. Still, she plans visit cafe when she can.

“Like most people, I’m itching to get out in general now that I’m vaccinated,” she said. “Mostly, cafes serve to get a quick bite of lunch with my mother, either as a break from work or to just end my day early as a little treat. As nice as it’s been to have access to a full fridge and kitchen during work hours, I am so sick of my own cooking!”

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