For many locals, coffee shops are more than places to fulfill a caffeine fix—they’re meeting spaces, offices, and casual date destinations. But for months now, the COVID-19 pandemic has limited coffeehouses to outdoor seating or grab-and-go service. As long as Los Angeles County is classified “purple” on the state’s color-coded virus risk assessment blueprint, coffee shops—along with restaurants—will remain closed for indoor seating.
If conditions improve and the county begins progressing through the other colored tiers, coffee shops could soon be able to welcome patrons back indoors (albeit, at reduced numbers). Will the city’s laptop warriors, first-daters, friends, and business associates feel comfortable enough congregating for these businesses to again become destinations? Some of L.A.’s most prominent coffee pros are cautiously optimistic coffee shop culture will bounce back, but expect to keep relying on the adjustments they’ve made during the pandemic for a while longer.
Kyle Glanville, CEO of Go Get Em Tiger and G&B Coffee, initially had to close an Arts District outpost, but is now on the verge of opening a third new location during the pandemic, adding Santa Monica to Culver City and West Hollywood locations. He’s confident that coffee bars “will regain their essential status as community hubs,” though it will be gradual and “things will definitely look different on the other side.”
If you thought a lot of people worked in coffeehouses before COVID-19, just wait. The potential “coffice” (coffeehouse office) crowd has grown exponentially during the pandemic, millions of people will still need to stay productive outside of traditional office settings, and GGET will be ready for them. “More [work from home] will alter people’s schedules and I believe will make the cafe even more indispensable as a meeting place,” Glanville says. Conversely, “the still essential takeout business will have spent the pandemic becoming more fluent in mobile and digitally managed coffee ordering.”
During the pandemic, GGET has also become a grocery, adding produce and pantry items to its food-and-beverage program. “A lot of us have trained our customers to depend on the coffee shop for more than just coffee,” Glanville says, adding, “After a year of training this behavior, I think most customers will not want to give it up.” Those offerings will continue after the crisis subsides. So will mobile ordering, which has become a lifeline for GGET and other coffee bars.
Business has gone well enough, but Glanville is ready to return to regularity. “I miss everything about it,” he says. “The clicks and clacks of the equipment, the music, the ceramics, hugging an old friend. I miss it all and I want it back.”
Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen has become a neighborhood favorite in View Park and Inglewood, and co-founders Ajay Relan and Yonnie Hagos are readying an Eagle Rock outpost. “Businesses like ours are built on community,” Relan says. “We pride ourselves on creating and maintaining that connection and are constantly reminded how familiar we’ve become to those that frequent our spaces.”
Once pandemic conditions improve, Relan expects “people to ease back into their routines, which means coming to Hilltop to hang, work, meet, and build,” although perhaps not across the board. “People might be reluctant at first, especially in communities of color like the ones we serve, which have been hit harder than most,” Hagos says.
COVID-19 has indelibly changed how most people view cleanliness and contact. Even after local restrictions change, Hilltop will maintain social distancing for customers in line and will still have staff members wear protective face coverings and gloves. “We cannot stress how paramount the safety and peace of mind of our staff and customers is,” Hagos says.
“Our walls are meant to be filled with our neighbors and we cannot wait to be back again, soon.”
In the meantime, they’ve optimized takeout and delivery and even hatched a hashtag: #HilltopAtHome. “While we expect people to come back to dine-in with us, now that people know that they can depend on us for easy pickup and delivery, we’re able to let our customers continue on their ‘climb’ with as little friction as possible,” Hagos says. If life is a “climb” like Hagos suggests, 2020 may as well be Mount Kilimanjaro. Hilltop’s partners are ready for the descent.
“We miss seeing the people we serve creating in our space and enjoying the vibes we’re known for,” Relan says. “Our walls are meant to be filled with our neighbors and we cannot wait to be back again, soon.”
Towering Silverback Coffee of Rwanda founder Jack Karuletwa has roasted and brewed coffee in an under-the-radar storefront near a four-freeway tangle east of the L.A. River. To start 2020, he had the chance to open a “café owner’s dream spot,” replacing Blue Bottle on Echo Park’s main drag. “By mid-March we were closing our doors indefinitely,” he recalls.
Karuletwa drew on his “long family history of resilience, determination and an urgent call to always pay it forward” to stay afloat. He was also motivated to support the Hingakawa Women Co-ops who grow their coffee beans, mostly comprised of Rwandan genocide widows. “Every cup we make exists because of the grit and the fortitude that these women coffee famers have,” he says.
Like other businesses in COVID-19’s crosshairs, Karuletwa and his depleted team quickly had to figure out new revenue streams with limited resources. “This catastrophic tsunami of events has indeed forced businesses like ours that depend very much on frontline, face to face transactions that we use to build loyalty and long standing relationships; to now be able to create that same transaction minus the human connection,” he says. “This intangible process will now have to be channeled through technology.”
New measures include developing a Silverback Coffee app and interactive website that makes it just as easy for customers to order a nitro cold brew and remotely track gorillas in Rwanda. The goal: “Making ourselves visible and accessible at the touch of a button.” In the meantime, the company’s Echo Park café is still open for business and Karuletwa’s working to reopen downtown, of course keeping social distancing in mind.
He remains optimistic about his business’s post-pandemic prospects, saying, “We will overcome this adversity.”
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