Spyhouse barista launches fundraiser for impacted employees

A piece done by an MCAD student for a Spyhouse assignment hangs in the Spyhouse Coffee Uptown location at 24th & Hennepin. Submitted photo.

When Spyhouse Coffee barista Bex DeBoer found out they and about 45 coworkers across the metro would be temporarily laid-off amid the coronavirus pandemic, they had a plan.

The experienced barista had been following the global spread of the coronavirus in the news and had been talking to colleagues they knew from coffeeshops in coastal cities about their shops closing. A friend in Philadelphia had launched a Venmo account so people could send digital tips to baristas laid off amidst the outbreak. DeBoer thought it would be a good idea here, too, and launched a PayPal account to gather funds to send to the newly unemployed baristas.

“I know people from coast to coast and seeing all of these companies, all of my friends build these up, I knew I had to do it,” DeBoer said. 

Spyhouse management decided to help out and shifted the campaign to a GoFundMe account. The virtual tip jar, as it’s known, has a $30,000 goal. Spyhouse will distribute the funds to workers based on the average number of hours they’ve worked in the past three months, so full-timers will get more than part-timers.

Other businesses affected in Southwest, like The Electric Fetus record shop in Whittier, have had people set up fundraisers to help staff cover bills while the store is closed.

For many small businesses the question is: What is the best thing to do for their employees? And the answer right now, according to Gov. Tim Walz and Mayor Jacob Frey, is to temporarily lay off their staff so that they can claim unemployment benefits from the state.

That’s the route Spyhouse, like many in the service industry, decided to take. The coffee company has five metro locations, including cafes at 24th & Hennepin and 24th & Nicollet in Southwest.  Spyhouse will be covering 100% of worker’s insurance premiums during the outbreak, according to director of administration Alyssa Lundberg. She said they’ve been in contact with workers and trying to keep them in the loop as the state and federal governments adopt changes to unemployment and other resources during the crisis. 

“We’re doing as much as we can,” Lundberg said.

The roasters are still working at Spyhouse and the company is continuing to sell its beans through local grocers like Kowalski’s and online (where people can buy five-pound bulk bags if they’re looking to stock up), but the company also wholesales to several local cafes and bakeries, like Black Walnut at 32nd & Hennepin. Those companies and staff are also hurting, Lundberg said..

“That immediate gut reaction is, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got staff, how do I take care of them,’” she said. 

Spyhouse had been asking its workers to make changes as the COVID-19 cases rose across the Midwest. First sending out messages to workers encouraging them to be extra vigilant in hand-washing and sanitizing, then asking them to not fill up personal travel mugs and issue to-go cups to all customers, DeBoer said. Over the week of March 13, they saw customers dwindle.

The morning of March 16, DeBoer was opening the Northeast Spyhouse. Typically one of the busier coffeeshops in the city, fewer than 30 customers came in during the first few hours. “It became eerie,” DeBoer said.

Shortly before Mayor Jacob Frey and Gov. Tim Walz announced restaurants, cafes, bars and more would close to slow the spread, Spyhouse sent a note to employees announcing the cafes would close.

“It came as relief but it also came with a lot of fear,” DeBoer said. 

DeBoer and around 45 more Spyhouse baristas are among the 95,352 Minnesotans who have applied for unemployment benefits since March 16, according to state officials. After hearing the announcements, the first thing DeBoer did was go online and try to figure out the unemployment application. The application itself was pretty easy and they got approved. Now DeBoer is waiting on the final paperwork to come through before they can get some checks. 

“Theres just a lot of fear of uncertainty,” DeBoer said. “I think a lot of us realize this is going to last more than two weeks.”

Tips make up about 50% of income for baristas, DeBoer said. With unemployment paying out about 60% of their hourly wage, it amounts to around a quarter of their real income.

For now, DeBoer is in decent spirits, and is hanging out with their dog, going on runs and reading to keep their mind occupied.

“I recognize we’re in the beginning of this though and it might be not so easy in a few weeks,” DeBoer said.