For many New Yorkers, the ritual of grabbing a daily coffee is one of the last luxuries they are holding on to while social distancing.
On weekends, people line up six feet apart outside cafes offering cappuccinos and mochas to-go. Bodegas continue to serve steaming hot cups of coffee to regulars and emergency workers alike. Some businesses are even taking coffee orders for delivery. (In New York, coffee shops fall under “essential retail,” which includes grocery stores, restaurants and bars.)
Now that many of those shops have temporarily or permanently closed, a morning latte has come to represent something more: supporting a local business, while preserving a sense of routine.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, Lesley Berson, 47, would take her son’s hand and make the trip across the street from their Harlem apartment to Lenox Coffee several times a week. The shop’s staff “remember him from when he was little,” she said. “They’ve watched him grow up.”
These days, visiting the shop has become an opportunity to maintain that sense of normalcy and socialize, if only briefly. “I’m a single mother, my child is 7 years old, so to just get out and have a little adult chitchat was really nice,” Ms. Berson, a lawyer, said.
Noelle Quanci goes to Kinship Coffee in Queens once a week with her fiancé for takeaway cups, and “for the sake of having social interaction with a person who isn’t someone you live with,” she said.
“So much of what we love about the neighborhood is centered around having your barista and having your bartender know who you are and going back to the same place over and over again,” said Ms. Quanci, 29, who works as a stylist. “Right now everyone is scared and nervous. We’re trying our hardest to ensure that the institutions around us continue to exist.”
Leaving the house for the occasional coffee, she said, was both a privilege and a “calculated risk” she felt comfortable taking in order to help a local business.
Many coffee shop owners have found themselves choosing between keeping their stores open and risking the safety of their staff, or facing financial ruin and leaving their employees without work. The cafes that remain open only offer orders for takeout or delivery, and are often operating at reduced hours.
“If we were to close, we would not reopen,” said Sabrina Meinhardt, the director of operations at Dépanneur in Brooklyn. “Customers are very grateful and say ‘thank you,’ and tips have been really wonderful. It’s support for our staff when sales are about half of what they’d normally be.”
At TB Coffee House in Brooklyn, which opened a year ago, foot traffic has more than halved, said Lusine Mikayelyan, the shop’s manager. The shop now mainly serves a mix of regulars and new customers whose nearby cafes have closed.
“Most people who live in our community say, ‘Thank you for being open when all the other stores are closed,’” Ms. Mikayelyan said. Customers have told her that “coming to your coffee shop makes me feel like everything is still OK.”
Other coffee shop employees described feeling that they weren’t just providing a service, but that their presence was symbolic.
“I know it’s not just the coffee,” said Sarah Madges, 29, a barista and manager at Swallow Cafe, which has three locations in Brooklyn. “Everyone who comes in, I can tell for the most part this is the one thing they do that day that contains a semblance of normalcy and provides comfort, even if that comfort comes through a mask and gloved hand. It’s the closest people can get to an organic human interaction.”
“But it’s also tough to keep on a brave face, especially when people don’t seem particularly grateful — not that they should be commending me,” Ms. Madges said. She described instances of customers regularly skipping tips, or becoming angry when a product they wanted was out of stock.
Her shop is running with a skeleton crew these days: Many of the baristas quit as the virus began to spread in the city, and only one employee works each shift, both as a safety precaution and out of necessity.
While Ms. Madges worries about her health and putting others at risk, “the backdrop is, this is what I have to do to pay rent,” she said. “Most days, I’m really trying to focus on how this is the nice part of people’s days.”
Katie Callihan, 27, continues to work two 11-hour shifts a week at Sey Coffee in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. “It’s not a difficult job in the sense of physical labor — it’s definitely a mental game,” she said. “You’re getting paid for your mental and emotional energy.”
Some of the shop’s regulars are seeking the kind of therapeutic exchange that can accompany the transaction. “Half the customers look at you with watery eyes and genuinely want to know how your day is going, and they pause and take their time and it’s sweet,” Ms. Callihan said. “But when it’s the 75th person in a row, it’s like, I just want to make your latte.”
Matthew Bruck, 54, the C.E.O. of a software company and a former restaurant owner, grew up working in his grandfather’s bar. During this difficult time for the service industry, he has made a point to order a cortado every day from various shops in the East Village, where he lives.
“Mostly, my motivation is to keep places alive,” he said. “It’s the same reason I’m getting takeout food and cocktails. It’s not so much that I need them, but it’s important I think to support these places. Otherwise we might as well live in the suburbs.”
Ms. Berson also sees her coffee outings as a way of preserving her slice of the city.
“I walk around the neighborhood and wonder what it’s going to look like in six months,” Ms. Berson said, “so I do my little piece, giving tips and throwing some of my money into their pot to help them get through this.”
“This is my fresh air,” she added. “Get your drink and sit on the bench and watch people walk by and feel like you’re part of humanity again.”