As was widely expected, the UK Government made its much-trailed announcement this week that has paved the way for hospitality industries in England, coffee shops included, to reopen for sit-in custom on July 4th, now just over a week away. In Part I of this series, I looked at what this may mean for speciality coffee shops, asking many questions along the way, but providing few answers. Now that the Government’s guidance has been published, this post (Part II) looks at what a coffee shop during the COVID-19 pandemic might look like.
The same disclaimers apply here as in Part I: First, I don’t work in coffee shops, I write about them, so these posts are focused on the consumer viewpoint. Second, this is very much focused on what might happen in England (due to the devolved nature of the UK, while the announcement was made by the UK Government, it only applies to England). If you are interested, you can download the UK Government’s guidance for the hospitality industry or read it online. I’m basing my thoughts on the version that was issued on June 23rd. For further practical advice from a UK industry perspective, try United Baristas.
With all that in mind, you can see what I think after the (very short) gallery.
The first thing to say is that much of what you will see should already be familiar to you if you’ve been anywhere serving takeaway coffee during COVID-19 (this is based on the assumption that the two speciality coffee shops that have reopened for takeaway service in Guildford, Canopy Coffee and Krema Coffee, are representative of the country as a whole). Expect to see lots of Perspex screens separating customers from staff, along with numerous signs offering rules and guidance, plus plenty of tape on the floors, marking out safe distances.
Much has been made of the Government’s relaxation of the two-metre distancing rule in advance of reopening, although, as is often the case, the reality behind the headline is far more complicated. The Government guidance document makes frequent reference to “social distancing guidelines (2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable, is acceptable)”. This, to me, suggests that two metres should be the norm, with one metre, with risk mitigation, allowed as the exception. Of course, what exactly constitutes “with risk mitigation” isn’t spelled out, which brings me to next part of the equation.
The Government guidance is just that: guidance. There are few, if any, hard and fast rules, with phrases such as “steps that will usually be needed”, “wherever possible” and “every reasonable effort” cropping up. This means that businesses have considerable latitude to implement the guidelines, which is, in many ways, a good thing. The guidance covers not just coffee shops, but pubs and restaurants as well. With such a wide variety of establishments, there has to be flexibility to meet individual circumstances.
On the downside, this means that you are less likely to see a uniform approach, since each business owner will be left to decide just what is acceptable risk mitigation, tailored to the business’s individual requirements. So, with that in mind, what would I expect to see when coffee shops reopen?
I’ve already talked about the Perspex screens, signs and tape markings. The other major physical change is going to be seating. I talked about outdoor seating in Part I, but what about indoor seating? This will be very dependent on the physical layout of each coffee shop, so it’s hard to know what to expect. Big, communal tables are out, for sure, but what about a well-spaced window-bar, with everyone sat a metre apart, all facing forwards?
Back-to-back seating is also likely to be favoured over chairs facing each other across a table (although these are still fine if you are in a group from the same household). And what is the balance of seating? Lots of tables for four isn’t going to work if your customers are mostly solo, so I expect to see a lot of variation depending on the individual coffee shop and its customer-base.
I feel on slightly safer ground when talking about service. Although the guidance doesn’t explicitly rule out counter service, much of it is directed towards minimising contact between staff and customers and between different groups of customers, which fits table service.
To start with, you can’t easily maintain social distancing if you have customers queueing next to others who are sitting down. More space for queues means fewer tables, hence fewer (sit-in) customers. There’s also the question of managing capacity: what happens if you have customers queuing, but no available tables? The guidance is also keen to avoid pinch points where customers can potentially gather, which suggests that waiting to order at or collect from the counter is out, as is expecting customers to clear their own tables.
All of this suggests (to me at least) that coffee shops will end up with table service, plus door control, with customers only allowed in once there is a table free (which has been cleared and cleaned between customers). You’ll be seated, someone will take your order, bring you your drinks and you’ll pay at the table, which you can expect to be by contactless, the payment terminal being brought to your table.
The guidance also talks about ordering by app, which means one less trip to your table, although whether this will be feasible for individual coffee shops (as opposed to chains) is another matter. It requires people to download and install the app, which is less of an issue for regulars, but I imagine being a pain for the one-off visitor. On the other hand, having one app, containing the menu, plus the ability to order and pay, could be a major advantage. Apps like this exist, but getting widespread acceptance has always been their problem, so maybe this is just the boost they need.
I’ll end with one change that will be quite noticeable. According to the guidance, the coffee shop should take contact details for all sit-in customers which it will keep for 21 days. These will be used if either a customer or member of staff tests positive for COVID-19, allowing the customers who were there at the same time to be contacted. Quite how this will work is another matter: I can see app-based or check-in services being ideal for this, but there will still need to be a manual system for the (probably majority of) customers without the app.
So, there we have it: my initial thoughts on what a sit-in coffee shop will look like during COVID-19 in England. Give it a couple of weeks and we’ll see if I’m right. In the meantime, feel free to let me have your thoughts in the comments.
You can also take a look at the third and final part of the this series, where I try to answer the question of whether coffee shops should reopen.
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