Southwest coffee shops struggle, adjust amid outbreak

Zoe's Cafe owner Jack McCrery has adjusted his business to include delivery meals amidst the coronavirus outbreak. file photo

When online orders used to come into Zoe’s Cafe, it was a bit of an annoyance. 

The normally bustling coffee shop and bakery at Lake & Bryant typically has enough customers that online orders would feel like an extra task for busy workers, according to proprietor Jack McCrery. But since the coronavirus outbreak has shuttered dine-in service, it’s become the center of Zoe’s business. So far, those orders have been coming in on a steady basis. 

“People have been really great about supporting local businesses,” McCrery said. 

Coffee shops across Southwest Minneapolis, like other enterprises, have been deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Normally places for people to meet, work and chat, coffee shops have gone quiet, adjusted hours or closed entirely. 

A few blocks south of Zoe’s, Canteen Coffee has been shut down since the municipal and statewide dine-in orders went into place on March 17. Canteen doesn’t have a kitchen, and while owner Liz Abene does sell a line of baked goods and bars, she felt like the best option was to close entirely. 

She just set up a shop feature on the Canteen website where people can buy her Canteen Girl line of baked goods and nut butters to maintain some business during the shutdown. She donated a few five-pound bulk bean bags to Second Harvest Heartland. 

“Small business people are supposed to know how to do everything, so it’s very difficult,” Abene said.  

Sho Nikaido
Sho Nikaido has been working as a barista at Canteen since 2010. He and other employees are laid off while the cafe is closed amidst the coronavirus outbreak. Photo by Ryan Stopera

Abene lives near her store and will walk there a couple times a day. When she does, she has been posting on social media and selling bags of coffee beans to customers. Customers have asked her how they can help by purchasing gift cards. 

“People are really nice,” she said. 

Five Watt Coffee, which has Southwest locations at 34th & Lyndale and 38th & Nicollet, is keeping cafes open on shortened hours of 8 a.m. to noon, according to co-owner Lee Carter 

“We have people showing up every day to get stuff to-go and people are definitely happy that we’re here,” he said. 

Right now, Five Watt is not selling its typical offerings of baked goods, mainly to avoid putting its baker, Penny’s of Linden Hills, in a tough spot, Carter said. The company has seen an uptick in customers buying bulk beans during the crisis. 

Customers can still come into Zoe’s and other coffee shops to grab to-go drinks and pastries, but with all the chairs stacked up, the vibe is different. A few customers have come in and been genuinely confused as to why the store is closed. 

The store has switched to doing a lot of delivery orders, a new service for Zoe’s. The morning of March 23, McCrery dropped off an order of croissants and breakfast sandwiches to Children’s Minnesota hospital in South Minneapolis. 

Employment approaches, loan considerations

Nearly 150,000 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus outbreak began, according to Steve Grove, commissioner of the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). About a third of those are in the food industry. Most Southwest coffee shops have laid off all their staff during the crisis. 

Five Watt has laid off staff at all four locations during the pandemic, Carter said. The state making unemployment benefits immediately available to all workers impacted was a relief, he said. The company has also set up a few promotions to help its staff. Five Watt is selling gift cards and t-shirts online, with an option for customers to leave a tip that will go directly to laid-off workers; people can also just make a direct donation to workers through a virtual tip jar. 

“We’ve seen a lot of community reach out to support our staff, which has been great,” Carter said. 

Spyhouse Coffee, which has closed its five cafes including two Southwest locations in East Isles and Whittier, has also set up a virtual tip jar

Canteen only has five employees, two of whom have full-time jobs outside the cafe, Abene said. She mainly wanted to close to ensure workers could claim unemployment benefits. She said the group has been regularly checking in with each other. When cafes are allowed to reopen, she said she intends to reimburse her workers for lost pay during the shutdown. 

“I feel lucky because the people who have 20-plus employees on their payroll are in a tough situation,” Abene said. 

For the first few days of the restaurant and cafe shutdown, Zoe’s had its regular staff working under reduced hours of about 10 hours per week. But McCrery said he quickly realized most of those workers would be able to earn more if they were temporarily laid off and could access unemployment benefits. Now it’s just him, his two brothers and two managers working there regularly. 

The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) and Minnesota DEED have both made small business loans available with very low interest rates, but many companies are still wary about using that option until absolutely necessary. 

“A loan doesn’t make up for money you lost,” Carter said. 

While he believes the interest rates are generous, paying the loans back could take years if the cafes need to be closed for multiple months. He said Five Watt may need to take out a federal or state loan, but he doesn’t know if it’s a real solution for the problems small businesses are facing.