The future, I never saw you coming. Cafe life post COVID-19 will be about diversification of what defines service, product configuration, meeting guests where they want to be, staff and customer safety; which means evolving hospitality into something that is a bit more hostile and authoritarian. Now please allow me to unpack what I mean by all this.
Pre-COVID-19 I would suggest most specialty coffee spots were trying to create a curated experience. And by this I mean, something that maybe came across as the barista knows best, which is also why specialty coffee has a bad customer service reputation at times. Early speciality coffee cafes were trying to deliver a singular, heavily coffee centric experience which meant ‘no’ had to be engineered into the customer experience at several points of service or execution of the model. Not only were these early movers so passionate about coffee that their business models were more art projects than a well reasoned profit and loss statement, but it was also the only real way to differentiate themselves from the juggernauts of Starbucks, Peet’s, and Dunkin. For some in specialty coffee this might have meant no milk, sugars or other adjuncts; or roasts of only one level; or no to certain beverages; or maybe even no to-go or takeout beverages. I will freely admit to adhering to more than one of these bright line rules in the early years of Sump (sorry to those that weathered the storm).
Post-COVID-19 the offerings will be whatever the guest wants. Not only because of the desperation to get back to pre-COVID-19 revenue levels, but also because the distance between guests and staff, whether it be 6 feet, curbside or app ordering, or through masks; it will no longer permit the dialogue and the trust required to deliver and create a curated coffee experience. Don’t misunderstand me, the coffee will still be good to great, and people will still be very passionate about making/creating coffee, but there will be a lot more flexibility on meeting the guest where they are, both physically (curbside, take out window) and physiologically (extra shot of caramel please, and in a bigger cup too -dalgona anyone?). I also have seen that being able to order through an app for pick-up allows people greater permission to be themselves. I do believe that over the years I have created a reputation (wrongly or rightly, and certainly not how I see the world now) for intolerance of some types of coffee expressions/offerings; which in turn means that people ordering in an intimate setting, person to person, will self edit or maybe ask for things that I myself would lean toward. When the transaction happens at a distance, via an app or other contactless ordering and payment system, people have total freedom of expression, and will really get freaky and comfortable with the menu, making it their own via substitutions and requests. There is a certain comfort in a modest amount of anonymity.
Post-COVID-19 the product service configuration will change into almost exclusively single use consumables. No shared condiment bar. No self serve batch brew. No bringing your own cup. The world pivoted 180 degrees in about 6 weeks, from a striving and discussion about sustainability and reuse to single use, disposable wares. The world will have to be saved another time, we have to save ourselves first.
Post-COVID-19 hospitality will quite frankly be more hostile and authoritarian. Costco is already mandating its members wear masks when visiting. Some grocery stores have IR cameras that capture the body temperature of guests entering the store. Software alerts a ‘greeter’ to individuals with elevated body temperatures. Out for a jog and then grab a cup of coffee in the morning? Not today, your elevated body temperature suggests risk. Maybe tomorrow or after you shower. Entering cafes and ordering coffee will be more like clearing TSA. There will be queues, enforced structures, rules for entering, individuals disciplined for infractions and just in general a lot more regulations. This is both for the health and safety of the staff (and also who knows what type of liabilities will lie for companies where their team members become sick because of COVID and interfacing with guests, congress is debating this currently) and that of the consuming public.
The coffee spots that will prevail will be those that can pivot and are diverse from present current models. Pre-COVID-19 it often felt like there was an arms race to build bigger and more instagram worthy cathedrals and spaces to coffee. More subway tile, more roll up garage doors, weirder and more exotic equipment, modern bars and design. I’d trade it all now for a handful of bar height 2 tops (not a chair in sight), a strong app for managing service, and a walk up service window for pick up and curbside. The goal post-COVID will be to find the customer where they are and where they feel safe and comfortable (balanced against staff concerns), both in terms of service and offerings and not mandating the coffee experience the barista unilaterally decides. More grab and go, more app or virtual based cafe ‘experiences’ and selling.
I make no judgment on any of the above.If it’s a V recovery and a vaccine comes about, this is all science fiction. If it’s a U recovery and no vaccine, then this dystopia is the new normal. I love to make coffee and provide a product that people enjoy. If I can continue to do that, that is my only wish. Be safe, be healthy, be happy.