11 September 2020, 07:13 AM
  • It's been a hell of a spring and summer, but what has Covid-19 done to the café scene, and where's next?
Cafés in the time of Coronavirus

Remember those heady days before masks, the furlough scheme and ‘biofogging’ were on your radar? In these unprecedented times you may have had sleepless nights wondering how best to keep your business alive. The challenge, still surreal enough to sound like a Hollywood film plot, is known to us all: flatlining footfall in non-residential areas as the population has shifted to working from home. Closure of foodservice outlets with the loss of several weeks, even months, of revenue. A buying public reluctant to return to their old habits, living under the constant threat of a return to lockdown measures. So how has your café business coped? With a heady mixture of determination, ingenuity and luck, if the stories of our readers are anything to go on.

Take Perky Blenders, the East London Roastery with four cafés which decided to keep three open despite Government hints of a moral obligation to close. “At first people in our area were scared but relieved not to have to travel into work, so there was almost a holiday atmosphere,” says owner Adam Cozens. “We diversified overnight, seeing that other coffee shops were starting to sell the additional items that public were finding hard to buy. We bought 14kg bags of flour, yeast and eggs, repackaging it to retail-friendly units, and so our spend per coffee transaction went up about 500%. We increased sales and have retained them – which has been a complete saviour.” Elsewhere survival tactics have involved obtaining an alcohol license, signing up to delivery services such as Deliveroo, and (another success for Perky Blenders) launching Crowdfunder campaigns to save the cafés communities hold so dear.

As the recovery began, the new challenges of operating in the time of Covid-19 have challenged businesses to rethink. The adoption of new technology has marched apace, with necessity creating some inventive solutions to the logistical problems of prepping and serving food and drinks amid a viral pandemic. A good example is the Real Food Café in Tyndrum on the edge of the Loch Lomond National Park. “We’ve installed an online click and collect platform for ordering, and extended our WiFi over the car park so that ordering from the car is now very easy and doable,” says co-owner Sarah Heward.

While many businesses have seen a huge shift to online ordering via websites or apps, arguably a bigger change is the swing away from cash. According to research by Capterra, 95% of Brits who installed a mobile wallet onto their phone during lockdown intend to continue using it. “Going cashless has been a big thing for us,” says Stuart Wilson of Lost Sheep Coffee in Kent. “When you’re in this storm of mess you have 20:20 clarity. You think ‘We have to do this or there could be no business.’ I’ve wanted to go totally cashless for years and now we have. It’s obviously more hygienic, which is the big factor right now, but it also saves money on the operations side of things too.”

Elsewhere, finding new ways of working has been liberating. “In terms of our objectives, many have been ramped up,” says Henry Ayers of London’s The Gentlemen Baristas. “Plans that were months down the line are now very much on the table. We’re changing our priorities and looking into simplifying our offering.” Like many other businesses, Henry has found the last few months have bonded his teams together. “We’re really proud that we remained a solid family. We may not have seen each other for months but endeavoured to stay in touch with every single person which has been great for keeping up team morale.”

The odd sense of being on a ‘war footing’ – heightened by news of distilleries switching production from spirits to sanitiser – has changed the way customers interact with the businesses around us. As the pandemic continues its endless progress, your café, like the retail element of your businesses, may have a new public service purpose. For Jasmine Wythe of Peasbodys Coffee, an independent that operates six sites at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, this purpose has come into sharp focus. “Our staff were able to keep our customers’ spirits up,” she says, “and we know from feedback how grateful our customers were to be able to grab a homemade hot toasted ciabatta or fresh fruit salad when all other coffee shops were closed. There really is something to be said about having somebody else make lunch for you on a tough day. That’s why we feel that good coffee shops are here to stay, as hard as it might be for some right now. It’s not all about the coffee or the sandwich, it’s about the service and respite in the day.”

Three ways to change up your offer

Evaluate delivery
Table service? Tray slide self-service counter? Online ordering? With customers primed for change, there’s never been a better time to reshape your café format to minimise queueing and lower staffing costs.

Embrace vegan
Plant-based choices are a strong option, with research from market analysts Mintel showing that Covid-19 pandemic has made a vegan diet even more appealing to young British millennials. Now’s a great time to experiment with your menu, and see how it affects turnover.

Consider location
The Centre for Cities’ high street recovery tracker is a good place to learn about footfall trends. Suffering at your current location? Mobile stalls and short-lease kiosks could be a mid-term solution as the long-term picture emerges. 

To download the full latest issue of Cafe Buyer for free, click here.

more like this
  • Is our café a hero or a villain?

    03 August 2020
    My first article for Speciality Food was five years ago in 2015 and since then we have experienced three general elections (amazingly), the Queen’s 90th birthday, a major Royal Wedding, Brexit and several weather extremes. However, nothing even remotely compares to the effect of Covid-19 on our businesses.
  • The power of coffee

    29 November 2019
    Is your range meeting the consumer's thirst for premiumisation? We explore the market forces