Where to Next With COVID-19, Part I

A giant red question mark.I hope that I’m not jumping the gun, but it’s almost certain that the UK Government will announce an easing of social distancing rules this week, enabling hospitality industries, including coffee shops, to reopen in two weeks’ time on July 4th. What will this mean for the speciality coffee industry? Just because coffee shops can reopen, does that mean that they should? In theory at least, they could have remained open, offering a takeaway service, throughout the last three months, but most chose not to.

The inspiration for this series of posts came from the USA, via a tweet from Wrecking Ball Coffee in San Francisco. You can see the original tweet in the gallery, but the gist of it is as follows: while Wrecking Ball can legally put out chairs and tables for its customers, it’s decided not to and is encouraging others to follow suit. Which got me thinking: should UK coffee shops reopen when they are allowed to? Do I want them to reopen? This series of posts (of which this is Part I) is an attempt to frame, and then maybe answer these questions, or at least provide some pointers as to which direction to go in.

You can read more of my thoughts after the (very short) gallery.

  • A tweet from Wrecking Ball Coffee in San Francisco, which set me thinking.
  • Currently UK coffee shops, if open at all, are only offering takeaway, like Canopy here.
  • It's unlikely we'll see the return of the crowded coffee shop (this is St Martin's, from 2017).
  • Maybe outdoor seating is the answer? Again, this example is from St Martin's.
A tweet from Wrecking Ball Coffee in San Francisco, which set me thinking.1 Currently UK coffee shops, if open at all, are only offering takeaway, like Canopy here.2 It's unlikely we'll see the return of the crowded coffee shop (this is St Martin's, from 2017).3 Maybe outdoor seating is the answer? Again, this example is from St Martin's.4
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Two disclaimers before I start. First, I don’t work in coffee shops, I write about them, so these posts are focused on the consumer viewpoint (for practical advice from a UK perspective, try United Baristas). Second, my view is inevitably UK-focused and, more than that, with devolved Government in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it’s England-focused. And, frankly, since I’ve not been anywhere further than walking distance of my house since I got back from Chicago in mid-March, my direct experience is very much limited to my very small slice of Guildford. If you live somewhere less affected by COVID-19, or where reopening has already occurred, feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

When I talk about reopening, by the way, I mean reopening for sit-in customers, either inside the shop, or at outside tables. As I noted in the introduction, UK coffee shops have been able to offer a takeaway service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. One of my local coffee shops, Canopy Coffee, reopened on Saturday, 16th May, and another, Krema Coffee, reopened two weeks later on Monday, 1st June, both offering a takeaway service. Whether either of them will reopen for sit-in customers come 4th July is another matter.

There are many factors facing a coffee shop when considering reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you ensure it will be safe, both for staff and customers? Will it be economically viable? Can you stay true to your ethics and values? What compromises will you have to take? Conversely, with Government support being slowly withdrawn, will coffee shops be forced to open or have to take the decision to close for good?

A big question will be seating. All the evidence points to COVID-19 transmission rates being lower outdoors, which makes outdoor tables attractive. However, most coffee shops don’t have that option, although it may be that councils will relax planning restrictions to allow some coffee shops to put tables outside.

A good example here in Guildford is Krema Coffee, located on the recently-pedestrianised Tunsgate. Although not part of the coffee shop, it would be possible for Krema (and other business on the street) to have outside tables, although whether the council would allow this is a different matter (and, indeed, whether Krema would want to do it). For more on this, you can take a look at my post about Canopy Coffee reopening, where you’ll find a long comment discussing this very subject.

For those who are offering a sit-in service, the big question will be how to maintain social distancing while keeping enough tables/seats to make it economically viable. There is also the question of how customers will order, since queuing will take up space that could otherwise be used by tables. Finally, there’s the added burden of cleaning tables between customers.

Ultimately, the decision to reopen will be an individual one for each and every coffee shop, driven by a myriad of factors, many of which will be local. The only advice I will offer is that given to me by Jonathon of Canopy Coffee. Although he was talking about reopening Canopy for takeaway service, his advice applies equally to sit-in customers: don’t open until you’re absolutely ready to. In other words, take your time, plan, prepare, do everything you can to get it right, then reopen. I think that the worst thing that any coffee shop can do is rush into reopening.

One thing that I am very certain of is that coffee shops which do reopen after 4th July will look very different from those before the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of service and atmosphere, which is what I will look at in the second of these posts. Finally, in Part III, I try to provide some answers as to whether coffee shops should reopen.

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