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A bittersweet brew – how the coronavirus is changing café culture for better or worse

Hit by lockdowns and social distancing rules, cafés have had to dramatically change their businesses around. But is it all that bad? An opinion piece.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Unless you’ve spent the last few months on the International Space Station, you will know just how extraordinarily life has changed since the start of the year.

One minute we were all still sitting in our favourite cafés sipping on flat whites and eating banana bread and the next, everything was shut.

It happened so suddenly that we, the general public, didn’t even really know what was happening.

I recall getting up early on the Monday morning when the lockdown came into effect and heading to my gym for a TRX class only to find it had been told to close on Sunday night and the government didn’t know for how long.

Especially for the hospitality business this was like someone had gotten out a big-ass boxing glove and knocked it unconscious.

Suddenly we all found ourselves at home with more time on our hands than we had ever imagined, questioning our previous lifestyles and discovering new ways to connect. Zoom parties became a thing overnight, phone calls trumped Whatsapp messages, people started exploring new hobbies and investing more time in brewing their coffees at home. The hasthag #brewathome went viral.

For us, as a subscription business, this has meant exponential growth. While I am extremely grateful that we’ve been able to weather this storm and keep growing stronger every month, I am also fully aware that not everyone in the coffee business has had the same fortune.

Some of my roasters have reported that their businesses practically collapsed from one day to the next while others have been surviving largely thanks to increased web shop orders.

And cafés? As all of them have had to reduce their operations to offer only take out or delivery, this has been a bittersweet brew to swallow.

For someone who has been documenting the specialty coffee industry with this blog since August of 2012 and, in the process, visited hundreds of cafés all over the world, the rapid changes that the hospitality industry has undergone over the past few years have been only too obvious.

Back when I wrote my first reviews, coffee shops were mostly small and compact affairs where you could get a great cup of coffee and maybe pick up a bag of beans or two. Specialty coffee was still more of curiosity than mainstream.

At the start of 2020, specialty coffee was practically everywhere and as a café owner, just doing coffee wasn’t good enough any more. Oh no, Sir!

You had to have a full breakfast and lunch menu, ideally offer craft beer and natural wines and possibly turn into a cocktail bar at night. Coffee, it seemed, while still important, had made way for everything else you could possibly think of and become the extra in an otherwise overcrowded TV show.

Specialty coffee brands were turning into chains, opening new venues at breakneck speed and it became fashionable to offer specialty coffee even if the barista had no clue what he/she was doing. This was especially true in lifestyle hotels and social clubs.

Fast forward only a few months to May of 2020 and things are looking very different, indeed.

Earlier today, I passed by one of my favourite coffee bars in Amsterdam and briefly spoke to the owner. He told me business was actually doing pretty good. Costs were down, profits were up and his retail bags were flying off the shelves.

The coronavirus has suddenly offered café owners a glimpse of what things look like when you go back to basics and remove all the clutter from your operations.

With no kitchens to run, no aspiring novelists who order one drink and linger for hours, no extensive range of cakes on display and limited overheads, many entrepreneurs will now begin to wonder if this new reality might actually be right way forward for them.

Roasters who before had to split their time between the café and the roastery can now focus more fully on roasting coffee and have one dedicated barista working in the café.

This is a stark contrast from what things were like only a few weeks ago. As government are trying to find the right formula to reopening their economies while flattening the curve and stamping out the virus altogether, only gradual changes to this new reality will be possible.

Social distancing rules that limit the number of guests who are allowed to be inside a café/restaurant/bar at anyone time will make it challenging for many to figure out how to police the number of guests who enter their establishments without getting fined or putting their customers and staff at risk.

As the aforementioned café owner wondered: “Do I now have to introduce a booking system? I mean, who’s going to book a table to have a coffee and a cookie?”

For many establishments, having guests back inside will simply not be worth the hassle.

Personally, for a long time, I’ve avoided crowded cafés and brunch places where tables are so close together that you practically have to join your neighbours’ conversation and you’re always at risk of putting your behind on their poached eggs as you try and squeeze out to go to the toilet and I’m secretly glad that tightly packed spaces will be a thing of the past (at least for now).

In many cases, the quality of the coffee had significantly dropped as baristas were trying to churn out one cappuccino after the other and filter coffee was reduced down to the batch brewer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m partial to a good batch brew but I missed the joy of watching a skilled barista prepare a fresh cup of gorgeous and fragrant coffee.

Places like Tornqvist in Hamburg or 4850 in Amsterdam where every cup of filter coffee is made to order had become a rarity.

The downside of this is, of course, that the current crisis has put many people out of work and endangered the survival of a huge number of businesses. From baristas to suppliers, everyone is suffering and it’s not clear how many will make it.

But, at the same time, it does offer a unique opportunity to pose the question whether we actually really need all of this faff to run a healthy business and have happy customers?

It goes without saying that we’ve also been extremely lucky with the weather. Since the lockdowns have come into effect, we’ve experienced an almost unbroken series of sunny days, something that has certainly kept moods up and customers coming to get take-away coffee.

Had this crisis started in the winter, things would almost certainly have turned out far worse.

Nature is teaching us a lesson while offering a silver lining. We, the human race, have lost our way.

But if we steer away from excessive consumerism and an unhealthy greed for profits, maybe we can find a new model that will work better for us.

How this could apply to the hospitality industry is still to be seen. So much depends on cafés, hotels and restaurants being up and running and it will be a long time before we find ourselves back where we were. But will we still be the same people? Surely not.

For better or worse, the coronavirus has had some positive effects too.

I never thought I’d see people patiently queuing outside their local café, sometimes for 20-30 minutes, to get their coffee to go.

No pushing, no shoving.

And, coffee drinkers who never really considered spending money on specialty coffee before are starting to take the plunge and discovering a whole new world of flavour and joy that they never knew existed.

Finally, it seems, we have the time to spend time.

Whether this experience will ultimately lead to a new economic model is yet to be seen. Most likely, once the vaccine has been found and the world has moved past this pandemic, things will go back to the way things were in some form or another.

But until we get there, cafés can focus on serving the best coffees and selling their beans without all the distractions.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

What our reader said

admin said:

Hi Leon. I started this blog almost 10 years ago and the article you refer to about that café in Luxembourg was one of my first review ever. Over the years, I have changed a lot and so have my tastes. I have no idea what their coffees taste like today but I don't think having a different view today than I did back then should require me to now go and delete everything I ever wrote simply because it's no longer in line with my current state of mind. What strikes me is that it sounds almost like you are personally offended by this article. Maybe you can elaborate on where this comes from so I can better understand your motivation?

Leon said:

Every single café listed in Luxemburg, for example. I could go back over my last few years of travel and point out more. It's just really funny to be critical about what is and isn't "good enough" for you when you clearly have been comfortable promoting shops that don't meet the criteria you lay out in this post.

admin said:

Hi Leon. Thank you for your comment. The reviews I've written over the year cover a range of different cafés that I've personally visited at some point in my life and every review was written because the café spoke to me. I don't cover places where the coffee is poorly roasted or tastes terrible. If you can point out which café you are referring to, I'd be happy to take a look at the review.

Leon said:

Funny criticism of bad baristas ruining good coffee etc when your business model is to recommend some places that ding even come close to being specialty coffee beside the grade of the green bean they've roasted beyond recognizing.

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