On a Wednesday morning in May at Coffee By Design’s Diamond Street store, customers hunched over laptops for remote work filled many of the 40 seats in the main room. In the store’s private meeting room, the Portland Buy Local board of directors gathered around the conference table, clearly enjoying meeting in person for the first time since the pandemic began.
The bustling atmosphere in the meeting room seemed to have as much to do with the caffeinated drinks as with the novelty of talking face-to-face with colleagues again after more than two years apart.
“There’s nothing like being able to go to a coffee shop for me,” said Kelly Fernald, vice president of the Buy Local council. “That’s probably one of the things I’ve missed the most.”
At other cafes in southern Maine, there has been a significant drop in walk-in business and a related increase in take-out orders since the pandemic began. Some have only just reopened their indoor seating areas, and others have turned to coffee bean delivery programs to accommodate customers who are worried about hanging out in cafes again.
Just as restaurants and bars have had to adapt to meet customer needs during the pandemic, local cafes are reconsidering their operating models in a time of social distancing, online ordering and remote working. The changes they make vary depending on factors such as whether they primarily serve busy office workers on the clock or people on – and possibly long – coffee breaks. And they have to adapt to the behavior of their customers, which can change from day to day, depending on whether the pandemic is decreasing or increasing.
This spring, Diamond Street Coffee By Design has seen lines of customers walk out many mornings, according to owner Mary Allen Lindemann, and they stay in the store for long periods of time, using their tables as ad hoc desks for remote working. . .
“People stay six, eight hours. We haven’t seen this for years. We’re asking customers who are waiting to be seated to please be patient, and I think we’re going to have to put some signage back in,” announcing a time limit at the tables, Lindemann said. However, their persistence did not hurt sales too much; they are higher than ever since the start of the year, she said.
Jon Phillips, owner of Time & Tide Coffee, hasn’t seen those kinds of customers return to his store in Biddeford town centre.
“I think people aren’t hanging out in cafes like they did before the pandemic, and home (coffee) consumption has increased dramatically,” he said.
But Phillips said her store has seen an increase in online takeout orders.
“There may not be anyone in the cafe, but we still have tons of orders,” he said.
Coffee By Design also has strong sales numbers for takeout and curbside purchases, as well as orders placed online. “That means staff have to manage more order channels, which can make things complicated and confusing for them,” Lindemann said. “But everyday it feels like the rules (of behavior in a pandemic) are changing and the flow of how people arrive is changing.”
Coffee consumption in America is at its highest level in two decades, according to a March report from the National Coffee Association which indicates that 66% of Americans drink coffee every day, up from 14% since January 2021. Specialty coffee drinks like cappuccino, latte and espresso are the choice of 43% of coffee drinkers, up 20% since January 2021, marking a five-year high.
“People’s relationship to coffee has changed,” said Stella Hernandez, who owns Hilltop Coffee Shop in Portland with her husband, Guy. She said she noticed her customers buying less drip coffee and placing more special orders like espressos. “Maybe people were healing themselves.”
Hilltop reopened its indoor seating on June 1. “We wanted to get through Memorial Day weekend so we could start slow,” Hernandez said. “For the most part the weather has been good enough this month that we could keep all the windows open.”
Prior to June, Hilltop allowed customers to place orders inside, but they could not sit inside. Hernandez said some longtime customers, despite understanding the seating restriction, felt a little out of place.
“People are missing their neighborhood cafe now,” she said. “They say, that’s where we felt community.”
Guy Hernandez said Hilltop saw more customers this spring. While they were eager for more people to come back inside, he said their priority was to make sure employees felt their work environment was safe.
Speckled Ax on Congress Street reopened for seating this spring. Since then, small groups of professionals have used the store as a meeting space, manager Rob MacArthur said. Before the pandemic, he might have discouraged customers from using tables for extended meetings. But now the shop is happy to welcome them. “We’ve definitely had more people coming in for meetings than they previously would have had,” he said.
Rwanda Bean officially closed its South Portland store in April for a number of reasons, according to co-owner Danielle Graffius, including COVID-19, staffing issues and road construction near the store that made visits problematic. for the customers. Graffius said the two Portland locations in Rwanda, Deering Center and Thompson’s Point, tried to order online early in the pandemic when indoor seating was not an option, but quickly found that orders placed for pickup often pushed the limits of quality control.
“We never want to offer someone a lukewarm cup of coffee, so we quit,” she said.
DELIVER THE GRAINS
Graffius, who owns the business with her husband, Ben, said they found themselves driving around Portland leaving bags of coffee beans at the doorsteps of customers who ordered them online. As they received more and more bean delivery orders, they decided to launch a subscription service, selling discounted bags of whole or ground beans to subscribers and offering free delivery within a five-mile radius.
Rwanda’s subscription service has likely benefited from the surge in sales of pandemic-era home coffee equipment, including grinders, filter brewers and espresso machines, as many enthusiasts coffee shops nationwide were looking to provide themselves with a café-quality coffee experience from the comfort and safety of their kitchens. Last July, Italian coffee machine maker Delonghi announced a 319.5% growth in half-year revenue. And in a fall 2020 survey of more than 500 American coffee drinkers, conducted by coffee brand Melitta North America to determine how the pandemic had changed their drinking habits, 46% said they wanted to improve their home brewing game, and 21% said they had started buying more coffee online.
The Specialty Coffee Association found that 27% of respondents to its March survey regularly bought coffee away from home, up 8% from 2021, but still not at pre-pandemic levels.
Portland resident Donna Ekart was an early adopter of Rwanda Bean’s delivery program. She said that she and her husband “kind of stopped going to the cafe for coffee. It just drifted out of our lives.
She remembers ordering a 5-pound bag of coffee at the start of the pandemic. “It was when everyone was closed. We joked that it would last us through the pandemic, and of course we were wrong.
Ekart and her husband now have four 12-ounce bags a month delivered from Rwanda Bean.
Despite the success of the subscription service, Graffius said it has also seen an increase since winter in the number of customers venturing into the store to enjoy a cup without rushing while seated.
“So many people have turned to working from home and they’re tired of staring at the same four walls,” she said. “And we like it when they come, because we get to know them when they’re here. They can bring a laptop and stay for a few hours, or have a meeting at a table.
South Portland’s Jennifer Christensen, a regular at Rwanda Bean’s former South Portland location, has made a habit of visiting the Thompson’s Point location. “I’ve been working from home for 25 years so it’s nothing new, once in a while you just need a change of scenery. Thompson became my favorite (after the South Portland store closed) because it was light, airy and safe. Not wall to wall people.
Graffius said Rwanda Bean’s Thompson’s Point location “has really lent itself to being versatile”, and the shop hosts events, entertainment and coffee roasting classes. She said they will be building an additional “comfortable” sitting area upstairs in a loft-like space, to be ready in the fall, which will include a sofa, coffee tables and a meeting table so that they can accommodate more customers wishing to do business in a comfortable atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Graffius said she expects the summer to bring her cafes a mix of in-store customers and outdoor seating or take-out orders. “Customer desires determine the path forward,” she said.
Hernandez said while summer isn’t peak season for customers to sit indoors, she hopes more people will feel inclined to stay since Hilltop reopened its indoor seating and maximized flow. of air by opening all its windows.
“I’m looking forward to a summer with a little more laughter in the store, not just people getting their coffee to go,” she said.
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