As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, coffee shops in the UK have adapted. At first, this meant pretty much universal closure, followed by a slow, cautious reopening as takeaway-only operations, exemplified in Guildford by Canopy Coffee and Krema Coffee. Now, with the UK Government relaxing its social distancing rules, this has paved the way for hospitality industries in England, including coffee shops, to reopen for sit-in customers on July 4th.
In Part II of this short series on where we go next, I looked at the Government’s guidance and pondered what it might mean for coffee shops. However, I was prompted to start this series by this tweet from Wrecking Ball Coffee in San Francisco which argued, in essence, that just because coffee shops could reopen, it didn’t mean that they should. It’s this question that I’m returning to in this, the third and final part of the series.
The same disclaimers apply here as in Parts I and II. First, I don’t work in coffee shops, I write about them, so this series focuses on the consumer viewpoint. Second, this is about on what might happen in England since, due to devolution, the rules differ elsewhere in the UK.
With all that in mind, you can see what I think after the gallery.
Let me begin by declaring a vested interest: I started the Coffee Spot almost eight years ago specifically to write about coffee shops. Like the coffee shops themselves, I’ve had to adapt to COVID-19, writing about Coffee at Home and working my way through some of my Travel Spot backlog. However, in my heart I want to write about coffee shops, so you would think that I would really want them to reopen. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.
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. This will include footfall and a knowledge of the customer base and will be heavily influenced by economic factors. What follows is purely my personal opinion and is not meant to be representative of coffee shop customers as a whole. After all, I’m something of an edge case, having visited over 1,000 coffee shops in the last eight years!
The Coffee Spot is a blog about places I like to have coffee. When I started, I wanted to write about coffee shops rather than coffee (and I still do). Good coffee is important of course, but I can make myself pretty good coffee at home. What I miss is the atmosphere, the whole coffee shop experience. For me, that’s the crucial question: will I still enjoy the coffee shop experience during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Based on my reading of the Government guidance, I laid out what I thought reopening might mean for coffee shops in Part II of this series. Some of the changes (table service, for example) I positively look forward to. Overall, however, I fear that the negatives may come to outweigh the positives, which I’ll discuss after the gallery.
I suspect that coffee shops that decide to reopen will face twin pressures. The first will be increased costs. Some will be fixed, such as physical alterations to the shop, but others will be on-going. The biggest of these is likely to be staff costs. Table service, the need to thoroughly clean tables between customers and managing the flow of customers in/out of the coffee shop (including the requirement to capture contact details) will all require more staff. Good news, potentially, for those working in the industry, but an increased cost to the coffee shop (owners, please correct me if I am wrong in these assumptions).
The second pressure will be decreased income. Unfortunately, social distancing rules, even though they will be relaxed, still mean that coffee shops will have reduced capacity. Gone will be the days of squeezing in at the end of the table when the shop is busy, for example. Indeed, solo customers, such as myself, might be detrimental if I occupy the last table for four, denying a seat to the family who arrive five minutes later.
The obvious way to counter this is to increase throughput, freeing up tables as quickly as possible at busy times. This means no more lingering for half an hour over my pour-over (and that’s if coffee shops even offer pour-over, as opposed to the more limited espresso-based menus that I’ve seen in recent times). Sadly, that lingering, maybe just watching the world go by, or working on my laptop, ordering another coffee if I’m there for a while, is a large part of my coffee shop experience.
Another big factor for me will be the cups. I have a long-standing dislike of drinking coffee from disposable cups. While there’s nothing in the Government’s guidance that precludes coffee shops using proper cups, my near-universal experience in the two weeks preceding the closures in March was that sit-in customers were served with disposable cups.
For me, this will be the equation.
If I’m in a busy coffee shop, with a disposable cup, at a table where I know that if I linger, I’m holding up other customers, then, if I’m honest, I might as well have a takeaway coffee. The equation changes if I’m eating food, since while I can easily drink coffee on the go, eating is trickier. The equation also changes if the coffee shop is quiet (and in normal times, I seek out coffee shops in their quiet periods and avoid them when they’re busy!). But, if the coffee shops are quiet, then they’re probably not taking enough money to make it worth their while to stay open…
Ultimately, it comes back to what I said at the start: the decision to reopen will be an individual one. For some, it will make sense, for others, it may be better to continue to only offer takeaway. And for some, sadly, I fear remaining closed may be the best option for now.
Postscript: I gave it a couple of weeks for things to settle down and then I decided to visit some coffee shops for find out what things were like. You can see what I made of the experience a companion piece to this short series, while here are all the reopened places I’ve visited since July this year.
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