Surviving and Thriving: how coffee shops have navigated COVID-19

Leeds has emerged from Lockdown 2.0 and straight into tier 3 of the government’s COVID restrictions. This has meant that many of Leeds’ hospitality venues have been forced to keep their doors closed for a second time. While this will be reviewed on the 16th of December, this has no doubt felt like a near fatal blow for many independent businesses. I wanted to see how coffee shops and cafes are surviving in this make-or-break time.

For countless other students and I, coffee is a regular part of our everyday routine. Whether it’s making it myself at home or heading out to do some ‘work’ in a café, hardly a day goes by where I don’t get my caffeine fix. So, when I heard about the new tier 3 restrictions, I was stressed. But lucky for me I’ve found that coffee shops are finding crafty ways to innovate and adapt through this tumultuous time.

Back in normal times my Instagram feed was already made up of all my favourite eateries, but over lockdown I noticed even more business have taken to social media to get the good word out. As well as posting deliciously tempting photos, cafés are making much more use of features like Instagram stories to update customers on when and where they can get their coffee. When rules are constantly changing, it’s a great way to keep your customers informed. No one wants to turn up to a closed coffee shop when you were sure they were open today.

Merchandise is also being fore-fronted. While coffee shops have always sold extra goods, this most recent lockdown has been an opportunity to really push this. From coffee beans and grounds, to equipment and paraphernalia, even local crafts and goods, coffee shops are relying on these extra sales to keep their numbers up and who can blame them?

Credit: Georgie Burgess

North Star Coffee Roasters, situated at Leeds Docks, is offering an ‘Interactive Online Coffee Tasting and Home Brewing Course’. Here, the customer can participate in an 8-week course to learn everything they need to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Meanwhile, Coffee on the Crescent, right on the edge of Woodhouse Moor, is offering a ‘1-2-1 Virtual Barista Masterclass’. An ideal way to perfect your latte art.

The current COVID laws in Leeds mean that coffee shops must remain as ‘takeout only’, with no one being allowed to sit in to eat or drink. I spoke to Laurence Gamble, assistant manager at North Starand he expressed what the hardest part of lockdown has been for them:

“Probably from a business point of view, it would be adapting to the constant changes in rules and regulations, masks, no masks, table service only, takeaway only etc, just being able to communicate these changes to the staff members so that they feel comfortable to work in the shop is the most important thing for us, so trying to keep that as a priority whilst the government rules keep changing has been a struggle!”

This confusion and worry have no doubt been felt by all of us recently, but despite all the uncertainty people are still braving the cold to go get their coffee. When I asked Laurence if anything surprising had resulted from COVID-19, he said that they had actually seen an increase in business compared to before the lockdown:

“whether it’s to do with our location slightly out of town or people not having anywhere else to go … we have been really fortunate that people have still been making the effort to come down to The Docks.”

North Star has been adopting this takeout only service since the end of the first lockdown, but takeout does not mean just coffee. Cakes, pastries, brownies and savoury items are all available to walk away with (their cinnamon rolls are particularly yummy). Many other coffee shops have also adopted this technique to offer customers the widest selection of items they can, while still adhering to the rules. Some, like Laynes Espresso (next to the train station), have even partnered with Uber Eats to deliver their sandwiches and brunch items.  

Laurence mentioned North Star’s location and this I see as a key factor to the survival of all coffee shops during COVID. Over the second lockdown, many of us took the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. We walked with our friends, explored new places and generally participated in our government mandated daily exercise. Coffee for me was something to get me out of the house. I began to pair walks with coffee shops, planning a route that would give me a reward at the end. Whether that was a 10-minute stroll down the road to Hyde Park Book Club or an hour trek down to the Docks, my cup of coffee was the perfect portable, warming, travel companion. It also gave me a small bit of human contact which I know people are appreciating more than ever these days, even if it is from behind a mask. It is these small joys that are getting us through.

Like myself, Laurence shares a positive outlook going forward. While no one really knows what the future of hospitality looks like, he is positive that everything they have been through in the last year has prepared them for when cafés can open again, in the safest way possible. He says,

“we’re hopeful that as soon as we can open back up to dine in, we’ll be ready to go with our new food menu and trying to get back to as close to normality as the current climate allows!”

From talking to Laurence and from what I have seen in and around Leeds, it is clear than we as a collective have come together to support something we love. Hopefully, this has spread across all sectors not just hospitality and I look forward to when we can sit in our favourite coffee shops safely once again. If you have a chance in the coming weeks, go check out North Star Coffee Roasters, down at Leeds Docks. They serve a fabulous cup of coffee and it is a perfect way to see more of our city, to break up your Christmas shopping, or just to spend a chilly winter afternoon!

Header image credit: Karen Cantu – unsplash