Every table is taken at Coffee By Design on a Monday morning in May. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On a Wednesday morning in May at Coffee By Design’s Diamond Street shop, customers hunkering down over laptops for remote work filled many of the main room’s 40 seats. In the shop’s private meeting room, the board of directors for Portland Buy Local was gathered around the conference table, clearly enjoying meeting in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

The lively vibe in the meeting room seemed to have as much to do with caffeinated beverages as the novelty of talking with colleagues face-to-face again after more than two years of distancing.

“For me, there’s nothing like being able to go to a coffee shop,” said Kelly Fernald, vice president of the Buy Local board. “It’s probably one of the things I missed the most.”

At other southern Maine coffee shops, there’s been a significant drop in walk-in business and a related rise in to-go orders since the start of the pandemic. Some are just now reopening their indoor seating areas, and others have pivoted to coffee bean delivery programs to accommodate customers wary of hanging out in cafes again.

Just as restaurants and bars have had to adapt to meet the needs of customers during the pandemic, local coffee shops are reconsidering their operating models in an age of social distancing, online ordering and remote work. What changes they’re making vary, depending on factors like whether they mainly serve busy office workers on the clock or people on a leisurely – and possibly long – coffee break. And they have to adjust along with their customers’ behavior, which can change from day to day, depending on whether the pandemic is ebbing or surging.

This spring, the Diamond Street Coffee By Design has seen lines of customers out the door on many mornings, according to owner Mary Allen Lindemann, and they’re staying in the shop for long stretches, using their tables as ad hoc offices for remote work.

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“People stay for six, eight hours. We haven’t seen this in years. We’re asking customers waiting to sit to please be patient, and I think we’re going to have to put signage up again” announcing a time limit at tables, Lindemann said. Their lingering hasn’t hurt sales too much, though; they’re higher than ever year-to-date, she said.

Jon Phillips, owner of Time and Tide coffee shop in Biddeford. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Jon Phillips, owner of Time & Tide Coffee, hasn’t had those types of customers return to his downtown Biddeford shop.

“I think that people are not hanging out in coffee shops like they did before the pandemic, and that home (coffee) consumption has risen dramatically,” he said.

But Phillips said his shop has seen a jump in online to-go orders.

“There may not be anyone in the cafe, but we still have tons of orders,” he said.

Coffee By Design also has robust sales numbers from to-go and curbside service purchases, as well as from orders placed online. “Which means the staff has to deal with more channels of ordering, which can make things complicated and confusing for them,” Lindemann said. “But everyday, it feels like the rules (of pandemic behavior) are changing, and the flow of how people come in changes.”

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CONSUMPTION AT A HIGH

Coffee consumption in America is at a two-decade high, according to a March report from the National Coffee Association that says 66 percent of Americans drink coffee every day, up 14 percent since January 2021. Specialty coffee drinks like cappuccino, latte and espresso are the choice for 43 percent of coffee drinkers, up 20 percent since January 2021, marking a five-year high.

“People’s relationship to coffee has changed,” said Stella Hernandez, who owns Hilltop Coffee Shop in Portland with her husband, Guy. She said she noticed her customers were buying less drip coffee and making more special orders like espresso. “Maybe people were treating themselves.”

Hilltop reopened its indoor seating June 1. “We wanted to get past Memorial Day weekend so we could start slow,” Hernandez said. “For the most part, the weather has been good enough this month that we could keep all the windows open.”

Before June, Hilltop allowed customers to place orders inside, but they could not sit indoors. Hernandez said some longtime customers, though they understood the seating restriction, felt a little displaced.

“People are missing their neighborhood coffee shop now,” she said. “They say, this is where we felt community.”

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Guy Hernandez said Hilltop has seen more customer traffic this spring. While they were eager for more people to come back inside, he said their priority is making employees feel their work environment is safe.

