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Let’s Get Coffee: Redefining Café Culture

Coffee’s warm reputation prevails during the pandemic.

by Trad Sevin | September 14, 2020

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from COVID-19, it’s that the coffee keeps especially warm. Despite a whirl of assumptions that coffee shops might shut their doors indefinitely, the bean has proven one pandemic over that coffee, among other things, rests comfortably at the tip top of our to-do lists. That morning cup spikes as hard as it did before, only now we’re picking up at to-go counters and calling orders through plexiglass. The bean is the same, but the scene is changing, and this pivotal period will encourage a transformation (or several) for the future of coffee culture.

With an odd sense of unity, states have deployed their own battle plan to combat the coronavirus. As unique as these methods are, coffee shops also find alternative ways to brew the true spirit of coffee, which holds deep roots in community.

Chad Freilino, COO of Irving Farm in New York, recalls the patchwork of years past when he first felt coffee’s snug quilt fully embrace him in college. “I’ve been in specialty coffee ever since my first gig managing a café on campus,” Freilino explained. “That was where everyone would hang out. It was open late, the cool place to be. I got addicted to the community.”

A city like New York is nothing without its people, and New Yorkers maintain a strong sense of identity amongst themselves that sneers in the face of hard luck. “The thing about New York is that we deal with harsh realities early on, and you can’t ignore that,” Freilino said. “People are here because they love this city.”

Nobody wants to address the elephant in the room, but summer has been kind as we adjust to new settings. The impending frost of winter looms above, and while COVID’s patience runs a thin line, at least we can make space where space is available.

“Now, life in New York is out in the streets, because it’s safer to be outside,” Freilino said. “Cafés like ours offer outdoor seating, and that’s where the conversations are happening.”

For so many of us, the culture surrounding coffee thrives in a café setting, where spoken word and intimate daydreams flow freely. It’s in the café where you might start and finish a book, discuss a headline, or write your own story. It’s where folks gather or disperse, debate or harmonize. Without a ceramic mug and a seat at the table, can we still ignite these experiences?

Atlanta has seen pulverizing numbers climb higher each month, which puts the city’s extensive coffee community in the eye of the storm. Portrait Coffee, who stole the hearts of ATLiens in December of 2019, was making moves to open their first café in Atlanta’s historic West End enclave when news of COVID began to circulate. While other shops made hasty adjustments to their existing operations, Portrait needed to consider what a café might look like in a viral world.

Aaron Fender, Co-Founder of Portrait, has embraced a new kind of coffee culture that surfaced in days of disconnect. “I think we’re really going to see a long-term shift in coffee culture,” Fender said. “There’s an increase in home brewing, so coffee subscriptions have been a huge area of growth... it’s become like the Amazon Prime of our economy.”

Many consumers have their coffees delivered to their doorsteps rather than venturing out to the shops. “As long as the virus allows, people will eventually get back to meeting within coffee shops,” Fender said. “There’s always going to be a place for that. It’s a timeless thing.”

Portrait’s principle of “pouring a new narrative” resonates with the world spinning outside our window. Tomorrow could be as smooth and intentional as our rosettas, if we allow it. Opening a café during a pandemic feels strange, but the process takes the shape of the people doing the work, and their abilities to rise above obvious clutter.

“As a team, we’ve taken this time to fuel, to continue energizing our mission,” Fender said. “When we launched our kickstarter, we had no idea how necessary the message we were sharing would be.”

Construction of the new café is slated to begin in about a month, and the Portrait team is paying close attention to where they step along the way. “We recently got our permit, which was difficult as the city has taken longer than usual to process permits,” Fender said. “But we really want the café to have a malleable design... no need to worry about furniture at the moment!”

Perhaps the most realistic iteration of "hope" in such grim circumstances is the execution of innovation. When we create new spaces, we disrupt any tepid water that’s been settling in order to uncover new opportunities. Coffee, as an industry, makes a point to bend about the current state of the world and redefine itself with the times. We’ve already seen one season of change, colored by sweet shades of spring and summer. Now, we look ahead to what the end of 2020 looks like, and what the beginning of ’21 might bring.

Allison Sandbeck, the culinary powerhouse behind Wonderstate Coffee has brought innovation to their homegrown shop in Viroqua, Wisconsin.

“We’ve reinvented our space multiple times,” Sandbeck said. “At one point, we turned our dining room into a sourdough bread workshop! People could purchase a loaf and donate to local food pantries.”

The Viroqua shop maintains fierce dedication in rural Wisconsin, and the regulars aren’t slowing down anytime soon. “People aren’t traveling as much, so it really does become about your town, your coffee shop, your community,” Sandbeck said. “Our small town has become that much smaller, in a good way.”

Community is at the core of what makes coffee a force to be reckoned with. Coffee shops can offer that special ingredient no other competitor provides. It doesn’t matter how many teams play the field, because at the end of the day, it’s just coffee. And sometimes that’s just enough.

“Growing up in New York City, coffee, for me, was going to the bagel shop and getting the biggest styrofoam cup full of hot coffee!” Sandbeck recalls. “It always centered around some sort of gathering, and that stuck with me as something worth recreating.”

And even under strenuous circumstances, we find unique ways to connect to each other over coffee, whether it’s a virtual coffee date with long-distance friends or giving back to the communities who give so much already.

“We started opening a way for people to donate coffee, online, to people on the front lines,” Sandbeck explained. “This really resurrected the idea of coffee culture again. What coffee is really about! And that felt good... something we could achieve in that moment.”

For some, conversations with regulars have adopted a new tone, thanks to muffled masks and lack of animation. “I’m such a mouth reader! I can’t get the full picture with the masks,” Sandbeck said.

Stranger still, latté art has taken the back seat in some cafés, since to-go cups are instantly capped and cover any design that would normally steal the show in regular mugs. The challenge for us, as coffee professionals, is figuring out how to replicate the warmth that we associate with cafés. Latté art and mood music could change, but the essence of coffee is truly immortal.

“I’ve always loved visiting other coffee shops in my spare time,” Freilino said. “But I think direct consumerism is the future of coffee. That’s where we’re headed. Even still, that’s something I appreciate about Trade is being able to interact with other roasters online and get a sense of what other folks are doing out there. It’s a form of connection for me in a time when that’s difficult to come by.”

Be it New York, Atlanta, or rural Wisconsin, we’ve taken resilience nationwide, as fellowship and good coffee is something we all understand. Likewise, the strength of coffee is measured by the strength of our communities. More than ever, we hold the little things that make waves in our lives close to the heart, and offer these tokens to as many people as we can (from six feet away).

“Everything has to be reconfigured, redefined, slowly but surely we’re figuring it out,” Freilino said. “The culture will stay.”