For much of my life, coffee shops have been very happy places for me. I started the Coffee Spot in 2012 to celebrate all the great places where I like to drink coffee and, over the years, the Coffee Spot has become an all-consuming passion. You might think, therefore, that I welcomed the relaxing of the COVID-19 restrictions that came into effect in England on July 4th with open arms.
However, as I discussed in a series of articles in the run up to the relaxation of the rules, I had my concerns. Having read the Government guidance on reopening for sit-in customers, I worried that the (entirely necessary) precautions to keep everyone safe during the COVID-19 pandemic might ruin the coffee shop experience for me.
Come July 4th, I was rather sceptical, but, having giving things a week to settle in, I decided that, for better or for worse, I needed to see how things were for myself. Since none of Guildford’s three speciality coffee shops have reopened for sit-in customers, I decided, on Tuesday, July 14th, to catch the train to London, the first time in four months that I’d gone on public transport, and visit some coffee shops.
You can see what I found after the gallery.
Having not been on a train for four months only added to my sense of trepidation. Indeed, since I returned from the USA on March 17th, I’d not been anywhere what wasn’t within walking distance from my house. However, I’d chosen my day carefully: a cool, cloudy, mid-week day, with the threat of rain, plus I was travelling outside peak hours, so I figured that things would be pretty quiet, especially since I was travelling on the branch line from London Road rather than going on the mainline via Woking.
Armed with my rainbow mask from Cherie Did This, I set off for the station, having still been in half a mind to call the whole trip off. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. I had the platform to myself, and, when the train arrived, I had my carriage to myself as well. That’s how it stayed until Surbiton, when more passengers started to get on, but even then, I was the only person sitting in my third of the carriage. Until, that is, someone got on and decided, with all the spare seats available, that the one directly behind me was the best choice…
Despite this, the train journey relaxed me. It felt normal, and, frankly, it felt good to be going somewhere other than the immediate vicinity of my house. When I got to London, I was further reassured by the signs at London Waterloo, all designed to help people keep their distance. There were also multiple hand-sanitising stations which I made use of.
I hadn’t really planned my trip, other than I knew I didn’t want to use the tube or buses, so I set off across the Thames via the Hungerford Bridge and made for Notes on St Marin’s Lane, which I knew was open for sit-in customers. I honestly couldn’t have picked a better spot for my first time in a coffee shop in four months. From there, I wandered on, heading north into Bloomsbury and then west into Fitzrovia. I spotted quite a few places that were open, either for takeaway, or, more rarely, for sit-in customers, while there were plenty more that were still closed. I only called in on two more, Kafi and Attendant, before I called it a day and wandered back to Waterloo.
I’d originally planned to come back before rush bour, but I’d wandered further than anticipated, so got back to Waterloo shortly before five o’clock. Again, I needn’t have worried. While this train would have been packed pre-pandemic, to the point that I might not have got a seat, I had a third of a carriage to myself all the way back to Guildford.
Buoyed by this success, I went on another trip the following week, this time only going as far as Surbiton, again on the branch line from London Road. Along the way, I called in at G!RO in Esher, before visiting my intended target, The Press Room, conveniently located opposite Surbiton Station. Then it was back on another near-empty train to Guildford.
You can find out what I made of my experiences after the gallery.
Despite my misgivings, I really enjoyed both my trips. Along the way, I discovered just how much I’d missed sitting in coffee shops, drinking coffee out of a proper cup. I’d worried about many things, including how safe I’d feel. As it was, I felt very safe in all the coffee shops I visited, all of whom had implemented the Government guidelines with thought and care.
Tables were well-spaced, Perspex screens were in place where they needed to be and everyone had a good check-in system, although the best was at The Press Room in Surbiton, where you couldn’t even enter the shop unless there was a table free. Guidance was clear, with plenty of signs and instructions, while everyone did a good job of separating takeaway customers from those sitting in. Once again, the best example was at The Press Room, where, due to the layout, takeaway customers are served from the front window. Everywhere else I went, takeaway customers had to enter the coffee shop to order.
Another concern was whether I’d be able to relax. I feared that I would feel pressured to vacate my seat so someone else could come in. Again, I needn’t have worried: it was pretty quiet in all three places I visited in London. That said, I had very much loaded the dice in my favour, picking a cool, cloudy Tuesday when I was fairly sure that there wouldn’t be many people about (and there weren’t; central London was way quieter than central Guildford!).
The following week, both The Press Room and, in particular, G!RO, were much busier, while central Surbiton was the busiest place I’ve been since I left Chicago in March. Even then, I didn’t feel any pressure to move on, so I was able to relax and enjoy my coffee. Since then I’ve also been to Reading and Chester, with Chester in particular being very busy.
Of course, there is a flip side to this relative quiet: profitability. Several of the coffee shops I spoke to mentioned this. In one case, while takings had remained roughly level, opening up the seating meant that staff costs had doubled. Another admitted to being busy at the weekends, but very quiet during the week. I expect this to improve as people become more confident and start returning to coffee shops. It is, after all, early days at the moment, but long-term, profitability has to be a concern. Even the busiest coffee shops that I’ve visited are operating on a reduced capacity compared to pre-COVID tmies.
Rents will play a large part in this: several owners have spoken to me about landlords being supportive, but I was told one horror story of a landlord insisting that the full rent would be due after the deferral period, even for the time when the shop was closed and had zero income. It’s such a short-sighted policy: if the business goes bust, the landlord doesn’t get any rent anyway and good luck getting a new tenant in the current climate.
My final concern may seem small, but it makes all the difference to me: cups. Prior to closing down due to COVID-19, I noticed a lot of coffee shops switching to serving sit-in customers with takeaway cups. I was really fearful that this would become the new normal following reopening. Although it’s only a small sample, of the four places I visited to sit in (Kafi is takeaway only at the moment), only Attendant was serving in takeaway cups. Everyone else was serving in proper cups, or, given my liking for cortados, in glasses. Honestly, it makes such a difference to the experience, so please, coffee shops, use proper cups whenever you can.
In conclusion, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my experiences. I really expected not to enjoy myself and, up until the moment I walked out of the door to catch my train to London, I was in two minds about whether to go. But I did and I’m glad that I did. I’ve gone from being very apprehensive about visiting coffee shops during COVID-19, to actively making time in my weekly schedule so that I can.
Since I wrote this post, I’ve made several more visits to London, as well as trips to Reading and Chester, which provided a considerable contrast to the capital. Keep checking the Coffee Spot for more COVID-19 updates as I continue to expand my (coffee shop) horizons.
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