Speckled Ax on Congress Street reopened its indoor seating this spring. Since then, small groups of professionals have been using the shop for meeting space, manager Rob MacArthur said. Before the pandemic, he might have discouraged customers from using tables for extended meetings. But now, the shop is happy to host them. “We definitely have had more people coming in for meetings, when they wouldn’t have before,” he said.

Rwanda Bean officially closed its South Portland location in April for a number of reasons, according to co-owner Danielle Graffius, including COVID-19, staffing issues and road construction near the store that made visits problematic for customers. Graffius said Rwanda’s two Portland locations, in Deering Center and at Thompson’s Point, tried to go with online ordering early in the pandemic when indoor seating wasn’t an option but soon found that orders placed for pickup often pushed the limits of quality control.

“We don’t ever want to put up a lukewarm cup of coffee from someone, so we stopped,” she said.

DELIVERING THE BEANS

Graffius, who owns the business with her husband, Ben, said they found themselves driving around Portland leaving bags of coffee beans on the doorsteps of customers who’d ordered them online. As they received more and more bean delivery orders, they decided to launch a subscription service, selling bags of whole or ground beans at discounts to subscribers, and offering free delivery within a five-mile radius.

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Rwanda’s subscription service has likely benefitted from the pandemic-era boom of home coffee equipment sales, including grinders, filter brewers and espresso machines, as many coffee lovers nationwide were looking to give themselves a cafe-quality coffee experience in the comfort and safety of their kitchens. Last July, Italian coffee machine maker Delonghi reported a 319.5 percent half-year revenue growth. And in a fall 2020 survey of more than 500 U.S. coffee drinkers, done by coffee brand Melitta North America to determine how the pandemic had changed their consumption habits, 46 percent said they wanted to up their at-home brewing game, and 21 percent said they’d started buying more coffee online.

The Specialty Coffee Association found that 27 percent of respondents to their March survey bought coffee away from home regularly, up 8 percent from 2021, but still not at pre-pandemic levels.

Donna Ekart of Portland, a regular customer at Rwanda Bean, started getting the beans delivered during the pandemic to avoid going into the coffee shop. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Portland resident Donna Ekart was among the early adopters of Rwanda Bean’s delivery program. She said she and her husband “sort of stopped going to the cafe for coffee. That just drifted out of our lives.”

She recalled ordering a 5-pound bag of coffee early in the pandemic. “It was when everybody was closed. We joked that it would last us through the pandemic, and of course we were wrong.”

Ekart and her husband now have four 12-ounce bags a month delivered from the Rwanda Bean.

MULTIPURPOSE SPACES

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Despite the success of the subscription service, Graffius said she also has seen an increase since the winter of customers venturing into the store to enjoy an unhurried cup while seated.

“So many people have pivoted to working at home, and they’re getting sick of looking at the same four walls,” she said. “And we love it when they come in, because we get to know them when they’re here. They may bring in a laptop and stay for a couple of hours, or have a meeting at a table.”

Jennifer Christensen of South Portland, a regular at Rwanda Bean’s former South Portland location, has taken to visiting the Thompson’s Point location. “I’ve been working from home for 25 years, so that’s nothing new, every now and then you just need a change of scenery. Thompson’s became my go-to (after the South Portland shop closed), because it was light, airy and safe. Not wall-to-wall people.”

Graffius said Rwanda Bean’s Thompson’s Point location “has really lent itself to being multipurpose,” and the shop hosts events, entertainment and coffee roasting classes. She said they will build an additional “cozy” seating area upstairs in a loft-type space, to be ready by fall, that will include a sofa, cafe tables and a meeting table so they can host more customers looking to conduct business in a comfortable atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Graffius said she expects the summer to bring her coffee shops a blend of both in-store customers and outdoor seating or to-go orders. “Customer desires determine the path forward,” she said.

Hernandez said that while summer isn’t peak season for customers to sit indoors, she hopes more people will feel inclined to stay since Hilltop reopened its inside seating and maximized airflow by opening all its windows.

“I look forward to a summer with a little bit more laughter in the shop, not just people grabbing their coffee to go,” she said.


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